On April 30th, 2012, writer, feminist, and activist Gloria Steinem visited Brown University for a conversation with President Ruth Simmons and a screening of her HBO film, Gloria. Steinem is accredited as one of the most prominent members of the women’s liberation movement in the 60’s and 70’s, and continues to speak out against the inequalities women face today. She gained notoriety with an undercover expose of Playboy, and went on establish Ms. Magazine in 1972 and the Women’s Media Center in 2004. Bluestockings Magazine along with The Providence Journal and The Brown Daily Herald, sat down with Steinem to talk bout her thoughts on current politics and future feminists.
Gloria: The only problem is I always have a kind of identity crisis because I think I should be interviewing you.
Providence Journal: Is there a women’s movement today in the sense of when you were at the height of it in the ‘70s?
Gloria: Oh it’s infinitely bigger than it ever was in the ‘70s. Hugely bigger. I mean the reason you know me is because there were so few of us. [laugh]. If you look at the public opinion polls even, support for all the issues, people who self-identify as feminists are as least as many as those who self-identify as Republicans. [laugh] Or at least women, I’m not sure they have the wit to ask men. There’s thousands more organizations, whether they’re battered women shelters or women’s art galleries or rock bands…so certainly the conscious is way past the majority level but that also means that we’ve had a backlash for a long time because once we have a frontlash we have a backlash. And the backlash has a lot of power, even though it’s not in the majority.
But most movements, certainly abolitionist and suffragist movements, lasted about a century to become permanent, and that’s probably still true, of the feminist, civil rights, gay and lesbian, various social movements now.
PJ: You mentioned backlash. What do you think in terms of backlash in reproductive rights – are we stepping way back?
G: Well, if you look at the public opinion polls, we’re not stepping way back. If you listen to the Catholic bishops you would think that Catholics are against contraception and legal abortion, but if you ask actual Catholics, you discover that more than 90% of Catholic women use contraception and Catholic women seem to need and choose legal abortion at about the same rate as everybody else. The problem is that the backlash occupies positions of power, not that it represents the majority of people. The largest problem right now is that what used to be the Republican Party has been taken over by very extremist groups, both economic and political, many of whom used to be Democrats. Say the 800 fundamentalist Catholic churches, Jesse Helms, they all used to be Democrats. Beginning with the Civil Rights Act though, people began to leave the Democratic Party and take over the Republican Party, which is why there are so many independents. So it’s very dangerous, and difficult, to have one of our two parties controlled by extremists.
But you know if you think about – Goldwater could not possibly get nominated by the Republican Party now because he was prochoice. Nixon could not get nominated because he supported affirmative action and civil rights in general. Even Reagan was pro-choice as governor. The first Bush supported Planned Parenthood. I mean it just shows you how far from the centrist Republican position we have come.
PJ: Does it surprise you that this has happened?
G: Well yes and no, I mean it surprises me because I thought we had a democracy. So I would think that our leadership reflected our public opinion polls more than it does. We have to take responsibility for that too, because too few of us vote. But it doesn’t surprise me in the sense that controlling reproduction is the basis of hierarchy and nationalism. So to keep control of reproduction and to resist reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right is not surprising. It’s very, very basic.
PJ: Does it surprise you that women get on board with that – we have a woman senator here who was promoting legislation that would restrict how women could receive abortions and what would happen prior, like certain kinds of sonograms…
G: Well, she’s a Republican right? And she couldn’t have gotten nominated if she didn’t agree with that. Most Republican women are pro-choice just like everybody else, but if you’ve got a party whose machinery is controlled by a particular view, then you get Sarah Palin, or…
In a way it’s kind of a tribute, because there’s a women’s movement, they realize they have to find a woman who disagrees with other women, or because there’s a civil rights movement, they have to find a Supreme Court Justice who disagrees with most African Americans.
Brown Daily Herald: How long do you think it’ll be before there’s a female president, or even just a larger proportion of women in power in government?
G: I can’t guess, and it depends on us, as voters and as people. You can’t be what you can’t see, so it’s harder for women to say, “I’m going to be a candidate,” so we need to go to women who would be good candidates and say, “You would be a good candidate and I’ll help you.” It’s not a passive question, it’s not when will it happen, but an active question, when will we make it happen?
