Steinem's unflagging vision. As Ms. magazine turns 15, its founder reviews her agenda

Three years ago, when Gloria Steinem turned 50, some 750 well-wishers gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York for a glittering party honoring the famous founder of Ms. magazine. Now Ms. Steinem and her colleagues are blowing out birthday candles again, this time for Ms. magazine itself.

The feminist publication turns 15 in July, and supporters are celebrating the occasion with high spirits and high-visibility events.

A special anniversary issue went on sale a week ago. Steinem has begun a six week, 12-city promotional tour, including gala fund-raisers in at least six cities to benefit the nonprofit Ms. Foundation.

The magazine has also just published ``Letters to Ms.: 1972-1987'' (Henry Holt, $18.95), a sampling of readers' problems and opinions during a period of turbulent social change.

These sophisticated celebrations stand in marked contrast to the no-nonsense, all-work-and-no-play image the women's movement has long projected. But then, Steinem herself has always been a different sort of feminist, refusing to abandon a certain glamour and chic in order to prove her credentials.

Dressed for her interview in a black blouse, black pants, and lizard belt, she wears only two pieces of jewelry: a huge round wristwatch and a gold serpent ring from Greece coiled up to her knuckle. Her hair is still long and blond, although she has traded the famous aviator glasses for contact lenses. There is something changeless about her physically, and in her outlook.

At a time when the women's movement appears to others to be at a point of transition, if not crisis, Steinem remains the last of the cheerleaders. She and she alone seems able to speak simply and confidently, as if it were 15 years ago and everybody was still in the first buoyant stage.

The first issue of Ms. drew an astonishing 20,000 letters.

``Their dominant theme was, `At last I know I'm not alone,''' Steinem says. That continues to be the primary message in the Ms. mailbag, she adds. Only the topics - not the theme - change.

As an example, she notes that the first issue included a petition about abortion, which was then illegal.

``It was quite daring for those women to sign their names,'' she says. The current issue contains a similar petition about incest and child sexual abuse - a subject she believes is just beginning to be discussed openly.

Has feminism become more ambivalent as pure theory hit the real world? Not as Steinem sees it.

``Feminism is a revolution,'' she says. ``It isn't just this little thing that's going to integrate and nobody's going to notice it. It transforms every institution.''

Ms. readers - 10 percent of whom are men - continue to be ``predictors of change,'' Steinem claims. ``Whatever they are doing and thinking now, the rest of the country will be doing in five years.''

As neatly as she presents her persona, she divides her agenda into three ``umbrellas of reform.''

The first is reproductive freedom, which includes legal abortion, contraceptives, safe childbirth conditions, and ``the freedom to have or not to have children. It really is very basic,'' she says.

Her second cluster of ideas involves redefining and revaluing work.

``We have to start with redefining work, because right now homemakers are still called women who don't work. Actually, they work harder than any other class of workers in the United States, by Department of Labor statistics, for less money and less security.

``We're trying to define all productive human labor as work,'' she continues. ``There are so many ways we're trying to do that, whether it's social security for homemakers or disability pay to give an economic and social value to that work.

``The other part of that is to get society to pay for the worth of the job instead of the social identity of the worker. Right now in this country, jobs are valued according to who does them, not according to their worth. Any job that gets `too many' women or blacks or Hispanics is devalued.''

Bookkeepers, she claims, are a prime example.

``When men were bookkeepers, it was pretty well paid. Then it got to be about a third women, so the field was devalued, and men invented certified public accountant. To handle that problem you need not only equal pay as a concept, but also comparable worth.''

Steinem's third umbrella of reform involves ``trying to make democratic families possible. That means establishing a direct guarantee of rights to women and children, so the legal unit is not the household, with women and children subsumed under it, but that they have guarantees and rights on their own. It's very diverse, trying to get parental leave for men, different job patterns for both parents.''

With characteristic pithiness, she sums up: ``You can't have a democratic state if you don't have a democratic family.''

At a time when the National Organization for Women has dropped in membership and Ms. circulation has leveled off at 475,000, Steinem still sees the glass not half empty but half full - if not three quarters.

Citing a Newsweek poll showing that most American women consider themselves feminists, she disputes the current stereotype that young women are soft on feminism.

``There's much more activity on campuses now than in the '60s and '70s,'' she says. ``We're used to thinking about campus activism in male ways, such as rioting and burning buildings. We're also used to thinking of a radical as somebody who drops out. For women, it's radical to drop in. We know how to drop out. We've been dropping out all these generations. So it's radical for us to become an engineer.''

Some of Steinem's optimism for women as a group must derive from her own thriving career.

She recently signed a $1.2 million, two-book contract for ``The Bedside Book of Self-Esteem'' and a study of women in America's families of inherited wealth. And she takes continuing satisfaction that the magazine originating in her living room went on to publish the first writing of now-famous authors like Mary Gordon and Alice (``Color Me Purple'') Walker.

``Nobody published Alice except us for 12 years,'' she says.

Like all success stories, Steinem's has a mythical quality to it, as if at any moment she might star in a music video of ``You've Come A Long Way, Baby.'' Perhaps sensing this, she recalls her childhood from time to time, and maintains in the face of all the evidence that a statement she made eight years ago is still true: ``In my own mind, I am still that fat brunette from Toledo and I always will be.''

Almost as an act of will, she pretends she could fail - lose it all.

``The rewards of traveling a big distance are great,'' she admits, ``but the penalty is, you always imagine you could go back.''

Yet even in her vision of hitting the bottom, Steinem cannot help sounding indomitable.

``I think to myself,'' she says, ```Well, so what if I end up as a bag lady? I can organize the other bag ladies.'''

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