GLORIA STEINEM, "LIVING THE REVOLUTION" (31 MAY 1970)
Lisa Shawn Hogan
At the end of the Post-World War II Baby Boom, Betty Friedan--a
virtually unknown writer and suburban mother--published a best-selling book
that transformed the contemporary feminist movement and gave birth to Second
Wave Feminism. The Feminine Mystique, published in
1963, "reawakened millions of women to their lot as women," thus redefining feminism and inspiring a new
generation of women's rights advocates.
Many suburban women identified with Friedan's "problem that has no name,"
and the book became an instant bestseller.
Three years later, in the fall of 1966, Friedan was elected president of the
National Organization for Women (NOW) and helped write the "Statement of
Purpose" which became the manifesto of the new movement. NOWs "Statement of Purpose" asserted boldly that "the
time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in
In was within this context of a burgeoning
feminist movement that a young journalist and women's rights activist named
Gloria Steinem was asked to deliver the Commencement Address at
Although an unlikely commencement speaker--she
acknowledged that she disliked public speaking and lacked the worldly
experience of most commencement speakers--Steinem took the opportunity at
Vassar to debunk a number of myths and stereotypes about gender differences. She
also critiqued educational and political policies that she believed
disadvantaged women, and she even spoke out against the war in
Gloria Steinem was born on
parents separated in 1944 when Gloria was only ten, and Gloria was left to take
care of her emotionally unstable mother.
Steinem recalled that her mother was "someone to be worried about and
cared for; an invalid who lay in bed with eyes closed and lips moving in
occasional response to voices only she could hear."
After Leo left, Steinem and her mother lived in poverty, renting the basement
of a rat-infested row house in
After graduating magna cum laude from Smith, Steinem discovered that she was
pregnant. Convinced that motherhood would destroy her reputation and her future
career ambitions, she procured an illegal abortion. This event, perhaps more
than any other, would shape Steinem's emerging feminist consciousness. After
graduation, Steinem accepted a two-year fellowship to study in
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s,
Steinem lived in
Throughout the 1960s Steinem dabbled in politics and social activism. She campaigned for George McGovern in 1968 and attended the Democratic National Convention that summer. In 1969, Steinem attended a meeting on abortion rights organized by the radical feminist group, the Redstockings. Steinem's participation in the rally marked her first exposure to the feminist movement, and she credited the event with her conversion to the women's rights cause. As she recalled three decades later, "I didn't begin my life as an active feminist until I went to an abortion speak-out in a church basement in the Village in 1969, when I was already in my mid-thirties." Hearing women discuss their experiences with illegal abortion had a profound impact on her. As she explained, "It made some sense of my own experience--I had had an abortion and had never told anyone."
In September of 1969 Steinem delivered the
first major speech of her career to the Women's National Democratic Club in
Contextualizing "Living the Revolution"
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of
political and social upheaval in
If Nixon's intent was to quell protests, his
speech was not fully successful. Less than two weeks later, an
estimated three-quarters of a million people protested the Vietnam War
It was within the context of the antiwar and Civil Rights Movements that many women found their political voices and discovered feminism. As Sara Evans has explained, "young women in the 1960s arrived at their feminist consciousness through an involvement in other causes." By 1970, many women had become "politicized first through an awareness of their own oppression," and the media was taking notice. Between January and March of 1970, "substantial stories of the women's liberation movement appeared in virtually every major journal and broadcast network." As Evans asserted, "'women's lib' was on everyone's lips." Yet not all of the publicity was positive. People were "fascinated, intrigued, and often angered," Evans recalled, "by the flamboyant tactics of feminist radicals."
The emergence of the women's liberation
movement in the 1960s and 1970s brought new issues to the political forefront,
including economic rights for women, equal opportunity in education and the
work force, the right to safe and legal abortions, and a renewed interest in
the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). First proposed in 1923 after the successful
campaign for woman suffrage, the ERA stated simply that: "Equality of
rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the
Just three weeks after testifying before the
Senate, Steinem delivered "Living the Revolution" to the graduating
"Living the Revolution": Celebrating the New Feminism
Traditionally, epideictic discourse has been considered less substantive than deliberative or forensic speaking. As Walter Beale explained, the "earliest discussions of epideictic tend to focus upon either its status as ceremonial or non-pragmatic discourse." Epideictic rhetoric has often been relegated to the literary realm of display, or even considered "trivial entertainment." In this traditional view, as Richard Chase explained, there was "no burning issue" that demanded a decision. The listener, Chase maintained, was merely an observer, there to "appreciate the artistic efforts of the speaker." In discussing the history of epideictic rhetoric, Dale Sullivan likewise emphasized that "epideictic does not aim at eliciting action; rather it aims at affecting the general attitude of the audience toward a particular person or behavior." In this view of epideictic, listeners were mere "observers," evaluating the "skill of the orator."
