Speech to Naval Academy, (4 May 1972) Annapolis, MD


By 1972, Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes had toured together for two years as a dynamic speaking duo, lecturing on the Women’s Liberation movement. The interracial pair hoped to galvanize grassroots support for the movement and to help establish feminism as intersectional and mainstream.1 On May 4, 1972, however, the pair faced an audience unlike any they had addressed before. The two women spoke to a field house full of United States Naval Academy (USNA) men.2 The women took the stage and addressed the midshipmen in a lecture about women’s equality and the future of the navy. The midshipmen responded with energy and open confrontation—some laughed at notions such as “women have been much too docile . . . for too long, but I think that era is about to end;” and others threw their after-dinner oranges on the stage.3 Decades later, Steinem would remember that she “was especially uncertain about what the midshipmen thought; a positive or negative conclusion was impossible.”4

Steinem and Pitman Hughes were invited to the United States Naval Academy as a part of the school’s 1971-1972 Forrestal Lecture series. This lecture series was established only a few years prior, in 1970, to honor the nation’s first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal. The series, which continues today, is described on the USNA website as intending to “enhance the education, awareness, and appreciation of the members of the Brigade of Midshipmen in the social, political and cultural dimensions of the Nation and the world.”5 In 1972, the Women’s Liberation movement was reaching popular audiences through mainstream publications such as Ms. Magazine and had inspired a proliferation of women’s groups such as the Women’s Action Alliance and the National Organization for Women (NOW).6 Steinem and Pitman Hughes’s invitation to USNA thus signaled that the naval academy viewed the women’s movement as an important “social, political and cultural” event that warranted midshipmen education. The invitation also marked the popularity and prolific status that Steinem and Pitman Hughes garnered throughout their first two years of touring. As the popularity of second-wave feminism grew, so too did the popularity of their appearances.7

Steinem and Pitman Hughes primarily spoke to sympathetic audiences—women and men who were interested in better understanding what women’s equality meant to their communities and to their lives.8 Prior to the USNA appearance, Steinem and Pitman Hughes spent two years touring the country and speaking to college students, union members, and other interested communities. They often spoke to mixed racial and gender groups.9 As a black woman and white woman sharing the stage, Pitman Hughes and Steinem drew a diverse crowd hoping to learn something about the women’s movement from one or both orators.10 The USNA speaking occurrence departed from their normal appearances in that the audience consisted mostly of men (with a few navy wives in attendance) who may or may not have been supportive of the goals of Women’s Liberation.11

Yet, the two experienced orators were used to adjusting their speaking form and content to each audience. With larger audiences, for example, the duo had to forgo their preferred round-circle, consciousness-raising sessions for more organized lectures and question-answer formats.12 When white people populated their audiences, Pitman Hughes made sure to highlight the interplay of racism and sexism to enhance the education of their white audiences.13 Steinem also noticed the need to change direction based on the composition of men and women in the room. She preferred audiences of women because “women respond as they would on their own, and men [could] hear women speaking honestly.”14 The USNA appearance demonstrated most vividly how Steinem and Pitman Hughes challenged the sexist and racist assumptions of audiences, responding to audience cheers and jeers throughout.


  1. Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 2nd ed. (New York: H. Holt, 1995), 8.
  2. Michael Gelfand, “Revolutionary Change at Evolutionary Speed: Women and the United States Naval Academy,” International Journal of Naval History 1, no. 1 (2002): 1-2.
  3. Program, “Forrestal Lecture of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes,” 4 May 1972, Archives Reference File, Distinguished Visitors: Forrestal Lecture Series, U.S. Naval Academy Archives, Annapolis, MD.
  4. Gelfand, “Revolutionary Change at Evolutionary Speed,” 6.
  5. “Forestall Lectures,” United States Naval Academy, https://www.usna.edu/PAO/ForrestalLectures.php.
  6. Amy Farrell, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina press, 1998), 17.
  7. Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road (New York: Random House, 2016), 46-47.
  8. As described by Steinem, My Life on the Road, 48-49.
  9. Steinem, Outrageous Acts, 8.
  10. Steinem recalled that together they drew a bigger and more diverse crowd than they could alone: “Our presence on the stage together made a point that women seemed hungry for, especially in the South. We attracted bigger and more diverse audiences than each of us would have had on our own, and we were complementary in other ways.” See: Steinem, Outrageous Acts, 8.
  11. Women were not allowed entry into the Naval Academy until 1976. See: Gelfand, “Revolutionary Change at Evolutionary Speed,” 1.
  12. Steinem, My Life, 47.
  13. To see the different ways in which Steinem and Pitman Hughes addressed race in their speeches, see the following speech in RDA’s holdings: Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, “Women’s Liberation” (speech, Cleveland State University, February 1972).
  14. Steinem, My Life, 103.