Almost 80, and Just as Feminist: Gloria Steinem Interview

Gloria Steinem at “This Is What 80 Looks Like.” Photo: Peter Handler.

— by Lisa Grunberger

I had the opportunity to interview feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, who co-founded Ms. Magazine.

Steinem has been one of the most prominent spokeswomen for the women’s liberation movement and has continued her activism until today. In 2005, she co-founded the Women’s Media Center, which advocates to expand women’s voices in the media, with feminist activist Robin Morgan and actress Jane Fonda.  

Last week Steinem was in Philadelphia, at The Shalom Center in Congregation Mishkan Shalom, to speak with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who founded the Center, about social justice, equality and peace, at an event called “This Is What 80 Looks Like.”  

Full interview after the jump.
Q: Many feminists have rejected religion as hopelessly patriarchal. Others have found ways to live feminist lives as radical Christians, and feminist Jews and Muslims. Have you ever felt called to explore a Jewish text, or study, or Torah, or anything like that?

A: No, to be honest. The closest that I have come to it over time is that I have participated, for 25 years or more, in the “Feminist Seder,” with the author Esther Broner.

She rewrote the questions, together with another woman, to include women’s experience. For them, frequently, it was on the third night, instead of a traditional seder. It was in addition. And for me, of course, and others, it was the only seder.

We would all, and still do, gather and use these questions and answers. As you know, it is saying, “why were our foremothers sad on this night? Because they could not take part in the ceremony.”  

Then we say our names and our mothers’ names and our grandmothers’ names, as far back as we can go: “I am Gloria, daughter of Ruth, daughter of Marie…” which usually is not very far, and all the women who were sad because they had no names of their own. It is very moving. And there is always a topic of discussion.

Q: That is beautiful. It is a great ritual.

A: It really is. And it made me appreciate the fact that the seder is communal, a ceremony in which all voices are heard, unlike just one person talking and an audience.  

Q: The backstory for this Shalom Center event started when you participated on Oprah, as Oprah asked you to describe a transformative moment in your life. You shared a story from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

I was giving out farm worker’s literature and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And Arthur Waskow, a wonderful man, comes up to me and says [here you grasped Oprah’s hand], ‘It’s important, what you are doing. Everything is important!’ And I’ve never forgotten that.

Can you elaborate on this?

A: It was a complete accident. It proves that we are the most effective when we behave as if everything we do matters, because we have no idea which thing is going to matter.  

Because he said to me at a very crucial juncture, I never forgot it. I am not sure if we have seen each other even after that. When she asked me that question, it came into my mind. I do not know if he saw it or somebody told him about it, but anyway he got in touch with me.  

In the language of the Cherokee, there are no “he” and “she.” People are people. Painting by Henry Timberlake.

Q: Does it matter in a different way today? When you talk to young women, are you heartened? When you go to campuses, and still see the legacy that you are going to transmit, that you have transmitted, and actively transmit?

A: You know, nothing is ever enough. Nothing I do, anyone else does, is ever enough. But within that, I am very heartened when I talk to young women.  

First of all, if you just look at the public opinion poles, young women are much more likely to become feminist supporters of this issue than older women. The idea that the movement is over is part of the opposition to the movement.  

Stage one of the opposition is: “You can’t do that, it’s against nature, or something.” And stage two is: “Well, it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore.” But, in fact, quite the opposite is the case.

Young women are much more alert to discrimination, aware of discrimination, much more rebellious against it, and much more full of dreams and ambitions, which is the whole idea.

The truth of the matter is, it is not going to really work until men raise children as much as women do. Women are now more equal outside the house, but men are not very equal in it. There are a lot of men who really are full parents; there has been progress, but it is still far from the norm.

Q: That is why feminism is about gender: It is about men and women’s relationships; you cannot change one without the other.

A: I agree. I would only add that there is no gender in real life. People are people.

The individual difference between two people, because each person is unique, is probably bigger than the generalized differences between genders. And if you look up the grid, beyond the lens of gender, it is very helpful, because it allows men to be individuals, too.  

In original cultures around the world, as far as I have been able to discover — the Cherokee, on this continent, for instance — languages did not even have “he” and “she,” people were people. They may have had different functions for the two genders, perhaps, but there were a lot of people who did not keep to that, and that was alright too.

Q: Much more freedom and fluidity.

A: Right. Because in the deep sense, the purpose of the invention of gender roles was to control reproduction. Men owned the means of reproduction — women — and that brought in the idea of male dominance and female submission. Which, if you look at 100,000 years of human history, is not that old.  