More recently, scholars have begun to appreciate that epideictic speaking is more than mere "entertainment" or "display." Ceremonial speaking can educate an audience, create a shared sense of community, offer comfort during times of crisis, or define issues and problems. Even in Aristotle's time, epideictic rhetoric was viewed as more than mere theatrical display. As Christine Oravec argued, "Aristotle himself conceived of epideictic not only as entertainment or display of the orator's powers but also as a genre which includes the functions of judgment and education." As such, epideictic speaking can function as a "powerful persuasive tool." Epideictic rhetoric has the unique ability to "to build community" and create a sense of shared heritage. Celeste Michelle Condit has argued that through epideictic speaking "community is created, experienced and performed." Most scholars recognize that by educating, inviting judgment, and building community, epideictic discourse has the potential not only to reinforce shared values and community identity, but also to bring about change.
Commencement speaking, perhaps more than any other type of epideictic speaking, is steeped in tradition and decorum. From the wearing of regalia to the playing of "Pomp and Circumstance," commencement ceremonies are ritualistic and predictable. Designed to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class and offer advice for the future (often referred to as the "charge" for the graduates), most commencement addresses follow a familiar pattern. Although an important part of the graduation ceremony, few commencement speakers spark controversy or address divisive political issues. Instead, many commencement speakers offer little more than platitudes and vague congratulatory remarks.
In "Living the Revolution," Gloria
Steinem violated many of the traditional conventions of commencement speaking.
Addressing controversial issues, attacking the President of the
Steinem softened the polemical edge of her speech by couching her opinions in
humanistic principles. Transcending the narrow confines of "women's
issues," Steinem appealed to the universal ideals of justice and fairness
and fostered a shared sense of community and good will. In so doing, she
broadened the definition of "--feminism" to include both men and
women, as well as people from all races and classes. With her vision of a
Steinem began "Living the Revolution" by noting that even she was "surprised" to be invited to deliver a commencement address. Commencement speakers were typically "gray-haired, respected creatures;" in other words, they were older and "almost always men." Noting that she not only was a woman but a "devout non-speaker," (4) Steinem expressed her gratitude for the invitation, attributing her presence to the fact that she had been part of a "major revolution in consciousness" (3). That "revolution," of course, was "Women's Liberation," or what Steinem preferred to call the new "humanist" movement.
used her status as an outsider to her advantage, criticizing the "theoreticians
of the status quo" (6) and asking her audience to question many of their
own beliefs, values, and expectations. "Whether it's woman's secondary
role in society or the paternalistic role of the
After a lengthy introduction, Steinem's address was loosely divided into four sections, defined by the four "myths" she refuted. These myths, all of which she discussed at length in her congressional testimony in support of the ERA three weeks earlier, were as follows: 1) Women are biologically inferior to men; 2)Women already are being treated equally in society; 3) Women hold great economic power in America; and 4) Children need full time mothers. Steinem refuted each myth with statistics, detailed case studies, and extended analogies. Unlike most ceremonial addresses, then, Steinem's speech was, at least in part, a refutational argument. In refuting the four myths that held back women, she marshaled solid evidence to challenge what she called "Popular Wisdom" (5).
refuting the "myth of the economic matriarchy," for example, Steinem
pointed out that only 5 percent of women in 1970 earned $10,000 a year or more.
She also foresaw what later critics would call the femininization
of poverty. In refuting the myth of women's biological inferiority, Steinem
likewise argued that, contrary to popular opinion, women were in fact
biologically superior to men. Using life expectancy statistics,
Celebrating what she called a "revolution in consciousness," (3) Steinem also challenged the conventions of commencement speaking by addressing controversial issues. Rejecting traditional ways of thinking, she critiqued conventional gender roles, supported unpopular ideas, and offered a substantive critique of the modern feminist movement. Ignoring many of the rituals associated with the commencement speech, Steinem instead advocated support for the Equal Rights Amendment, attacked President Nixon, and critiqued the Vietnam War as an "unconstitutional, racist, body-count" war (30). She also complained about forty-seven years of a "male-chauvinist Congress" (14). In parts, the speech sounded more like a polemic than a ceremonial address.
