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Once you get a taste of being independent, you’ll never want to get married.
When she was twenty-two years old, Gloria Steinem almost said “I do.”
In the fall of 1955, Steinem reluctantly agreed to allow a friend from college to set her up on a blind date. While visiting a girlfriend’s family in Westchester County, New York, Steinem went out with Blair Chotzinoff, a handsome pilot for the Air National Guard in Purchase, New York.
The two hit it off. Chotzinoff later said that he knew within five minutes that he was going to ask Steinem to marry him. He fell for her intellect and energy, her adventurous spirit and openness to life. Steinem was smitten, too. She had had plenty of boyfriends, but Chotzinoff was different: He was seven years older, a bit of a rebel, and the chemistry between them was undeniable.
At the end of the weekend, Chotzinoff impressed Steinem by renting a four-passenger plane and flying her back to Northampton, Massachusetts. Steinem was exposed to wealth and privilege while at Smith College, and she was certainly aware of the status and security she could achieve by marrying a man who offered social and financial stability. From that point on, the couple spent almost every weekend together, either in New York or Massachusetts. Chotzinoff announced his love by piloting a small jet with an afterburner and writing Gloria across the sky above the Smith campus.
Steinem admired the Chotzinoff family and imagined herself a part of it. Blair came from a musical family—his uncle was a world-famous violinist, his father was a gifted pianist, and his mother had appeared in a Broadway musical. The family wasn’t wealthy, but they socialized with well-known musicians from all over the world. Chotzinoff wrote a restaurant column for the New York Post, having worked his way up from being a copy boy.
The following spring, Steinem accepted a diamond ring from Chotzinoff. She agreed to marry because that’s what she thought she was supposed to do. A few weeks later, she called him in tears, explaining that she couldn’t see herself as a bride—or a wife. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him—she did—but she didn’t want to define herself and her life through her relationship to a man, any man. Chotzinoff drove up to see her and after several hours of crying and talking, Steinem changed her mind and again agreed to marry him.
But it still felt wrong. Steinem considered marriage an end and not a beginning. She considered marriage “a little death. Because it’s the last choice you can make.” According to the conventions of the 1950s, a wife was expected to devote herself to her husband and children. Even in a happy relationship, a woman would be defined by her marriage and her service to others. Steinem wanted a life of her own.
Steinem was skeptical about the myth of happily ever after. Her childhood experiences had taught her to question the idea that women obtained personal and financial security through marriage. Steinem had watched her mother struggle to surrender herself to the needs and desires of her husband and children. Ultimately, her mother was left poor and alone: When her parents divorced, it was ten-year-old Gloria who was left to spend the next seven years taking care of her mentally ill mother. During this time in her childhood, Steinem learned firsthand what it was like to be a caregiver, putting the needs of her mother before her own. Unlike many women of her generation, who expected to find security through marriage, Steinem believed in independence and self-reliance. She was afraid of being trapped by duty and obligation.
As it turned out, Steinem wasn’t the only one who had reservations about the marriage. Chotzinoff’s parents questioned if she was the right match for their son. Her future father-in-law didn’t like Steinem’s outspokenness or her willingness to challenge him in conversation. He wanted his son to marry a traditional woman, one who would be more likely to play the conventional role of wife and mother. Knowing it would upset her, Chotzinoff’s father told Steinem that he was going to give her cookware for a wedding present so that she could make him his favorite beef stew.
Steinem faced an agonizing decision. She questioned the idea of marriage but not her passion for Chotzinoff. “I loved him and cared about him and had discovered sex with him, and I didn’t want to leave,” Steinem said. “And I felt I had no life of my own. So I was just totally confused.” She couldn’t imagine a future with him—or without him. At that point in her life, she was just beginning to experience her freedom as an independent adult, and she didn’t want to give it up.
Days and months slipped away. Steinem graduated from Smith in June 1956 and spent the summer with her mother in Washington, DC, planning the wedding and traveling frequently to New York to look for an apartment and a job. Steinem’s mother, Ruth, liked Chotzinoff and thought that her daughter could be content as a wife, but she did make a revealing statement when Gloria was struggling to find work. “It’s probably a good idea if you get married right out of college,” Ruth Steinem told her daughter, “because once you get a taste of being independent, you’ll never want to get married.”
Steinem couldn’t go through with it. In the late summer she went to New York and spent one last night with Chotzinoff. In the early morning, she slipped the engagement ring off her finger and left it on his bedside table with a note explaining that she couldn’t go through with the marriage. She snuck away while he was still asleep.