Bluestockings: So we obviously recognize the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, but it’s difficult to fight for so many things at the same time, and second wave feminism has often garnered criticism for not including ethnic feminists. How do you feel you need to deal with this as a feminist leader while also maximizing the inclusivity of the movement?
G: First of all I need to say that the assumption about the women’s movement is wrong. I mean, is the women’s movement subject to racism and classism? Yes, in this country – absolutely. But can’t we also ask: Is it the most representative and integrated movement this country has ever seen?
I think it’s really wrong to attribute racism to the women’s movement – you render women of color invisible who were in leadership positions, whether it was Eleanor Holmes Norton or Shirley Chisholm, or “Flo” Kennedy. We could name so many women, and we can’t render them invisible by saying that they weren’t disproportionately in leadership positions, which they always were. And – you know, intersectionality is a great word but it’s not understood off campus.
So, I would just say look at real life: wherever there is more racism, there is more sexism because you can’t maintain racial difference without controlling reproduction. We have only to look at the South in this country where the most punished crime historically was miscegenation, which meant any contact between white women and men of color, the reverse, of course, even by rape or force, was a whole different story. So controlling women as the means of reproduction is made even more necessary by any race or caste or class system. It just comes together, it’s just like life. And therefore it’s not even practical to be a feminist without being anti-racist or against classism. It just doesn’t work.
BDH: Who is inspiring you now in the women’s movement, current political or social advocates?
G: Well Ruth, your president of Brown University. Ruth Simmons inspires me – it’s in my mind because we just had lunch together. I joined the board of Smith because she was the president of Smith. She is one of the most – how shall I say – wise, creative, effective leaders of large structures, which is very difficult, that I have ever seen in any place. I find her very inspirational. My friend Alice Walker is certainly ahead of me on the path; I feel I have always learned from her. Wilma Mankiller, who died last year who was the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, should have been president. Ai-Jen Poo, who I was just writing about for this issue of Time Magazine, you know, that has 100 years, she is the main organizer of Domestic Workers United, which is an organization of 30,000 domestic workers, largely undocumented immigrants and/or women of color. Amy Richards who is here with me, who’s written more books than me – I mean, she started out working for me but she’s way surpassed me as a speaker and a writer and an organizer. Rushira Gupta in India, who’s the originator of Apne Aap, which means self-help, an organization working on sex-trafficking in India. There are just so many!
PJ: What do you think of Michelle Obama?
G: You know, I have never met Michelle … oh, no, no, I did meet her once! [laugh] I was speaking at a lunch where she was and we did talk for a minute. You know, I find her – admirable. She was clearly always a smart, creative, brave woman and, in the beginning, Obama was working for her in the law firm, not the other way around, so that says a lot about Obama’s choice in a partner.
BS: So I was going to ask kind of in that vein, in 2008 you initially supported Hilary Clinton. But it seems that your support has grown for President Obama. So I was hoping you could maybe talk about that shift –
G: It wasn’t a shift. Because, you know, for that first year, reporters would say to me, “Are you supporting Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama?” And I would say yes. [laugh] Because, you know, he’s a feminist, she’s a civil rights activist, but – I think it was a cruel joke that we got two firsts in the same year. But it was always clear that all of us were going to work for either one, you know, whoever could get through the primaries.
BS: And how do you feel about how Obama has done so far, and what do you hope to see if he’s re-elected in terms of women’s rights and reproductive rights and other issues?
G: Well, first of all, I came to the point where I myself was going to have to vote for my own New York primary. I voted for Hilary Clinton, because I thought she was clearly more experienced and she understood the ultra right wing in a way that he had not had the opportunity to do. She was a fighter. I knew she couldn’t win. I always knew she couldn’t win because it was just too soon. I think in a deep way, as long as – whatever group we come from, we’re mostly raised by women, so we see female authority as attached to childhood and appropriate to childhood. Though we as women have our own example to learn from, many men feel regressed to childhood when they see a powerful woman, because they were eight the last time they saw one. However, I think she did so well, and was so courageous, and continues to do so well, that she probably has changed people’s perceptions. I think we’re better able now to imagine a female of any race in the White house before Hilary. There is just no option to Obama being elected. No option. What we have to make sure to do is give him a Congress he can work with. Because he didn’t have the experience to use the Congress he had in the beginning well, but now he does.
