The Power and the Gloria

Gloria Steinem reflects on 40 years fighting for feminism and freedom—and against fear.


Like most icons, Gloria Steinem is smaller than you would expect, fine boned and angular.

She still parts her hair down the center, but her trademark tinted glasses are gone. She does not work to make you comfortable, nor indulge clichéd questions. But once she gets talking, she is a fount of ideas: books you should read, people to Google, a deep sense of history, and sharp commentary on current events. It doesn't take long before she shows you why she has become a giant.

Steinem has been the public face of American feminism since its heyday in the 1970s, and many of the movement's landmarks owe their origins to her. Steinem coined the term "reproductive freedom," created "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" and, in 1972, cofounded Ms. magazine. At a time when American women were still classed as "good girls" or "bad," Steinem offered herself as an example of the independent woman—and her magazine as the only one for those who wanted to be like her.

Steinem wasn't the only feminist around writing, leading marches and testifying before Congress, but she was the one America knew best.

A native of Ohio, she began her career as a freelance writer (her mother was a journalist before suffering a nervous breakdown), working for New York magazine, the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was, Esquire and Show magazine, for which she went undercover as a Playboy bunny. Editors' reluctance to publish the stories Steinem wanted to write—those not based on cleavage and fluffy tails—led her to co-found Ms.

The first issue of Ms. featured a list of prominent women who'd had abortions (Steinem included), almost a year before Roe v. Wade. It sold out within eight days. Ms.—where Steinem remains a consulting editor—went on to be the first national magazine to feature a battered woman on its cover, and to talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, equal pay, lesbianism as anything other than obscene, unfair divorce laws, sexism in child-rearing, and gender inequity in marriage. Steinem became the public face and the candid, relentless voice on these and many other issues.

She is now 78, and as the status of women steadily rises, Steinem's prominence has waned. Another generation of feminists (and young women who reject the term) has grown up with legal abortion, birth control, Title IX, and public awareness of and legal recourse against sexual harassment, date rape and domestic violence. In other words, a world very different from the one Steinem grew up in and helped transform.

This new generation has criticized Steinem for focusing on gender, assuming a singular female point of view, and overlooking the varieties of women's racial, class and sexual identities.

Steinem has rolled with the changes, remaining outspoken and busy as a writer and activist. She's currently working on a memoir of her 40-plus years of feminist organizing, Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered. She visited Portland last weekend for NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon's annual gala.

Steinem sat down for an extended interview with WW. In addition to talking about her life and the current state of women's issues, Steinem revealed her early fear of public speaking, laughed about funny feminists (and one humorless one), and discussed the late Helen Gurley Brown's focus on sex as the primary source of female power.

WW: What is your definition of feminism now?

Gloria Steinem: The dictionary's.

Hasn't it changed?

No, not at all. It is the belief in the social, economic, political equality of males and females. A feminist is the person, male or female, who believes in that. I would like to add acts on it. There are other words that mean the same thing: womanism, women's liberation, girrls—with two r's, which I love—and mujerista.

Do you think the mainstream media uses the label too much?

They put us in a silo. Reporters for 40 years off and on have said, "Aren't you interested in anything other than the women's movement?" And for 40 years I have been saying, "Name me one thing that is separate." They've never been able to come up with anything that would not be transformed by looking at it as if everyone mattered. 

What's the issue most important to American women that's least understood?

The deep anthropological, political reason for controlling women is to control reproduction.

Reproductive freedom, gaining reproductive freedom, is the key to unraveling this structure that has falsely created feminine and masculine, subject/object kind of roles.

And reproductive freedom, the right to decide for yourself when and whether to have children, is the single greatest determinant of whether you are healthy or not, whether you are poor or not, how long you live, whether you are educated, are you able to be active outside the home.

You think that's not well understood?

Yes. The impulse to think of women in reproductive terms makes it hard to imagine a world in which the center of authority is within each woman.

Even our legal structure, in general, penalizes the invasion of private property more than the invasion of bodies. Our legal world was built on a law that saw women as possessions, as objects. We've come up with a legal system that now penalizes men, too, because men should be protected from bodily invasion.

So what are the issues that people remain unaware of?

We talk about economic stimulus all the time. I have never seen in any print, other than us, that the most effective economic stimulus would be equal pay. It would put about $200 billion more a year into the economy.

It would be a stimulus exactly where that money is most likely to be spent. Those women are not going to put their money into Swiss bank accounts. They are going to spend it and create jobs.

I have yet to see equal pay for equal work spoken of as an economic stimulus. And, of course, Romney won't even say he is for equal pay. 

It seems what the mainstream media present as debate about feminism has to do with privileged women who already have choices, rather than…

Real life. But the virtue of those issues is that they divide women. They are always trying to divide us. I mean, many fewer women are thinking about, "Can I have it all?" than are thinking about, "Will I lose it all?"

I'm thinking of The Atlantic cover story from this summer, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."

That's ridiculous. It is not relevant for most women. And also it puts the burden on the woman: Can she have it all? 

My question is, can we have a country and a culture in which it is possible for people to make a living and to have a family life? We work longer hours than any other modern democracy in the world, we have less child care than any modern democracy in the world, less flexible time, shorter vacations.

If I had a dollar for every time Ms. magazine tried to declare "superwoman" dead, I would have enough to go out and have a vacation.