Steinem did not celebrate the academic experience and the life-long love of learning, like the typical commencement speaker. Instead, she advocated fundamental changes in thinking. The "first problem for all of us, men and women," she argued, "is not to learn, but to un-learn." Challenging her audience to examine their own beliefs and values, she argued that all Americans--including herself--had racist and sexist "preconceptions" that were "imbedded so deeply in our thinking that we honestly may not even know that they are there" (5).
Steinem did not praise the graduates for all they had learned. Instead, she criticized the college curriculum, even at prestigious women's colleges. "I don't know about Vassar," she said, "but at Smith we learned almost nothing about women" (11). Giving the audience a short history lesson, Steinem recalled how women of her generation came to believe certain myths that minimized the achievements of early feminists. "We believed that the vote had been 'given' to women in some whimsical, benevolent fashion," she noted, never recognizing "the long desperation of women's struggle" nor appreciating the "wisdom of the women who led it" (12). Steinem deplored the lack of role models for women and insisted that the inclusion of women's history in the college curriculum would be a step in the right direction. Like African-Americans, Steinem argued, women never had "role models in history: models of individuals who have been honored in authority outside of the home" (14).
At one level, then, "Living the Revolution" was a persuasive speech, refuting certain myths that relegated women to second-class status, challenging her listeners to question their own beliefs and values, and advocating educational and social reform. At another level, however, it was a typical commencement address, celebrating such universal values as fairness, justice, and equality. By couching her feminist advocacy in humanistic principles, Steinem was able to soften some of her more controversial ideas and to counter criticisms of feminism as exclusionary or divisive. Envisioning a feminist movement that included both women and men, she predicted a new, more inclusive feminism that would change the lives of all Americans, not just women.
Steinem explained that her brand of feminism "should more accurately be called humanist"; it was a movement that was part of a larger movement devoted to "rescuing this country from its old, expensive patterns of elitism, racism and even violence" (4). By defining the women's movement in these broader humanistic terms, Steinem expanded the feminist agenda to include much more than just women's rights. In Steinem's view, the women's liberation movement of the 1970s was not just about politics or even the rights of women. Instead, feminism encompassed larger cultural issues that affected the lives of all men and women, and it even had implications for foreign policy.
As Norm Allen, Jr., has explained, the philosophy of "humanism" entails "a belief in reason, science, democracy, openness to new ideas, the cultivation of moral excellence, a commitment to justice and fairness, and a belief in the inherent worth of humanity." Embracing community activism and social reform, humanists "believe strongly that since we live together in communities, we must participate in the life of community." Humanists advocate a society that is "open, democratic, just, participatory and free." This was precisely the sort of humanism that informed Steinem's speech at Vassar. Giving everyone an equal opportunity to succeed and to live life to its fullest, Steinem's humanistic feminism was a liberating vision, perhaps summarized best by the most quoted line from the speech: "Women's Liberation is Man's Liberation too" (17).
Even when addressing contentious issues like the Equal Rights Amendment, Steinem softened the polemical tone of "Living the Revolution" by invoking humanistic values. Reminding her audience of the inequities that women faced in their day-to-day lives, Steinem rallied them behind the principles of fairness and justice. Lamenting women's unequal treatment in the workforce, for example, she urged the graduates to support economic reforms that would guarantee equal pay for equal work. "The truth is," she said, "that a woman with a college education working full-time makes less than a black man with a high school degree" (22).
Steinem insisted that inequality hurt men as well as women. By giving women an "equal chance for advancement," men would be freer to pursue their own ambitions, she argued, including careers not traditionally considered "masculine." "We want to liberate men from those inhuman roles as well," she explained (31). Attributing violence and war to a "Masculine Mystique," she even blamed the Vietnam War on "the idea that manhood somehow depends on the subjugation of other people" (40). Championing "peace" as a feminist value, Steinem maintained that "there has been too much killing, and the weapons are far too terrible" (41).
