"Lori won me in a raffle."
This is how Gloria Steinem would introduce me to new members of her monthly writers' group hosted at her home six years ago.
But don't believe for even one moment that our first meeting resembled anything close to a random 'pick-a-number-out-of-a-hat' raffle. In truth, I won a silent auction for lunch with Gloria at the annual Ms. Foundation for Women Awards Gala in 2007, later named The Gloria Awards in her honor. Yet her understated and amusing account is actually a more honest reflection of her true persona, which I've found to be one built upon humility, warmth and humor.
No, these are not the qualities one would typically expect from an internationally heralded 'organizer and leader of the women's liberation movement and a key counterculture era political figure,' as she is publicly defined in Wikipedia. But I suspect these personal qualities only added to her magnetic and global appeal among fellow feminists which has spanned over 40 years now, and counting.
So in anticipation of Gloria's 80th birthday on March 25th, I have been struggling with the question of what I could possibly give a person who has accomplished so much and, in turn, received so much, including our nation's highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, just last year. And, on a much more personal note, how could I sufficiently thank her for all she has given me -- particularly as a teenager growing up in the 1970s -- which included my very first glimpse of a future free from the conventional constraints of housewife and mother?
That glimpse of freedom first emerged after reading her 1978 essay, "If Men Could Menstruate," which taught me that a societal taboo may be nothing more than gender bias; to Ms. Magazine, which ultimately served as the impetus for my 30-plus-year career in magazine publishing; to Revolution From Within, her 1992 book which injected me with a desperately needed dose of self-esteem then, and even now, that I'm in my 50s.
So it came as no surprise that the words Gloria expressed in-person during those writing group sessions in 2008 were equally, if not more compelling, than they had always been on paper.
That year, in fact, was a particularly pivotal time in women's history. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were battling it out for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and the night before Gloria's op-ed piece supporting Hillary was to be published in the New York Times, she read it aloud to our writers' group for feedback. But there was nothing we could edit or add. We all supported Hillary, and Gloria's essay spoke brilliantly on our behalf.
Weeks later, when Hillary didn't win, we voiced our shared disappointment, but Gloria would have none of that. Instead, she spoke with hope about how the 'molecules in the air have now changed,' since Hillary came closer to securing the Presidential nomination than any other woman before and, thus, 'voters' minds about the possibility of a future female President are now more real than they had ever been.' And, months later, when Election Day was closing in and I expressed my anger about a female friend's decision to vote for the Republican Presidential ticket even though it was clearly less supportive of women's equality, Gloria encouraged me to instead ask this friend one very simple yet clever question "Why would you want to vote for someone who wouldn't vote for you?" Bingo!
So now, as news of Gloria's upcoming birthday has been streaming across everything from the internet to the airwaves, she recently took to the stage at a fundraiser to answer the question that she said has been the most prevailing of all -- "How do you feel, now, that you're turning 80?" To which, she responded, "I can honestly say that I don't want anything I don't already have."
And with that, I got my answer as well.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is a journalist, author, and founder of Work Life Matters magazine, a feminist publication inspired by Ms. Magazine.