Gloria Steinem turned 80 earlier this week. She celebrated in Botswana. "I thought: 'What do I really want to do on my birthday?' First, get out of Dodge. Second, ride elephants."
Very few people have aged as publicly. It's been four decades since she told a reporter, "This is what 40 looks like." Back then, many women, including Steinem herself, fudged their age when they left their 20s, so it was a pretty revolutionary announcement. A decade later she had a "This is what 50 looks like" party for the benefit of Ms. Magazine. Steinem, who has said she expects her funeral to be a fundraiser, has been using her birthdays to make money for worthy causes ever since.
Ever the positive thinker, Steinem composed a list of the good things about starting her ninth decade. A dwindling libido, she theorized, can be a terrific advantage: "The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things."
"I try to tell younger women that, but they don't believe me," she said in a pre-Botswana interview. "When I was young I wouldn't have believed it either."
Her famous hair is colored, but otherwise, there's been no outside intervention. She likes to recall a friend who proudly reported having rebutted the feminist-got-a-face-lift rumors by announcing: "I saw Gloria the other day and she looked terrible."
Actually, she looks great, exactly the way you would want to imagine Gloria Steinem at 80.
She occupies a singular place in American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, the whole concept of women's place was transformed -- discrimination was outlawed, hearts and minds were opened. In the history of our gender, this might have been the grandest moment. There were all kinds of reasons the change happened at that particular time, and a raft of female leaders who pushed the movement along. But when people think about it, Gloria Steinem is generally the first name that pops up. She's the face of feminism.
"It's a big gift to be recognizable as part of something that matters to people, but that's not the same as being responsible for something," she said mildly.
Her intimate circle is mainly female. But in her good-things-about-80 list, Steinem wrote about the advantages of turning former boyfriends into friends: "Your old lovers get to be your really old lovers, and you can't remember who broke up with who, or who got mad at who -- just that the two of you remember things that no one else in the world does." But she's not planning on adding to their number. Recently, she recalled, she met a young man in her travels and thought, "If I was younger, we'd have had a great passionate affair for two years and been friends the rest of our lives."
It wasn't a wistful thought, she says. It was an observation. "I didn't regret it. That's the advantage of shifting hormones."
Age is definitely on her mind. When she was in her 20s, Steinem tried to get publishers interested in a project called "The Death Book," which she planned as a compendium of "great stories and last words and other anecdotes about dying" that would help readers cheerfully come to grips with their own finale. "Needless to say, I couldn't sell it." Now she's seeing the issue on a more immediate basis.
"Fifty was a shock, because it was the end of the center period of life. But once I got over that, 60 was great. Seventy was great. And I loved, I seriously loved aging. I found myself thinking things like: 'I don't want anything I don't have.' How great is that?"
"We're so accustomed to narratives, we expect there's going to be a conclusion, or explanation or answer to the secret," she said.