Simply stated, Steinem argued for a "new social justice" where men and women were treated equally and allowed to fulfill their potential--even if their choices violated traditional gender roles (41). Her goal was to "build a human, compassionate alternative" to male-dominated society of the time, and she believed that this could be achieved only when all marginalized groups in American society were truly liberated (35). "Women's Liberation," she argued, "is a bridge between black and white women, but also between the construction workers and the suburbanites, between Nixon's Silent Majority and the young people they hate and fear" (42). In Steinem's vision of a humanistic feminism, all people, regardless of their background or lot in life, would be treated equally and be given a fair chance to live a peaceful and prosperous life.
In her final charge to the graduates, Steinem acknowledged that she had not fulfilled all the expectations of the ceremonial occasion. "[I]t's traditional on such an occasion" she admitted, "to talk about 'entering the world'" (44). Instead of offering the sort of advice typical of such speeches, however, Steinem admitted that she didn't know what the future held; she only hoped that "we will be working together" (45). Invoking the feminist metaphor of sisterhood, Steinem addressed the female graduates directly, urging them to do "anything you want to do" (47).
For the most part, then, Steinem challenged the conventions of the commencement address, refusing to give the graduates advice, and stating her positions on controversial topics like the Vietnam War, the ERA, and presidential politics. Unlike many commencement speakers, Steinem did not celebrate the status quo; rather, she advocated social, cultural, and political changes that many considered "radical." Yet grounding her speech in humanistic principles and universal values, Steinem softened the presentation of those "radical" ideas. As Condit has explained, epideictic speeches can perform important political work, and Steinem's speech at Vassar did just that. By envisioning a future where women and men were given equal opportunities in the economic, political and social arenas, she advocated social reform based on shared values and common concerns. In the process, she helped redefine the modern feminist movement and broaden its political agenda.
When Steinem delivered her commencement speech to Vassar in 1970, only 8 percent of medical school graduates and 5.4 percent of law graduates were women. The year 1970 also marked the period when women's studies classes were first offered on university campuses and women's studies programs and departments quickly followed. New interdisciplinary journals like Feminist Studies, Women's Studies, and Signs were founded in the 1970s to address the emerging interest in scholarship on women.
Steinem would go on to deliver more than a
dozen more commencement speeches, publish four books, help found Ms Magazine, and write countless
articles in support of the feminist cause. In 1971, she delivered a
controversial commencement speech at her alma mater,
Steinem did not shun controversy, however, and instead seemed to embrace it. In 1972 she was invited to speak to a skeptical audience at the U.S. Navy Academy. Challenging the history that the cadets had learned in their classes, Steinem offered a feminist interpretation of the past. As in her Vassar speech, Steinem advocated pacifism, criticized the country's involvement in the Vietnam War, and attacked President Nixon. Not surprisingly, the audience response was hostile. Steinem later recalled the whole experience as "grueling."
By the mid-1980s Steinem could point to a
number of positive changes that feminism had brought about over the past
decade. In a commencement speech at
Throughout the 1980s, Steinem would repeat
these sentiments at colleges throughout the
In the 1990s and beyond, Steinem has become
even more reflective and philosophical, but she continues to support social
reforms to better the lives of all people. Her agenda, like feminism generally,
tends to reflect more global concerns, yet she still fights for reproductive
freedom and equal parenting--issues that characterized her work in the 1970s. In
an interview with Time magazine in
2004, for example, Steinem addressed some of the issues first raised in her
Vassar speech. "Achieving a society in which men raise children as much as
women do," she argued "is crucial."
Clearly much has changed in the thirty-plus years since Steinem delivered "Living the Revolution." Today there are more than 525 women's studies programs in the country, offering more than 30,000 courses to more than a million students. The most dramatic changes, however, are reflected in college enrollment. In 2006, 58 percent of first-year college students were female. Males are also more likely to drop out of college, making women 60 percent of all college graduates. Such statistics are alarming to many critics who have complained of the impending "boy crisis" and have advocated sweeping changes in pedagogical practices to make the classroom more boy friendly.
Despite such changes, Steinem continues to voice the concerns of liberal feminism. Now in her 70s, Steinem remains a highly respected and sought after speaker, garnering as much as $12,000 per speaking engagement. As Carolyn Heilburn explained, "Steinem never deserted feminism, never betrayed it, never suggested it needed to backpedal, never let anyone in the media get away with jeering at her." In 1970 Steinem broke down barriers to become a powerful voice for the feminist movement. Today, she remains an "outspoken, uncompromising, boundary-crossing feminist."