Q: You have said, “In later years, if I’m remembered at all it will be for inventing a phrase like ‘reproductive freedom.’ [It is] a phrase [that] includes the freedom to have children or not to. So it makes it possible for us to make a coalition.”  

Are not the new reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization and donor egg, providing women with similar choices to have children or not to, and to responsibly exercise their own reproductive freedoms?  

A: I did not predict technology. I think the addition of technology does not change the basic principle: That each women has the power to make decisions over her own body, without government interference, and without religious interference. That we have at least as much legal right over own physical selves as we do over our literal property.

Right now, assaults on bodies — rapes, domestic violence, and other forms of violence — are sometimes less punished than invasions of private property, trespassing, etc. We have a long way to go in terms of the law.

What enters into that is social pressure.

Q: To have a baby or not to have a baby.

A: Yes. So the idea that all women should have children, that one is somehow unnatural without children. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the idea that someone is odd for having too many children. They are both present in our culture. So we have to continue to work to make it possible to make a decision, a free decision.

Alice Walker had paid a price for exposing violence against women within the black community.

Of course, there is an additional concern here, which is surrogate mothers. Women who have children, who become the biological parents for other people, is that free will or economic pressure?

Q: The late writer Christopher Hitchens wrote a provocative essay in Vanity Fair, years ago, stating that women are not funny. You wrote satire in your early career. How was humor a vehicle for, or maybe a counterpoint to, your own work?

A: Humor is very crucial, and a big indicator of whether we are free or not. Literally, laughter is the most free emotion. You can compel fear. You can even compel love: if people are kept isolated and dependent long enough, in order to survive they come to feel dependent upon, and even love, for their captors.  

Laughter cannot be compelled. It happens when you suddenly recognize something, or put two things together and they unexpectedly make a third. When you learn, when you see an irony. Real laughter cannot be compelled. And I think that is an indicator of how important it is as a measure of freedom.

Q: In your essay on Alice Walker, Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You, you wrote that she exposes, in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, violence against women, “years before most women had begun to tell the truth in public.”  

A: Yes, and she paid a price for it sometimes, because within the black community there was some understandable worry that somehow exposing faults within the community, violence in the community, would work against it. But, of course, it’s not true. Telling the truth usually works out the best. And I think many more people have come to agree with her now.

Q: What novelists and play writes do you read, who continue to inspire your vision? Are you fueled by the imagination and other writers?  

A: I confess that I have so many important and mind-blowing books and articles, that are not fiction, that I find that I just do not have the time that I would like to explore fiction.

Q: It is surprising, because your essays, especially the one on your mother Ruth, are quite literary.

A: If I had to pick a favorite form of writing, I think it would be the essay. What the essay allows you to do is start out in a personal place and come to a human, universal or larger point.

I think that is a very important form of writing because it allows us to use a narrative, and the human brain works on narratives. If you tell us a fact, we will try to make a story up as to why the fact is true. We need a narrative, and the essay allows you to do that, and also to illuminate reality that way.  

The funny thing was about that essay was that it was as if I had been waiting to write it, because I knew that I could not write it while she was alive, as it would make her sad.  

When I was writing it I thought, “everybody wants to write about their parents, this is not going to answer anyone but me.” Then, when I started to go around with the book in which it was, I discovered the responses were quite the opposite.  

Given the bias against women in the culture, a lot of people, men and women, had mothers who could not put their talents to use.

Q: At the 10th anniversary of Ms. Magazine, you were in Detroit, and a woman turned to you and said you were “the inside of me.”

A: I have never forgotten that.

Q: What is “the inside” of you?

A: The first thing I thought of when you said that are those nested Russian dolls, in which there are many selves. I think we are that: our child selves and our later selves are nested inside us.  

When we are born, there is a person in that baby, as anyone who has ever met a baby knows. The question is, will they be helped to become who they are, or will society or parents try to make them into something that they are not?  

I suppose, in one sense, it is my early child self still there, and sometimes more than others, because the hopes and fears and delights are so rooted there; there are so many layers that we may not realize it.  

In an ordinary moment, when I am walking in the street and the sun is out, it is just about a moment in which you feel a sense of well being, that you are somehow part of everything around you.

Q: Interconnected.

A: There is this sense of well-being; it does not last very long, but it is memorable. And if we can let those moments guide us, it will probably take us on the right path.

I do not mean to say that human beings are isolated in that moment. It is a feeling of connection that gives you the sense of well-being. It is a connection to the universe, to other people, to nature, to the ice-cream cone, to whatever is there.

Q: I think Freud called it the “oceanic moment,” this feeling of “oneness.”

A: Well, I am glad to know that he said something sensible; it is pretty rare.  


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