After he found the note, Chotzinoff reached out to Steinem, but she didn’t respond. Instead, she accepted a postgraduate fellowship to study and travel in India. She wanted to get away because she didn’t trust herself to resist Chotzinoff if she saw him again.
It’s impossible to know what might have been, but if Steinem had chosen to marry Chotzinoff, she may never have changed the world the way she did. By breaking with traditional expectations, Steinem was able to realize her dreams and redefine what it meant to be a twentieth-century feminist. She became a respected journalist and author; she cofounded Ms. magazine and wrote a half-dozen bestselling books. She became a political activist and social reformer; she cofounded the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms. Foundation, and the Women’s Media Center, among other groups. She became a leader in the women’s movement, raising her voice and speaking out on feminist issues for decades. In 2013, Barack Obama awarded Steinem the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest nonmilitary honor given by the United States government, and she has been included in a number of lists of the most influential women in America.
What made Steinem change her mind and turn down Chotzinoff’s proposal? What gave her the confidence to resist the social pressures of her day to marry and lead a traditional life? While there is no single answer, her choices reflect some of the formative experiences of her childhood.
We were loved and valued … exactly as we were.
Gloria Steinem was cherished as a child—and she knew it. That’s not to say she didn’t have a difficult childhood—her mother, Ruth, suffered from mental illness, and her father, Leo, failed to offer the family financial stability—but Gloria never had reason to question her parents’ steadfast love and support. She never doubted that she was loved and that her parents did the best they could. However imperfect, from that secure foundation, Steinem found her place in the world.
Gloria wasn’t the first in her family to shatter societal expectations. Her paternal grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter, was a prominent suffragist in Ohio; in 1904, she became the first woman elected to public office in Toledo when she won a seat on the local board of education. In 1914, Perlmutter wrote an essay in the Toledo Blade arguing: “I believe in woman suffrage because I believe that the perfect equality of men and women is founded on Divine Wisdom … without distinction of race, creed, color or sex.” Men and women, she wrote, were “differentiated only by the outer garments, the bodies they temporarily wear.” This was a wildly progressive outlook at a time when racism and sexism went unchallenged, and women didn’t even have the right to vote.
Joseph Steinem, Gloria’s paternal grandfather, was a successful businessman. He was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States to make his fortune as a young man. He saved and invested his money, eventually buying several rental properties and a small brewery in Toledo. After establishing himself financially, he returned to Germany to find a wife. He proposed to Pauline Perlmutter not long after meeting her; she accepted on the condition that he sell the brewery. They married in 1884 and had four sons; their youngest son, Leo, became Gloria’s father. Growing up, Leo never had to worry about wealth or status, even during the Great Depression.
Gloria’s mother’s side of the family had a different relationship with money. Her maternal grandmother, Marie Ochs, was an ambitious, stern, and class-conscious woman who grew up in Dunkirk, Ohio. She worked outside the home for most of her adult life to supplement the family income, first as a teacher, then a clerk in the office of the recorder of deeds in Dunkirk. Later, she earned extra money by writing sermons for the minister of the Presbyterian church next door.
Marie married Joseph Nuneviller, even though he offered little prospect of upward mobility. Joseph worked as a railroad engineer for the Toledo and Ohio Central. Concerned that he appear professional on his way to work, Marie insisted that he wear a suit on top of his overalls when he left his house in the morning; Joseph slipped off the suit and hung it in his locker when he got to the rail yard. His family remembered that he always ate dessert before his dinner so that he could be sure to have the best part—in case he was called back to work before he finished eating.
Gloria’s mother, Ruth Nuneviller, was born in 1898, and her sister, Emma “Janey” Jeanette, was born two years later. Ruth shared her mother’s desire for economic security and social status. Gloria remembered her mother telling her about a painful memory of a trip to New York City with Marie when Ruth and Janey were teenagers: “They walked around in the snow, with Marie showing her daughters all the hotels and other things to which they should aspire, but without enough money to go in,” Steinem said. “My mother’s memory of this was bitter. She felt like a poor person ‘with her nose in the glass.’” Too often, both Ruth and her mother focused on what they did not have, instead of what they did.
Marie’s parenting style may have triggered some of the anxieties about abandonment that haunted Ruth for the rest of her life. Ruth had been breastfed, but when it was time to wean her, Marie left her infant daughter with a friend and didn’t come back until Ruth had learned to drink from a cup. Throughout their childhoods, Marie often left Ruth and her sister alone at home without telling them where she was going or when she would return. Faced with this unpredictability, Ruth learned to worry that the people she loved might disappear or abandon her.
Unlike most women of the time, Marie encouraged her daughters to remain single and secure teaching jobs so that they could support themselves financially. She valued education and encouraged both of her daughters to go to college, which was unusual at the time. In 1916, Ruth enrolled at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. She took courses in math and history, but writing was her passion. She dreamed of working as a newspaper reporter in New York City.
After two years, money ran tight and Ruth had to transfer to the University of Toledo to complete her education. There she met Leo Steinem, editor of the college newspaper, the Universi-Teaser. The two hit it off right away: They both loved puns, poker, and chess. Leo was charming, unpredictable, and adventurous. He made Ruth feel reckless and alive—and the rebellious side of her relished the fact that she knew her mother would never approve of the relationship.
Ruth earned her bachelor’s degree in 1920, but she remained at school teaching math and earning a master’s degree in American literature. The following year, when Ruth was twenty-three and Leo was twenty-four, the couple went on a picnic. On the way home, Leo spontaneously stopped the car.
“Let’s get married,” Leo said. “It will only take a minute.”
Ruth laughed and impulsively accepted the spur-of-the-moment proposal. They drove to a nearby justice of the peace and got married that afternoon.
Ruth asked Leo to keep the marriage secret. When they went home, they announced their engagement, rather than their marriage. They married a second time a few months later in a ceremony held at Ruth’s home. They celebrated their anniversary on October 15, but Leo always gave Ruth two presents, one labeled “To My First Wife” and one labeled “To My Second Wife.” In later years, Ruth denied that she and Leo had divorced; she argued that they had been married twice and divorced once, so they were still married.
Both families objected to the relationship. The Nunevillers considered Leo too Jewish, and the Steinems thought Ruth wasn’t Jewish enough. Despite the rough start, Ruth felt close to her mother-in-law. Leo’s mother was involved with theosophy, a belief system that was popular in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. The religion teaches the unity of living things and the importance of living a moral life. Ruth’s acceptance of the religion made her feel more at peace with herself and more accepted by her mother-in-law.
After they married, Ruth taught college calculus for a year. Leo worked odd jobs in a number of fields—journalism, real estate, import-export business, and event promotion. Although they both worked, Ruth and Leo had wildly different attitudes about money. No matter what the bank balance, Leo felt financially secure and Ruth did not. Leo had come from a relatively wealthy family and trusted that his needs would be met; Ruth came from a family that worried about debt and scarcity, and she never believed there was enough.
Early in their marriage, a few of Leo’s business investments began to pay off. Using that money—plus some financial assistance from his father—Leo built a house in Toledo. Ruth gave up teaching and took a job writing a gossip column for a small weekly newspaper, KWK. She wrote under a male pen name—Duncan MacKenzie—but her work soon earned her offers to write for the Toledo News-Bee and the Toledo Blade using her own name. She was a good journalist, and she was promoted to editor of the Sunday edition of the Blade, which Ruth told Gloria was “the best-paid job on the paper for any employee, male or female.” Ruth wanted to be a career journalist, but her life took a different turn when she became pregnant. She became a mother instead of an editor.
When Susanne Steinem was born in 1925, Ruth took a leave from the paper. She initially planned to return to journalism at least part-time, but those plans were dashed when Leo bought property at Clark Lake, Michigan, an isolated rural area about fifty miles northwest of Toledo. Leo decided to develop a resort community with a large entertainment space. He completed the first cottage in 1925. The following year, he built the family home—an impractical Mediterranean-style house with arched openings and an upstairs balcony, which was unheated and not well suited for the cold Michigan winters.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1928, Leo opened Ocean Beach Pier, a dance pavilion at the end of a hundred-foot pier. Colored lights surrounded the black-and-white checkerboard dance floor; advertisements promised dancing “over the water, under the stars.” He planned to bring in top musicians and draw weekend crowds from Detroit and Toledo. Gloria said his goal was to create “a resort worthy of the big dance bands of the thirties.”
For a brief time, the Steinems prospered. The resort brought in $50,000 the first year it opened—an amount equal to about $735,000 in today’s dollars. Susanne attended an elite private school, the family hired a full-time housekeeper, and Ruth shopped at the most expensive stores in Toledo.
But it didn’t last.
The first wave of trouble came in the summer of 1929, when Leo added a wooden toboggan run that allowed visitors to ride down and splash into the water. In early July, a seventeen-year-old boy failed to secure the toboggan in place at the top, and he tumbled headfirst into the water, breaking his neck. He died the next day. Ruth became so distraught after the accident that the family physician, Dr. Kenneth Howard, prescribed a sedative that Gloria and her family called “Doc Howard’s medicine.” Ruth soon became dependent on the medication, which contained chloral hydrate, an addictive sedative.
