Gloria Steinem Talks to Stephanie Sy

Gloria Steinem, feminist icon known for breaking down walls, believes the battle for equality is far from over

Stephanie Sy: You turned 80 this year. The New York Times had an image of you with the headline "This Is What 80 Looks Like." That headline has pretty much followed you every decade for the last three decades. On your 70th birthday you said, "This one has the ring of mortality." So is 80 terrifying?

Gloria Steinem: Yes, it is in a lot of ways. For me 50 meant the end of the center of life, which for women has more significance since we have been wrongly valued only for childbearing. So 50 was difficult. Sixty was great because that was like entering a new, free country where you didn't have all these feminine expectations. And 70 was pretty good too. But 80 is definitely about mortality, because every day I see in the newspaper people, sometimes people I know, who have died before 80. Now, I plan to live to 100. But even if I do, that's only 20 years. If I think of something that happened 20 years ago it seems like yesterday.

When I talk to women about you - they think of you as someone who is unapologetic about her views, but also glamorous and accessible.  Is that how you see your legacy, as making feminism less threatening in a way?

I hope not, because I would like it to be threatening. There's a lot that deserves threatening. We come to this with whatever, whoever we are, right? I just hope that whatever it is I am is useful to the larger, huge movement that this is. But I also think people have a funny view of [feminism] because they kind of secretly think, if you could get a man you wouldn't need equal pay. Do you know what I mean? So here's how I learned that. I became beautiful when I became a feminist. Up to then I was a pretty girl. I was not beautiful. But in contrast to what people thought a feminist looked like I suddenly became better-looking. I realized that there was something biased here.

You said before that the feminist revolution would take about a hundred years. By that estimate, we're about at the halfway mark. There are clear gains, at least here in this country. Women make up about half the workforce. Women tend to earn more college and advanced degrees. They're increasingly the breadwinners. Do you think feminists are still needed?

Yes, there are more women on campus than there are men by a little bit right now. Why is that? It's because women are trying to get out of the pink-collar ghetto into the white-collar ghetto. A blue-collar union job for a man still pays more than either one.

What's a pink-collared ghetto?

A service job, waitressing, health care, they're kind of all the jobs that we can't outsource, because they involve personal service. Those are very, very, very disproportionately female. Also, now her situation is worse than in my day as an individual, because she's more likely to graduate in big debt. And she will make 1 or 2 million dollars less over her lifetime to pay the debt. I'm not trying to be discouraging. I'm just trying to say, "This is real life." We don't even have equal pay.

Have enough men adjusted to the realities of the women's movement, or has it led to men feeling displaced and confused about their role in society today?

I don't want to speak about men as a lump, just as I don't want to speak about women as a lump. Some men have completely understood that it's their liberation too. That the masculine role is ridiculous just like the feminine role is ridiculous and dehumanizing and keeps you from expressing all your human qualities. They are feminists for their own sake as well as for women's sake. They say, "Wait a minute, I want to see my kids. I want policies in the workplace that let everybody be parents, men as well as women. I want to have an equal relationship and a partnership, you know, with a female or a male human being. But I don't want to be lonely. I don't want to be isolated.”

There was a baseball player recently, a guy named Daniel Murphy, whose wife had a baby, and he decided to take a couple of days off so that he could be on paternity leave. He faced a big backlash among other athletes. Is it at the point where men sort of need a liberation movement too?

Well, they always needed a liberation. I mean, it's racially comparable. I came back from India when I was 24 or something like that, and because I'd been living in India I suddenly realized how segregated this country was, just visually. And I got mad on my own behalf. Who's telling me who my friends are and where I can live, and I think when men get mad on their behalf and say, you know, "But I want to be there when my child is born.  It's an irreplaceable moment."

I don’t want to speak about men as a lump, just as I don’t want to speak about women as a lump. Some men have completely understood that it’s their liberation too. That the masculine role is ridiculous just like the feminine role is ridiculous.