Last Updated—September 2006
Lisa Shawn Hogan teaches in the Departments of Communication Arts and
Sciences and Women's Studies at the
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Publishing, 1983; repr., 1963). The term "feminism" was coined in the nineteenth century but it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the term assumed its current meaning. See, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, ed., Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric, Vol. 1 (New York: Praeger, 1989), 3.
 Miriam Schneir, ed., Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 48.
 Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 15-32.
 "Now Statement of Purpose," in Feminism of Our Time, 96.
 Sara M. Evans, Born
 Gloria Steinem, "Living the Revolution" in Vassar Quarterly (Fall 1970): 12. Patricia
Cronin Marcello, Gloria Steinem: A
 Carolyn Heilburn, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 207-208.
 Heilburn, The Education of a Woman, 18.
 Susan Dominus, "30th Anniversary
Issue/Gloria Steinem: First Feminist,"
 Cronin Marcello, Gloria Steinem, 19.
 Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts of Everyday Rebellions, 2d ed., (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), 140.
 Cronin Marcello, Gloria Steinem, 20-21.
 Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman, 43.
 Cronin Marcello, Gloria Steinem, 35-61.
 Steinem, Outrageous Acts, 75.
 Heilburn, The Education of a Woman, 170.
 Susan Dominus, "30th Anniversary
Issue/Gloria Steinem: First Feminist,"
 Cronin Marcello, Gloria Steinem, 108.
 Synden Ladensohn Stern, Gloria Steinem: Her Passions, Politics, and Mystique (Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane, 1997), 210.
 Susan Dominus interview of Gloria Steinem, "30th Anniversary Issue/Gloria Steinem: First Feminist," New York Magazine 6 April 1998.
 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, rev. ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1993, rev. ed), 404.
 Richard Nixon, "Address to the Nation on the War in
 Nixon, "Address to the Nation," 99.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 409.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 409.
 Sara M. Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 232.
 Evans, Personal Politics, 232.
 Evans, Born for
 Evans, Born for
 Evans, Born for
 Ronald F. Reid and James F. Klumpp,
eds., American Rhetorical Discourse,
3rd ed. (
 Gloria Steinem, "Testimony Before the Senate Hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment," in Reid and Klumpp, American Rhetorical Discourse, 866.
 "Vassar Quick Facts," http://admissions.vassar.edu/about.html.
 Walter Beale, "Rhetorical Performative Discourse: A New Theory of Epideictic," Philosophy and Rhetoric 11 (1978): 221.
 Christine Oravec, "'Observation' in Aristotle's Theory of Epideictic," Philosophy and Rhetoric 9 (1976): 162.
 J. Richard Chase, "The Classical Conception of Epideictic," Quarterly Journal of Speech 47 (1961): 296.
 Dale Sullivan, "A Closer Look at Education as Epideictic Rhetoric," Rhetoric and Society Quarterly 23 (1993): 71.
 Sullivan, "A Closer Look,"71.
 Oravec, "Observation,"163.
 Oravec, "Observation,"172.
 Celeste Michelle Condit, "The Functions of Epideictic:
 Condit, "The Functions of Epideictic," 291.
 Condit, "The Functions of Epideictic," 292.
 Gloria Steinem, "Living the Revolution," Vassar Quarterly, Fall 1970, pp. 12-15. All of the remaining passages from Steinem's speech are cited with reference to paragraph numbers in the text of the speech that accompanies this essay.
 Norm R. Allen, Jr., African-American Humanism: An Anthology (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), 10.
 Evans, Born for
 Evans, Born for
 Heilburn, The Education of a Woman,"195-198.
 Ladensohn Stern, Gloria Steinem," 205.
 Gloria Steinem, "Commencement Speech at
 Gloria Steinem, "Commencement Speech at
 Gloria Steinem, "Commencement Speech
 Sonja Steptoe, "10 Questions for Gloria Steinem," Time Magazine, 5 April 2004, http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,605468,00.html.
 Jean Fox O'Barr, "The
Necessity of Women's Studies in a Liberal Arts Education" in Making Sense of Women's Lives: An
Introduction to Women's Studies, eds. Michele Plott
and Lauri Umanski (
 Cathy Young, "The Lost Boys," The
 Ladensohn Stern, Gloria Steinem, 378.
 Heilburn, The Education of a Woman, 188.