Did the CIA Use Gloria Steinem to Subvert the Feminist Movement?

Co-opting Radical Feminism for Corporate Interests

While preeminent American feminist Gloria Steinem’s CIA background receives wide attention on the Internet, it’s a totally taboo topic in either the corporate or the so-called “alternative” media. Steinem’s work for the CIA front group Independent Research Service first entered the public domain  in 1967 when Ramparts magazine exposed both the Independent Research Service and the National Student Association as CIA front organizations.

Fearing unflattering publicity, Steinem gave interviews to both the New York Times and the Washington Post defending her CIA work (see video below). In both articles, she claims to have taken the initiative in contacting Cord Meyers, who headed the CIA’s International Organization Division and their top secret Operation Mockingbird.* Her goal, allegedly, was to seek CIA financing to encourage American participation in the seventh postwar (Soviet-sponsored) World Youth Festival in Vienna in 1959.

The article quotes her: “Far from being shocked by this involvement, I was happy to find some liberals in government who were farsighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to attend.”

Steinem served as director of the CIA-funded Independent Research Service from 1958-62. It was her responsibility to organize US students, scholars and writers to attend the yearly World Youth Festival, to observe and takes notes on foreign participants, to distribute pamphlets, flyers and books and to edit a daily propaganda newspaper.

Steinem Threatens to Sue Random House

Steinem’s CIA links came to mainstream media attention a second time in 1979, when the Village Voice ran an article about a chapter Random House had censored from Redstockings Collective’s 1979 book Feminist Revolution. Random House spiked the chapter, which describes Steinem’s earlier CIA work, after Steinem threatened to sue them. This deleted chapter (which you can get free by ordering an out-of-print copy of Feminist Revolution from Redstockings Collective) also suggests her CIA involvement may not have ended in 1969 when she left the International Research Associates. It details the right wing corporate funding which helped Steinem inaugurate Ms Magazine, as well as the magazine’s pivotal role in transforming American feminism from a broad multi-class, multiracial movement to one devoted to divisive male bashing and advancing career opportunities for white upper middle class women.

The original feminists of the sixties and seventies didn’t hate men (at least not the ones I worked with). What they hated was patriarchy and the use of male privilege to deny women and children full equality as human beings.

Operation Mockingbird in Action

In 1960 Clay Felker, a CIA-linked Independent Research Service staffer who accompanied Steinem to the Helsinki World Youth Festival in 1962, became the editor of Esquire magazine, where he published many of Steinem’s early feminist articles. In 1968 Felker started New York magazine, and in 1971 he hired Steinem as contributing editor. It was Felker who published the first edition of Ms Magazine as a New York magazine insert.

As the feminist magazine Off Our Backs states in a 1975 article about the Redstockings scandal, their discovery of Steinem’s earlier CIA employment raised a host of concerns about her sudden installation (mainly by corporate media) as the official leader of the US women’s movement without any previous involvement in feminist groups or campaigns.

Interestingly Ms Magazine‘s first publisher was Elizabeth Forsling Harris, a CIA-connected PR executive who planned John Kennedy’s Dallas motorcade route.

The Turmoil At NOW

In 1966, Steinem was still on the board of directors of International Research Service, when she co-founded National Organization for Women (NOW) with Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. A 2001 article in The American Prospect describes (quoting from The World Split Open by Ruth Rosen) how in 1975 prominent NOW members Carol Hanisch and Kathie Sarachild openly accused Steinem of working for the CIA and “directing the movement toward moderation and capitulation.” Ultimately Friedan herself became concerned “a paralysis of leadership” in the movement “could be due to the CIA” and demanded that Steinem respond.

After three months, Steinem wrote a six-page letter to various feminist publications describing her work on two student festivals in 1959 and 1962 that were funded by the CIA. Aiming to deflect the charge she was or had been a government operative, it stated, “I naively thought then that the ultimate money source didn’t matter, since in my own experience, no control or orders came with it.”

The Off Our Backs article also raises questions about a parallel organization Steinem started (in competition with NOW – starting parallel groups is a common strategy employed by US intelligence to sabotage grassroots organizations) in 1971 called Women’s Action Alliance. Located in the same building as Ms. Despite its name, the WAA wasn’t involved in “action,” as its name suggests. It engaged mainly in information gathering. It had a $20,000 grant from Rockefeller Family Fund for the establishment of a “national clearinghouse information and referral service” on the women’s movement. WAA collected information on key women leaders and their groups and activities, presumably facilitation FBI/CIA efforts to monitor them.

Steinem’s Fascination with Fascist Men

Despite her so-called liberal feminist credentials, Steinem has had a clear preference for right wing men, often with CIA and/or FBI links. She had a nine-year relationship with Stanley Pottinger, a Nixon-Ford assistant attorney general, who played a prominent role in undermining civil rights enforcement under Nixon and Ford. He also obstructed FBI investigations into the assassinations of Martin Luther King, and the ex-Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Latelier.

In 1984 Pottinger was investigated  for participating in Irangate, a CIA scheme to illegally smuggle arms to Iran .**

In the 1980’s, Steinem dated Henry Kissinger.

The Use of Black Feminists to Sabotage Civil Rights Organizing

In the late seventies and early seventies, African American organizers became concerned about a pattern in which agents posing as black feminists infiltrated their community groups in an effort to split off women members into separate organizations. They traced this phenomenon back to 1978 when Steinem put a book called Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman on the cover of Ms Magazine.

The book was allegedly “written” by a Black “feminist” and “activist” named Michele Wallace. In her early twenties Wallace, who like Steinem came out of nowhere (she was a Newsweek book review researcher), was suddenly being touted as the “leader” of Black feminism. In the book, Wallace called abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Sojouner Truth “ugly” and “stupid” for supporting Black men. She called Black Revolutionaries “chauvinist macho pigs” and advised Black women to “go it alone.”

Gloria Steinem maintained that Wallace’s book would “define the future of Black relationships” and she pushed hard to make sure the book received massive publicity. Gloria Steinem’s efforts triggered a flood of “Hate Black Men” books and films that continues to this day.


*Operation Mockingbird was a secret CIA campaign to influence the media by placing CIA assets on the staff and editorial board of major publishers and media outlets and by paying reporters a small stipend to publish articles favorable to CIA interests. It allegedly ended in 1976 but many researchers believes it continues under a different name to the present day.
**Irangate was a CIA effort to illegally smuggle arms to Iran to obtain funding for the illegal CIA war against Nicaragua.