It seems that some women feel suffocated by the amount of choices they have now, what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls "unresolvable tensions between family and career." Was this an unintended consequence of feminism?

No, it's an intended consequence of anti-feminism. Because the point of feminism is humanity. What that means is that men can, should and must really become parents who spend as much time with kids as women do. And that question presupposes that that's impossible.

Does it also presuppose that we're just not there yet? That there aren't enough men who are willing to take on those responsibilities at home?

Yes, we certainly are in a state of flux. But more of us are saying, "I'm not going to have children with someone who doesn't love them enough to be with them. And I'm not going to take a job that doesn't have a decent parental leave for both men and women." I mean, right now we in this country work a more obsessive workweek than any country in the world. We used to be defeated by Japan; now we're worse than Japan. We need to rebel. People deserve to have a life.

You've worked in Africa. I understand you've done some work in Afghanistan. How do you cater the message of women's liberation in places like that?

I listen. The women are doing it. It's not up to me, because they are experiencing it there. It's up to us to support each other. And to understand that we all experience it in different ways. For instance, domestic violence here is huge. I believe it's bigger than in any modern democracy in the world. If you added up all the women who've been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11 as a period of time, and then you add up all the Americans killed in 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, many more women have been murdered by their husbands and boyfriends than that figure.

Violence against women is cross-cultural, and it is at staggering levels worldwide. Adults worldwide have deliberately strangled or aborted 160 million infant girls or female fetuses because they wanted a boy. Girls in the United States were sold into sexual slavery. Why is violence against women cross-cultural? If you're saying it doesn't have a biological root, why does it seem to be everywhere?

Well, first of all it's not absolutely everywhere. I mean, there are some matrilineal cultures that we can see, and we are coming out of it in various ways. But patriarchy is a political system just like colonialism was a political system. That was everywhere too. Racism, I mean, you know, the justification for the colonization of Africa and North and South America and so on was profound racism. That people could not adapt to the future. You were almost doing them a favor to eliminate them. 

What role does religion have in it?

Usually bad, right? 

Can you expand on that?

I'm differentiating religion and spirituality when I say that. But what happened historically seems to be that the original spiritual systems in which God was seen as all living things gradually changed so God was withdrawn from nature to make it OK to conquer nature. And withdrawn from women to make it OK to conquer women. 

In other words, God became used as a method to control?

Well, God looked suspiciously like the ruling class. 

And also happened to always be depicted as a man.

Yes, that's what I mean. I mean, Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes in the middle of the Middle East? Please.

Didn't resonate? And yet there are billions of people that are religious. I want to talk about Pope Francis, because you and he actually have a couple of issues in common: immigration reform, human trafficking, poverty. Do you have any hope that women will be less marginalized in the church and beyond under Pope Francis?

I want for women whatever they want for themselves. Some women want to go into the church and reform it, some women want to leave the church. We all have to figure out what is right for us and the most comfortable. But when the pope sees to it that the Catholic Church pays taxes everywhere — right now they have parking lots that they are not paying taxes on. They're impoverishing the cities and countries they're in by not paying taxes. The ceremonies are not equal. The women can't become priests. Women are denied reproductive freedom, which happens to be the single most important determinant of whether we're healthy or not, educated or not, in the workforce or not, and how long we live. He's still denying that.

It's been more than 40 years since Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights continue to be fought over. And between 2011 and 2013, more than 200 laws restricting abortion at the state level were introducedWhat is driving the latest push toward anti-abortion legislation?

The failure at the federal level to get a constitutional amendment against abortion or to really curb abortion has caused the anti-abortion forces to focus on state legislatures that are controlled by conservative forces. Instead of murdering abortion doctors, which they did eight or nine times, and picketing and so on, they are now trying to do away with clinics by getting the state legislatures to impose impossible restrictions and building requirements. They have long ago lost public opinion and actual real life.  One in three American women chooses, needs, to have an abortion at some time in her life. The question is: Will she be safe or not?

