By Suzie Biehler
I’m one of the lucky ones. At age 19, nearly half a century ago at the dawn of the tumultuous 1970’s, I got the goods on the inalienable rights of women.
Joining my college peers, I demonstrated against the many inequities — in particular those surrounding women. Gloria Steinem was all over the news, shedding light on how demanding equal/human rights can impact the course of one’s destiny. Her words rippled through my being as I began to apply them to my own surroundings and became aware of the obstacles I encountered at almost every corner.
I was able to meet this amazing women’s rights activist and shadow her with my camera when she visited my campus in 1972. She framed my life in a way that altered its course by educating and inspiring me to simply stand up.
Steinem made it okay for me and my fellow students to be who we were without threat of being marginalized, and she challenged us to keep pushing and persevering at all costs. Her life is still an example of how she has fought, inspired and effected change in so many areas. Her work has expanded from the women’s movement to include non-violent conflict resolution, cultures of indigenous peoples, and organization-building across socioeconomic boundaries.
When I originally photographed Steinem, 45 years ago, I was a sophomore at Texas Women’s University (TWU) in Denton, Texas. TWU was a state-supported women’s university, affordable and very accessible to women.
Not too long into my freshman year I discovered the Journalism building and found that one of my high school teachers, Lillian Hefner — no kin to Hugh Hefner — taught in the Journalism department. Little did I know Hefner would become one of my first female role models.
She was a tough teacher. Back in 1942, she enlisted in the Navy Waves and assisted in the loading of vessels for the Normandy invasion. She had grit and a strong eye toward the truth. She encouraged me to come under her wing and named me editor of the yearbook in my sophomore year. I was the youngest student ever to take on this responsibility. I stepped full force into my calling tasked with documenting and photographing all events of that pivotal year.
I was a rabble-rouser in those early years. I bonded with women of all races and creeds, despite not having a clue about the meaning of diversity. I was in the center of this radical place, politically very far from my southern upbringing, yet surprisingly, feeling at home on so many levels.
I joined my soul sisters Odilia, Roe, Sylvia, Mary Reyna and Cherrie, plus a few other radical classmates, in speaking out about the injustices on campus. We had so many grievances — rigid curfews, unreasonable dress codes, and the suppression of free speech in regards to the Vietnam War — to name a few. This was an all-women school run by a male president. We needed to crack through the old walls of a dated administration. We wanted the freedom of an education based on fair and equal treatment, a willingness to be heard, and a safe environment for our growth. Armed with those directives, we sought out Steinem to help us through the maze.
We heard Steinem was touring colleges across the nation and were not surprised when our campus administration wouldn’t approve her as a guest speaker. We couldn’t pay her expenses, much less a speaker’s fee; however, despite such roadblocks, my comrades and I repeatedly pleaded to her to visit.
It was 1972, a crazymaking year — the Vietnam War was raging; Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, announced her candidacy for president; and the Watergate scandal began with the break-in and burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, Steinem, along with a group of women, gave birth to MS Magazine. She was editor and chief. A year later, Roe v. Wade would legalize abortion throughout the country.
In the midst of her whirlwind life, Steinem heard TWU’s on-going requests to come speak. She and Margaret Sloan, a black feminist poet and activist from Chicago’s South Side, came and stayed the entire day, speaking to a pack-filled auditorium.
They told us what we were dying to hear — as no adults around us would. Mostly what I remember was the afternoon when we gathered in small circles and Steinem helped open our hearts to possibility. By that time I was operating on pure adrenaline — my camera never left my side, fueled by an unknown force that just kept moving me forward.
Steinem’s efforts forced the campus administration to begin listening to the students’ grievances and start making changes. It was a day indelibly marked in my memory — she heightened my understanding of women’s rights and helped open me to a new level of what it truly means to stand in the skin of my female body and ask for what I want. It was an inspirational glow she bestowed on my “sisters” and me and I have carried it graciously with me throughout my life.
Junior year I transferred to East Texas State University for its accredited photography and journalism departments where I excelled with my art. My camera and the teachers empowered me to new levels of creativity; however, along with it, I encountered my own sexual harassment experiences surrounded by male counterparts envious of my “eye” and talent and looking for ways to take me down.
At first I didn’t understand what the big deal was — why was I such a threat? I would go home crying and fall into the arms of my soon-to-be fiancé who consoled me and helped enlighten me on the workings of the male mind. I later dropped one of my advanced photography courses taught by a male teacher who was at the head of the pack when it came to student harassment and in particular creative females — i.e. me — whom he tried to intimidate over and over again.
After graduation I would apply for photo jobs at studios that mostly wanted male applicants who were strong and could move sets. Even though I was tall, I didn’t seem to make the cut as a female. Eventually I scored a job at a weekly newspaper and was able to shoot, print my own photos, and write. Two years later, I “fell” into PR due to one too many male editors at the newspaper who refused to edit my words and teach me, a budding writer, the basics. Thus I was given a very shallow learning curve in my writing. The field of public relations was opening and I made my way into the fray, temporarily abandoning my dream of being a photojournalist.