PJ: I have a personal question, if that’s okay – being a 50-year old woman with 2 teenaged sons, if you ever regretted not having any children.
G: Mm, you know, people always ask me that. And for a while, I used to think, especially when I’m in India or some other place where the culture is different, and I think, oh, maybe I shouldn’t tell the truth because I’ll lose people. But I did it to this group of women in India, I told the truth – which not for a millisecond have I ever regretted. And they applauded, because they’re in a culture where they have to have children. So I like to think that my not having children is necessary to demonstrate that women who do have children have chosen to. I mean if somebody doesn’t do it, it’s not a choice. Now, I mean, I can imagine all kinds of reasons why…but I’m just telling you the end result. Maybe it’s because I took care of my mother, so I thought I’d done that already, or – I don’t know, maybe it’s because the conditions of motherhood that I saw, maybe if I saw different conditions…
BDH: Speaking of India, how much do you feel that the American feminist movement is now connected to international feminism, and how much should that be a focus in politics?
G: Well it always has been since the beginning, because we were always learning from each other. The economic development techniques that people use here were learned from women in the Third World, and some of the journalistic techniques that they use there were learned from here. So there’s always been a lot of connection. I think in general we probably feel more connected to each other’s women’s movements than to our own governments.
BS: When it comes to activism, you were talking about second wave, third wave. Where do you think the most successful tactical choice is for third wave feminists or activists today? There is a big question between going through the government or grassroots, and I know that that’s not mutually exclusive, but do you see there being any particular focus?
G: Well if it’s election time, you focus on the election. And if you are living in a situation of violence, you focus on getting out. You just kind of focus where your experience and expertise is. In a general way, I would say it’s usually more helpful to focus on the bottom, because like trees, change grows from the bottom. But every situation is different. I would avoid “shoulds.”
BS: I guess the deeper question is, how do you see people getting more engaged in the feminist movement, being brought in the fold of feeling like it’s their movement as well? Is it a kind of grassroots –
G: It’s on campus. In addition to what everybody’s already doing, you can get some of the Men Against Violence groups, or perhaps you already have, to come and speak on campus, so that men feel welcome and see that it’s in their interest also to play these roles. It’s organic. You know what I mean? And some kinds of slogans and T-shirts and so on should be considered so they are inclusive. For instance, Equality Now and Apne Aap have a T-shirt that says, “Eroticize Equality.” Because the problem is, for men and women, the idea that sexuality is about dominance and submission, when, in fact, cooperation is a lot more fun, to put it my way. So some of it, a lot of it, is just about empathy.
PJ: If you look forward to what you hope will happen in the next generation, what is the most important thing that you wish for women who are younger, for what they want to achieve or experience or understand?
G: I just want them to be able to – you know, I was doing a discussion with Oprah with a whole bunch of students from Barnard, and we were talking about all these things, and at the end, one of the women in the back said, “Women need enough power to do what makes them happy.” You know, obviously, if we were going to address what involves the biggest number of women, reproductive freedom is a fundamental human right–like freedom of speech, the most basic right. Freedom from violence, since women worldwide are still like 70% at least of all victims of violence. Equality in the family, democracy in the family, since the family is the microcosm of everything else, so if you have inequality and violence in the family, it normalizes it in the street, for foreign policy, for every place else. So I would say probably those three things affect the most people: reproductive freedom, freedom from violence, and democratic families. But there may well be someone sitting at this table who has a great idea to do something else that wouldn’t come under those umbrellas and that would really be great, and make all kinds of change.
BS: In your own words, how would you personally define feminism?
G: I’d just go to the dictionary, it’s not bad. [laugh]
The belief in the full social, economic, political equality of females and males. I would also say acting on it, I would add that to the dictionary, not just believing it.