TAHLEQUAH — The friendship of the first woman to be named Cherokee Nation Principal Chief and a 1960s and 1970s feminist icon was not only a political alliance, but a friendship of mutual trust and respect. "We were a chosen family,” said Gloria Steinem, who is staying at Wilma Mankiller’s home in rural Adair County. For two weeks Steinem kept a bedside vigil, watching as pancreatic cancer slowly claimed the life of her friend. Steinem will be one of the featured speakers at Mankiller’s memorial service set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah. The women’s friendship spanned a quarter of a century, she said. In addition to being political allies, the women spent vacations together and shared life’s ups and downs, including sicknesses and the death of Steinem’s husband in 2003. The two women met when Mankiller joined the board for the Ms. Foundation for Women, a nonprofit organization, co-founded by Steinem in 1973. "A year or so after I met her, she was becoming ill and needed her first (kidney) transplant,” Steinem said. "We bonded over transplant surgery that happened to another friend.” Mankiller was diagnosed with colon cancer and lymphoma in 1996. She also received two kidney transplants, the first in 1990 and the second in 1998. "In a just country, she (Wilma) would have been president,” Steinem said. The two women fought side by side on many issues, including American Indian and women’s rights. "She was always inclusive and she personified the balance between men and women,” Steinem said. "She saw people as equal.” Mankiller’s biggest contribution was that she could show political and social causes were connected and many issues were one in the same, she said. "Her gift was to create independence, not dependence,” Steinem said. Wilma paved a way for all young women, not just Cherokee women, she said. At age 66, Steinem reached out to her friend regarding an equal marriage. Steinem saw Wilma’s marriage to Charlie Soap as an equal marriage and that was the only kind of marriage she would allow for herself. "I asked her if I should get married at my age,” Steinem said. "I was happily unmarried for many years.” Mankiller told Steinem she was going to go out into the yard, sit under the stars and think about it. "I was to call her the next morning,” Steinem said. Steinem married David Bale, a human rights activist and father of actor Christian Bale, at dawn at the home of Mankiller and Soap in September 2000. Soap performed the ceremony, followed by a female judge who performed a civil ceremony. Steinem said everyone then sat down to a huge wedding breakfast and went back to bed.
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