Nobody can be superwoman, nobody can do it all. And no man can do it, either. The point is to change the structure so we can all have a life.

Whom do you see now carrying this message of awareness to younger women?

Everybody. Younger women are much more willing to support feminist issues than older women. The word feminism has been demonized. But if you look at the polls, young women are much more supportive than older women.

But we hear it is the reverse. The same people who used to say to me, "Oh, this is against biology, nature, Freud, God, something," now are saying, "Well, it used to be necessary, but it is not anymore." It is a new form of obstructionism. 

We're seeing a lot about funny, no-BS feminism—Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran.

Which is great. I used to write for That Was the Week That Was. I was their only girl writer.

It turns out laughter is the only free emotion. You can compel fear. You can also compel love, because if people are kept isolated and dependent in order to survive—like the Stockholm syndrome—they will attach to their captor and even believe they love their captor.

You can't compel laughter. You laugh when you understand something—aha!—when two things come together and form a third unexpectedly.

There used to be this idea, I think it is past, that feminists have no sense of humor. We once did a Ms. cover with a cartoon and this guy is saying to this woman, "Do you know feminists have no sense of humor?" And she says, "No, but hum a few bars and I'll fake it."

We were not so enthusiastic anymore about laughing at dumb-blonde jokes, mother-in-law jokes, farmer's daughter jokes—because they were really insulting. But to see women in possession of not only our own laughter but also the ability to make other people laugh is a big power, actually. 

There was a Katie Roiphe article in Slate that talked about it as mockery taking the place of anger.

Katie Roiphe has no sense of humor. That is not a legitimate source. We need somebody who laughs.

When you were younger, what was your biggest personal challenge?

Speaking in public. I was terrified. It was only the women's movement that got me to do it, and then only because I couldn't get articles published about the women's movement. I was always a freelance writer and my editors were, to put it mildly, not interested. I was so frustrated by that.

Because I was a journalist, people had occasionally asked me from time to time to speak. So I got myself to do it but only with another woman. For years, I went with Dorothy Pitman Hughes and then Flo Kennedy. It was good, because it was one white woman and one black woman together. We had a much more inclusive audience.

When did you overcome your fear?

It's like malaria—it still comes back. I think it helped a lot to spend a decade or so speaking with another woman. I realized I didn't die. They were standing there, so if I really fucked up, they were there next to me and could help me. So that helped a lot. 

I had the idea that writing was a superior form of communication, more than speaking. Out of experience I came to realize that something happens in a room, when you are physically present, that cannot happen on the printed page and can't happen on a computer screen. The oxytocin, or whatever it is called, the chemical that allows us empathy, is only possible when we are together. 

There isn't a hierarchy of expression. It made me realize they can fuel each other. If I am by myself writing for a long time, I overwrite and I lose faith. If you are speaking, you understand people's brains do work on narrative. Simple things are helpful. It doesn't have to be all that complicated. 

What is your biggest personal challenge now?

I am trying very hard to understand I am not immortal. It is hard to realize one's own age, and especially if you are doing what you love, because you forget what time it is. And if you don't have children, you don't have a marker of age, exactly. If you really think you are immortal, you don't plan very well. I keep saying to myself, "You have to finish this book." I don't want to die saying, "But, but…"

Speaking of mortality: Longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown died this year. Often, you were placed at one pole of women's empowerment and she was the other. What is your take on her legacy and the two of you being set against each other?

She was a great girlfriend. She was a very generous, good person. At the same time, she really saw sex as the only way a woman could get ahead.

She called me up once and said, "You have to help me. Your people are demonstrating in my lobby." I said, "What do you mean, 'your people'?" She said, "Women. They are demonstrating against Cosmo." It turns out the guy who wrote the regular sex column had been convicted of sexually assaulting his patients. She didn't fire him, he was still writing the column. I said, "But, Helen, no wonder they are demonstrating against you." And she said, "Oh, but he's such a nice man."

She certainly stood for a woman's right to determine her own personal and sexual life, which was a big step forward for women's magazines, because they had a formula that said if you had sex before marriage, even in a fiction story, you had to be punished. But she didn't see the rest of it.

She was the one who helped her girlfriends find an abortion, but she didn't campaign to change the laws against abortion. Maybe she did, but I wasn't aware of it.

What public figures do you see energizing a new generation?

Ai-jen Poo. She is the head of the [National Domestic Workers Alliance], the organization that has been working about a decade so that household workers are included under minimum wage in New York—and almost in California, but Gov. [Jerry] Brown vetoed it. She is a genius organizer. She is amazing. She does it in a way that is a whole human way unlike Saul Alinsky. Saul Alinsky was very good at it, but he did it in a hostile way. She does it in an inclusive way.

You are an icon. What makes you yell at the TV or newspaper when you see yourself discussed?

First of all, it's an accident who gets to be known and who doesn't. If I were an engineer instead of a media worker…. It just came with the territory because I was always already working in media when the movement came along. I think the most frustrating single article, though it was meant in a positive way, so I'm not complaining, was the recent New York Times article ["Gloria Steinem, a Woman Like No Other," March 16, 2012] saying, who is the next Gloria Steinem? As if it were not a movement. As if there was only one person. 

WWeek 2015

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