The year that the first Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded, 1963, Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was signed into law and a young Gloria Steinem was working as a Playboy bunny.
That job was actually an early episode in what would become a lifetime of fighting for women’s rights. She was working then as an undercover journalist exposing the demeaning and unfair treatment women received at the Playboy Club.
The resulting story (and later movie), “A Bunny’s Tale,” was the early stage of a career that included co-founding Ms. magazine, helping to launch the Women’s Media Center, serving as one of the nation’s most prominent feminist leaders and, this week, receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House.
The award underscores how the issues that drove the feminist movement are still a pressing concern, as conservatives wage a “war on women” to deny women the rights they have been struggling for in the past decades.
“I’d be crazy if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement,” Steinem said during the ceremony at the White House. When asked what her thoughts were after receiving the honor, Steinem replied that it is great to “feel part of a whole community.”
Later, she was honored at the offices of the Women’s Media Center, which shares space with the Campaign for America’s Future. In a brief interview, she said that young progressive young leaders need to “trust [their] instincts and follow them.” She also reminded us that “change starts from the bottom up, not the top down.”
The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Steinem received the award at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Other recipients include Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and other extremely notable figures.
Steinem led the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, launched many groups and publications that promote advancing civil rights, and helped to form the National Women's Political Caucus, Women's Action Alliance and Choice USA. In recognition of her outspokenness for the rights of all women, Steinem was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York in 1993.
In our interview, Steinem noted that today women in general have turned out to be the “grownups” in politics, and are actually “able to negotiate and to make some difference.”
A critic of the Republican party, Steinem called it “anti-feminist” and said that it is “necessary for everyone in this country” to get the Republican party back to its center and away from extremism.
As a recipient of the Medal of Freedom, Gloria Steinem is the premier example of what a progressive feminist looks like. As President Obama said in giving her the award, “because of her work, across America and around the world, more women are afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve.”