There are these two interesting core issues that continue to be political flashpoints. One is the issue of gay marriage and gay rights, in which the country and the Supreme Court seem very clearly to be favoring those rights for gay unions. On the other hand, you see, at least at the state level, courts moving in some cases to reintroduce restrictions on abortion. How do you square those two issues from a societal perspective?

I agree that they're related, because the same forces that oppose contraception and family planning, abortion, usually oppose same-sex relationships too, because they're basically opposing any form of sexual expression that cannot end in conception. But I think one thing that is making the right wing fervent right now especially about all the issues of reproduction is that in a very short time this country is no longer going to be a majority white or European-American country. They're hyperaware of that. They are constantly saying, "The white race is committing suicide," and there's this whole quiverful movement that white people should have as many children as possible. Generally speaking, you find that the same groups are against contraception and abortion, against immigration because they see immigration as the source of the nonwhite.

The failure at the federal level to get a constitutional amendment against abortion or to really curb abortion has caused the anti-abortion forces to focus on state legislatures that are controlled by conservative forces.

In 2008 you supported Hillary Clinton's bid for president, and you argued in an op-ed, "The sex barrier is not taken as seriously as the racial one." Is the feminist movement still taking a backseat to the civil rights movement?

No, I don't think so. But the feminist movement owes much of its existence to the civil rights movement. Both the inspiration of the whole idea that we could be equal people or human beings — a very contagious idea of freedom — and also because in the anti-Vietnam movement and in the civil rights movement women were not altogether equal, as you can see in the marches when, you know, there were no women speaking and so on. Women began to realize, wait a minute, if even in these movements that matter to us so much and are so important we're still not in — there needs to be an autonomous women's movement.

You saw these movements as growing together in concert?

Yes, absolutely.

As opposed to being in opposition?

No. Most women in the world are not white women, at least. So they may experience some form of race discrimination as well as sex discrimination. Secondly, for men and women, if you want to defeat racism you have to be a feminist, because you have to free reproduction. If you want to be a feminist you have to be anti-racist, because if there's racism they're going to try to control women's bodies and reproduction. These things are just inextricably intertwined.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton looks like she could be the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination if she chooses to run. When she lost the nomination in 2008, you said later you didn't expect she was going to win.

No, I didn't.

What are your expectations, then, for 2016?

Well, now I think if she chooses to run she might well win. I thought at the time that it was just too soon for any woman, or a feminist woman at least, to win, for a deep reason. I think that we are so accustomed to being raised by women, whether we're women or men, that we associate female authority with childhood, with emotion, with irrationality. We don't associate it with public life and national governance.

And she became secretary of state.

Yes, so she herself as secretary of state has begun to change that, as a public image of a woman in public — not only national, but international authority. It was a very difficult time, 2008, because they were both excellent candidates. For a whole year people used to say to me, "Are you supporting Obama or Hillary?" I would say, "Yes."

You won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Where does that rank among vindication and validation for all of your work in the last 50 years?

It was 100 percent clear to me it was an award for a movement. And I accepted it in that spirit. It was also 100 percent clear that its meaning came from the person who gave it, which is President Obama. Actually, it has been given to some pretty terrible people in the past by other presidents.

So it didn't rank that high for you?

No, it did, because it came from President Obama. Right.

Right, but the award itself?

Well, the award itself, no. I mean, it was given to Henry Hyde, whose amendment — restriction of funds, federal funds, for abortion — has probably injured and killed more women than any other piece of legislation. And he got this award too.

Did you know that there's a hashtag on Twitter that was created around the time you turned 80 — #WWGD ("what would Gloria do")?

Someone told me that. I thought I should ask myself, you know, "Gee, what would Gloria do?" Maybe it would help me, you know. 

I think that for a lot of women you are still a compass. What would Gloria do in this and that situation? Do you feel that today as pressure or as praise?

Neither one. I feel it as a kind of interesting activist question. Because I take it to mean what would we do out of self-respect and a real impulse towards equality and democracy in a particular situation. I need to ask myself that. And if that's what it symbolizes to other people, I'm proud of that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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