It would take many years for me to circle back to shooting photo essays. In San Francisco I would photograph various non-profit causes and also shoot for a monthly newspaper, The New Fillmore, in the city’s Fillmore District. And this past March I had the honor of photographing Gloria Steinem on behalf of the San Francisco-based Women’s Building, a women-led community space that advocates self-determination, gender equality and social justice. The Women’s Building was founded in 1971 by a group of visionary women to provide a platform for emerging Bay Area women’s projects.
The all-female board of directors brought Steinem here to once again inspire, encourage and ignite the crowd. Prior to the talk, I gathered the board in the narrow alley of the Brava Theater. I positioned them in several rows and found a stool for Steimen. She arrived, I shot, we took various poses and then right as they were about to whisk her off to the auditorium, I held out my hand to her and told her I had met her 45 years ago at Texas Woman’s University. I told her she had saved me.
“TWU — of course I remember that campus. You all were terrific,” she said.
She began chanting, “TWU, TWU,” and I couldn’t stop smiling. I thanked her for rescuing me and for being there for us — mostly for the inspiration she gave me. She smiled broadly and left.
I made my way into the auditorium and positioned my camera. As I clicked, I took mental and iPhone notes — some of her words….
“Listen as much as you talk.”
“Talk as much as you listen.”
“Gather in circles, instead of looking up look at each other. Tell your stories — find the common ground to link the stories together — we are all at the intersection.”
“Help others run for office.”
Steinem went on to say she had never had “shoulds” in her life.
“I wake up and say I will or I do,” she remarked.
She said life radicalizes with age and that we are all communal animals. “We can’t do this alone — we have to walk together — explore with people we’re not supposed to be with and organize, cross boundaries. Develop the intersections.”
“I don’t live in the past,” she said. “I look to the future and what’s to come.”
Steinem is now 83 and one of her many projects is to re-write the Equal Rights Amendment to include diversity and all factions as it relates to human rights. She challenged us to help each other in the immediate present as well as in the long distance. Her stories and statements were so simple, so matter-of-fact.
She said to subscribe to newspapers when a question was asked about ways to keep the mainstream media alive. And when a high school teacher asked how to motivate her students, she said to find out about the land their classroom sits on. “Do a vertical history of what’s been there. Go out and touch the rocks — feel the imprint of the ancestors on that land. Do what’s necessary — we live to help each other.
“We have nothing to lose but our change,” she said.
My camera was in a state of constant motion as Steinem spoke and once again bestowed her inspirational glow on an audience of mixed generations of mostly women and some men. And then she left. I made it home in my dream-like state, unloaded my equipment and downloaded the images, shipping off shots to the Women’s Building and a Chronicle blogger.
Then I sat and took in the impactful day and the last 45 years since I first met @Gloria Steinem.
I had been re-initiated to stand up. The sexual harassment I have felt throughout my life reminds me to continually get my voice in the space and share my stories.
So I write this column and share photographs to reiterate some of Steinem’s words.
She’s my hero. She saved me back then when I was a bewildered 19-year-old raised by a kind father, however unknowingly racist he was, and a mom who just wanted to please. At TWU, I was lucky to be surrounded by soul sisters of all races and creeds. We sat in circles daily. We traded stories. We spoke about our fears, our dreams, and our longings. As editor of the yearbook, I documented all the stories.
Our yearbook captured Steinem’s words that day articulating the problems that have been ignored for so long. She expressed solutions we so desperately needed.
She said, then, and I quote from my own yearbook: “Women are beginning to fight and understand the deepest and longest of revolutions…. if we really do it, maybe 50 years from now historians will say humans stopped dividing themselves and started looking for human potential inside everyone one of us.”
Guess what? We’re almost at the 50-year mark. As I was recently devouring her book, My Life on the Road, I came across four pages where she had referenced her trip to TWU. She said the “TWU human rights movement forced the administration to deal with student grievances, took on sexism and racism together, and is now working with undocumented immigrants in North Texas.” She goes on to say “the campus is now offering a master’s degree in women’s studies and soon, a doctorate. It also encourages men as well as women to enter its nursing program. She noted it bears little resemblance to the past.”
That warmed my heart — she had been there for us, had witnessed us and had written about the impact of that day in the book.
I hold so much gratitude for my early education — for my teachers and mentors and all the soul sisters of my life. Those two years held so much angst, so much unknowing, yet it was a profound period of my life where I was initiated into what community was and developed relationships with those who held me and supported me. Little did I know then what a lasting impact this school and Steinem’s visit would have on me.
As I said at the beginning of this column I’m one of the lucky ones. I stepped into my calling early on and had the teachers and female heroes like Steinem to guide me. As a business owner the past 33 years I’ve realized my responsibility is to keep learning, and to pay it forward again and again. The stories need to be told. I continue to write and to shoot.
I read recently that if Gloria Steinem could have one wish in the world it would be “for people to gather weekly — in school gyms, church basements, around the wells of villages — to support each other and create possibilities. They are leaderless and free — you can drop in — all with the goal of supporting each other’s self-authority.”
In this second half of my life I am energized with a new level of activism. My business has sustained me where I am able to incorporate my work in non-profit arenas, shooting and writing pictorial essays/blogs spotlighting areas of need. It is my way of standing up. And I pass it on graciously through my words, my photographs and my actions.
As Gloria Steinem says….all we have to lose is change.
(Reference: My Life On The Road, by Gloria Steinem)