03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Helping Gloria Steinem Celebrate Her 75th Birthday

One of the pleasures of having attended Smith College was being on the mailing list for a mini-fundraiser to celebrate Gloria Steinem's 75th birthday as well as the donation of her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection (the archives at Smith College).

Another pleasure of being a Smith alumna is attending an event such as this and finding oneself in a room full of smart, dedicated women--both young and older--who are actively engaged in the world around them.

The format of the evening, held at The Asia Society in New York City on October 21, involved Smith president Carol Christ interviewing Gloria Steinem about highlights of Steinem's career as well as what is on her mind currently. Steinem was humble about her accomplishments, displayed a wonderful sense of humor, and showed a strong dedication to continuing her work for social change.

The significance of the donation of her papers (and more about this later) was a continuous theme throughout, as Steinem pointed out that the archives are the "fuel" for activism: "We do what we see."

This brought to mind a quote of hers that I keep on hand in a file of good things to remember. Steinem's quote from another time actually well sums up the point of the evening:

"If we don't see a history with women, we don't know that we can create it."

Steinem on Steinem

In a commencement speech Steinem gave at Smith in 2007, she described herself as a "hope-oholic." In response to one of Christ's questions, Steinem mentioned this again, noting that the news primarily focuses on bad things. "Since I am out meeting people, the world I see is very different.

"I also tell people, you can't lose hope. Hope is a form of planning."

Steinem noted that if she has any "organizing" energy left in her (and she indicated that she thought she did), she would like to oversee the creation of an organizer's school so that young people would understand that social advocacy or activism can be a career. "Change starts at the bottom, and we need more people ready to help create change."

A question from a young woman in the audience brought up the fact that the rewards for an organizer are not usually financial. Steinem touched on ways to get grants and other methods for bringing in money, but she noted that there were side benefits -- from flight attendants who opened up to her tell her more stories relating to a gender issue to the "thanks" from people in the street.

Steinem related a funny and meaningful story about a rainy day when she was running across a street in Manhattan to buy a bran muffin. A workman popped up out of a manhole (still no gender-free word for this!), recognized her, and started calling, "Gloria! Gloria! Look at this!" He was pointing to a nearby sign that said: "People working." "It took us five years to get that sign!" He went on to report to her with great pride that his daughter had become an electrician and now makes as much money as he does.

Collected Papers and Activism

In the 1930s, historian and women's rights activist Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958) noted that women were being left out of history books. In 1942, Smith College set out to rectify this situation, and they created a repository for women's source material. It is now the oldest collection of women's papers in America.

One of the hallmarks of the collection is that its current director, Sherrill Redmon, believes in aggressive collecting. Redmon realized that if one waits for donations, only the well-to-do contribute papers. Working with Steinem, Redmon also created "Voices of Feminism," an archival and oral history project of the contemporary women's movement. (The Voices of Feminism Archival Development Project was funded by the Ford Foundation from 2002 to 2008.)

The Voices of Feminism Oral History Project documents the lives and activities of the women who organized to bring change for women of all classes in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Those interviewed include labor, peace, and anti-racism activists; lesbian rights advocates; grassroots anti-violence and anti-poverty organizers; reproductive justice leaders as well as writers and artists who focused on women's issues.

Steinem said that when she's out meeting with various groups, she mentions that they should consider giving their papers to Smith. "They are astounded to think that their papers are something that should be archived."

Steinem, in a display of her wonderful sense of humor, remarked to the audience: "And one of the best things about donating your papers is that someone else organizes them!"

So while we still have "manholes" and women in the U.S. make only 77 cents to every dollar a man brings home, and President Barack Obama needed a journalist to point out that his golf game buddies should not be of only one gender, the Sophia Smith Collection is there, offering the stories of women of all backgrounds and how they have campaigned for "change we can believe in."

Future generations of women will have a past to draw upon, thanks to women like Gloria Steinem who are helping to make the Sophia Smith Collection a robust and diverse story of all women.

The Sophia Smith Collection can be found at: