Two decades of essays from America's premier feminist
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, by Gloria Steinem. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 370 pp. $14.95. This collection of Gloria Steinem's best essays from the past 20 years charts her development as a journalist and feminist. In the beginning she felt complimented to be told she wrote ''like a man.'' Now she prides herself on being a leading spokeswoman and organizer for American feminists.
Two of these essays are brand new: ''Introduction: Life Between the Lines,'' a wry self-appraisal, and ''Ruth's Song (Because She Could Not Sing It),'' a compassionate portrait of her unhappy mother. The 26 other essays range from her 1963 expose of a Playboy Club's treatment of its waitresses (''I Was A Playboy Bunny'') to her 1979 description of the practice of genital mutilation of females in many African and Middle Eastern cultures (''The International Crime of Genital Mutilation''). Along the way she also scrutinizes politicians, the news media, some famous women, and additional reasons for and reactions to feminism.
Ms. Steinem seems to take more pride in her work as a feminist organizer than in her writing. She consigns her account of her role as a founding editor of Ms. Magazine to a mere half page.
Yet it was clearly her life as a writer, rather than what she terms the normal radicalizing experiences for a woman - working for pay, marrying, or tending young children - that made her an activist. Steinem remains single, is not a parent, and had been employed for years before she began to rebel against condescen-sion of men toward women. In her early professional life, she later realized, she had identified with men. It was when she began to identify with women that she questioned male supremacy.
When she wrote an article called ''After Black Power, Women's Liberation,'' her male colleagues began to wonder how she could ''risk identifying myself with women's stuff when I'd worked so hard to get 'real' assignments?'' Gradually her memories of ''all the small humiliations'' to which she herself had capitulated, such as lower pay ''because women didn't really need the money,'' or ''the assumption that any work I did get was the result of being a pretty girl'' - gradually these memories ignited her feminism.
Steinem exposes sexist prejudices masterfully: Witness her essay about Linda Lovelace and the sadistic husband who compelled her to star in pornographic films.
Steinem's essay about her invalid mother, however, is her most memorable feminist argument - an unforgettable account of female deprivation and loneliness. Like her daughter, Ruth Steinem was a reporter and an editor. Unlike her daughter, she had to give up her work. Caring for a child and keeping up with her job drove her to institutionalization. Before entering seventh grade, Gloria decided that her mother should not return to a mental hospital, and she cared for her single-handedly for five years.
Steinem offers much calm, sound analysis in these pages, along with provocative humor. A few of her assertions are too glib, such as ''Man, mankind, and the family of man have made women feel left out.'' When she recommends ''rewrites like 'Peace on Earth, Good Will to People,' '' I rise in protest about how unnecessary and clumsy that seems.
These essays make clear that Steinem has paid a high price for renown. She has faced frightening displays of public hatred. Hardly one to hog glory, she praises other feminists as far stronger, more inventive, and funnier than herself.
By 1982, when she wrote the final essay of this collection, Ms. Steinem possessed the assurance of an evangelist: ''I now often end lectures with an organizer's deal. If each person in the room promises that in the 24 hours beginning the very next day she or he will do at least one outrageous thing in the cause of simple justice, then I promise I will, too.''