Several months later, Ruth’s father died, leaving her feeling more distraught. And then in the fall of 1929, the stock market crashed, kicking off the Great Depression. The business suffered because people no longer had money for resort vacations. The Steinems could no longer afford to keep their home in Toledo and a second home on Clark Lake, so in 1930 they sold the Toledo house and moved to Clark Lake year-round.
* * *
RUTH STRUGGLED WITH feelings of isolation and loneliness. There weren’t many neighbors, and she was away from her family in Toledo. In 1930, Ruth became pregnant again. Late in her pregnancy, she started bleeding. She called her mother and asked her to help, but Marie assumed that Ruth was exaggerating about her symptoms. She didn’t call the doctor until it was too late. The baby died, and Ruth gave birth to a stillborn son she and Leo named Tom.
To support his family in the off-season, when the resort was closed, Leo began buying and reselling antiques. He traveled for days at a time, leaving Ruth alone at home. Clark Lake was about five miles from the nearest town, and Ruth often felt deserted and frightened when Leo was gone. She began to hear voices in the wind, and on at least one occasion she went five or six days without sleeping. Following that experience, Ruth spent several months in a sanatorium in Toledo.
Family members said she was never the same after the breakdown. Ruth could no longer write or work, and she was not always able to properly parent her children. She became increasingly dependent on Doc Howard’s medicine, which helped her sleep.
Despite the family struggles, Susanne begged her parents for a baby sister. Leo thought a new baby might make Ruth happy again. On March 25, 1934, Gloria Marie Steinem was born in Toledo. Ruth and Leo had planned to name her Cynthia, but they decided to let nine-year-old Susanne name her little sister. She chose the name Gloria after her favorite doll. In keeping with Leo’s interest in show business, the birth notice announced the “World Premiere Appearance” of Gloria Marie Steinem.
Ruth thrived during the summer of 1934, and Gloria proved to be a beautiful and content baby. But when the days grew shorter and Leo took off for his antiques road tour in the late fall, Ruth began to panic. She felt abandoned and alone. When the radio broke and Ruth could no longer hear the sound of another adult voice, she knew she had to do something before her fears and loneliness overwhelmed her. She didn’t have a phone or a car, so when Susanne was at school, Ruth decided to walk five miles into town so that she could talk to another person. She bundled Gloria in warm clothes and began walking, accompanied by the family dog, Fritzie.
As they walked down a hill, a speeding car came over the ridge and hit the dog. Ruth screamed for the driver to stop, but the car kept going. She ran to Fritzie, who was bleeding but still alive. Ruth was determined not to let another car go by, so she sat down in the middle of the road, holding Gloria in one arm and the whimpering dog in the other. Ruth tried to comfort the dog as she waited—half an hour, one hour, two—but no one came. Ruth was alone.
Eventually, the dog quieted. In the late-afternoon darkness of a cold Michigan winter, Fritzie died. Ruth left the dog on the side of the road and walked home to warm up and to wash the blood out of her clothes.
Ruth later told Gloria that she considered the Fritzie experience to be her “breaking point.” When Leo returned from his road trip, Ruth told him, “From now on, I’m going with you. I won’t bother you. I’ll just sit in the car. But I can’t be alone again.”
Leo honored her wishes. Ruth and the children accompanied Leo on the road, and the family settled into a new normal. In the summers, Gloria swam and explored the lake. She remembered those summers as “a great time of running wild, catching turtles and minnows and setting them free again, looking for coins that customers at my parents’ dance hall dropped in the lake, wearing a bathing suit all day long, and sleeping in a little office behind the dance hall.”
Susanne and Gloria weren’t closely supervised by either Ruth or Leo. Gloria’s blond hair was tangled and matted. Every few weeks, her sister would try to comb it out, which was painful and not always successful. For years, Ruth made Gloria wear a red swimsuit so that she could easily spot her daughter at a distance. (When she was eleven years old, Gloria bought herself a black swimsuit and never wore a red one again.) Gloria also spent time with the entertainers in the dance hall. She particularly admired Ruby Brown, who taught Gloria how to tap-dance. For much of her youth, Gloria aspired to be a professional dancer, just like Ruby.
In the late fall and through the winter, the family went on the road. Leo hated cold weather, so he closed up the house, loaded up the car, hooked up a little trailer, and took to the road. Once out of town, they headed for either California or Florida. Along the way, Leo bought and sold antiques, mostly jewelry, china, and knickknacks. The Steinems usually made their way back to Clark Lake by late spring, so that they could freshen up the cottages and be ready to kick off the season on Memorial Day weekend.
The family’s financial struggles were real. “My father often had to park the car far away [from the house] to keep it from being repossessed,” Steinem said. She remembered sitting in loan offices and pawnshops, trying to come up with enough cash to make ends meet. She learned to recognize the bill collector. By the time she was four years old, she was trained to answer the door and say, “My daddy’s not here.” Leo was constantly in debt, sometimes mortgaging the house without telling Ruth.
Because of the family’s nomadic lifestyle, Gloria missed a great deal of formal education. She often skipped school for months at a time, and some years she didn’t go at all. When approached by a truancy officer, Ruth said she homeschooled the children, and she showed her teaching certificate; no one ever looked close enough to notice that she was only qualified to teach college calculus.
While on the road, Gloria and Susanne read everything they could find, including the Nancy Drew stories, the theosophical library, and all the works of Louisa May Alcott. “Louisa May Alcott was my friend,” Gloria later recalled. “I read all her adult novels, as well as her young ones, and used to fantasize endlessly that she would come back to life and I could show her all the new things in the world.” Gloria identified with the adventurous and independent female characters in Alcott’s work; she was also influenced by Alcott’s depiction of love and marriage as destructive to women. Gloria particularly loved Jo March from Alcott’s novel Little Women, who said, “I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man.”
Despite Gloria’s growing skepticism about love and marriage, she forgave her father for his failures and never resented his unpredictable parenting. She didn’t consider him irresponsible or delinquent; instead, she thought he was a dreamer, always eager to take advantage of the next big idea. He was an optimist, a risk-taker, an adventurer who believed in the possibilities of tomorrow. He shared his emotions—both joy and sorrow—easily and often. He seemed more alive and engaged in the world than most people. He was fun to be around.
Gloria also appreciated that Leo included her in his jokes and stories. She was part of his team. “He taught me routines,” Steinem said. “In crowded elevators, he would turn to me, age five or so, and say, ‘So I told the man to keep his fifty thousand dollars.’ Or he would say to me, ‘If you aren’t good you won’t go to heaven.’ I was supposed to answer, ‘I don’t want to go to heaven, Daddy, I want to go with you.’” She longed for her father’s approval and acceptance, and he willingly gave it to her.
In time, Gloria developed ambivalent feelings about her father. She loved him, but she was embarrassed by him, especially as she got older. Leo weighed more than three hundred pounds, and he couldn’t button his jacket. He always looked disheveled and had food stains on his ties. He loved to take Gloria out for ice cream, and he taught her how to get a little bit more from the server when they ordered malted milkshakes. He would send Gloria in to the ice cream store to place her order first, and a few minutes later he would come in and place his own order. By dividing the orders, the person making the shakes would prepare them one at a time, and they could each get the little bit of extra malted milk at the bottom of the mixer. “I loved sitting there at age four or five with my own quarter, pretending not to know my father. He treated me like a grown-up, and I loved him for it,” she said.
By example, Leo taught Gloria that she deserved to be treated with love and respect. “He treated me like a friend, asked my advice, enjoyed my company, and thus let me know that I was loved,” Gloria wrote in a 1990 essay. “Even in the hardest of times, of which there were many, I knew with a child’s unerring sense of fairness that he was treating me as well as he treated himself.”
Leo helped shape Gloria’s feminist outlook on the world. “Against all he had been taught a man’s life should be, against all convention for raising children and especially little girls, he loved and honored me as a unique person,” she said. “And that let me know that he and I—and men and women—are not opposites at all.”
Even in the dark times, Gloria and her sister knew that they were cherished. Ruth’s mental illness did not stop her from loving her daughters. Gloria recalled, “Over and over again, in every way she knew how, she told us that we didn’t need to earn her love. We were loved and valued (and therefore we were lovable and valuable) exactly as we were.”
* * *
THE FAMILY DYNAMIC changed again when the United States entered World War II in December 1941. People stopped vacationing as money grew tight. The Steinems held on as long as they could, but by 1944, they had to sell the resort.
At that point, the family broke apart: Susanne left home and enrolled at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Leo turned to the road full-time to try to hustle a living in the antiques world the best way he knew how. Exhausted by years of financial instability and unwilling to continue with life on the road, Ruth asked Leo for a divorce. Ten-year-old Gloria was left alone with her emotionally unstable mother.
Copyright © 2020 by Winifred Conkling