Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist, activist, author, Emmy Award-winning writer, lecturer and all-around wOw-worthy woman turned 75 years old recently. This and other world wonders got me thinking about how someone who has played such a major role in the modern women’s movement (that rippled to every shore in the world) sees herself and our world right now — and where she thinks we are headed.
Here’s what she said …
wOw: What do you think is the greatest achievement in women’s rights in your lifetime?
Steinem: A critical mass of people here and around the world no longer believe that biology should dictate women’s lives, so any woman who tries to be fully human is defying God, Freud and nature — and is crazy. That’s huge! It affects everything. That’s why there is now a global women’s movement, including some men who see that pretending to be superior limits their humanity, too.
Of course, consciousness changes a lot faster than power structures. We lose about six million lives every year just because they were born female — that’s due to infanticide, favoring boys with food and health care, deaths from female genital mutilation, sexual assault, dowry killings, domestic violence and the ideas enshrined in such terms as “crimes of passion” or “honor killings.” There are also more enslaved people now than there were in the 1800s — and sex trafficking plus sweatshops means that they’re mostly women and children.
This country is lagging behind just about every modern democracy in family-friendly work policies, national childcare and health care, sex education, contraception, maternal mortality, way behind in women in elected office — you name it.
But the big victory is that we know our fate can change, and we have more legal tools and local-to-global groups to do it. There are now several living generations of women — and some men, too — who realize that the sexual caste system is intertwined with every single thing we have to transform, from class and race and the idea that man should conquer nature to the violence in families that normalizes every other violence.
wOw: Can women who aren’t pro-choice be feminists?
Steinem: Absolutely, they can be anti-choice for themselves and do their best to persuade others; they just can’t support laws or harassment or clinic bombings that take choice away from other women. Feminists have always gone to the same lengths to protect women from being pressured into abortions they don’t want as to keep abortion safe and legal. The point is not what we choose but that we have the power to make a choice.
wOw: It seems that giving life is less valuable than taking it, that mothers are less valued than soldiers — even that taking a life at creation is more punished than taking a life in war. How did this happen?
Steinem: If you say that half the human race is inferior to the other half, then the inferior half devalues whatever it does. Being a nurse is comparable to, say, being a pharmacist, but nurses earn less because pharmacists are mostly men. I’ve marched with nurses on picket lines because the men who picked up garbage at the same hospital earned more than nurses did. I just talked to all the Texas librarians. They supervise one of the last public spaces, they democratize knowledge and also technology since libraries offer free access to computers. Right now, they’re flooded with job seekers learning computers or doing resumes and job searches — yet they and their libraries are supposed to get by on a tiny fraction of what’s paid to people who just move money around.
|It’s more of a feminist heyday now because I see more men who are real partners, real parents to their children and real allies to women.|
This devaluing is especially true of giving birth because controlling female bodies as the most basic means of production — the means of reproduction — is the way we got into this male-dominated mess in the first place. We also became the world’s biggest source of unpaid or underpaid labor, first for raising and socializing children and then for anything called “women’s work.”
wOw: Over the years, have you seen men in a different light since your feminist heyday? Feel differently about them? Have things gotten better?
Steinem: Probably because I had a very kindhearted father who raised me when I was little as much as my mother did – because she was often ill – I’ve always known that men were not distant or controlling by nature; men like that have never felt “like home.” But I see them in the public world and other women’s lives and the everyday news stories of abuse.
It’s more of a feminist heyday now because I see more men who are real partners, real parents to their children and real allies to women. When I talk to groups of men, what they most want to talk about is how much they missed having real fathers. If we can help men become the fathers they wished they had, we’ll have a revolution!
Of course, I also see the tragedies caused by men who feel their masculinity and sense of self depend on controlling and abusing and even eliminating women — like the radio executive here last month who beheaded his wife when she asked him for a divorce, or the gangs of men who rape and eviscerate women in Bosnia or the Congo. This cult of masculinity doesn’t seem to depend on age, but on how males were raised.
But I would say in general that women and men are more able to be friends, to be honest with each other, to see each other as individuals, not categories. We’ve gained a global network of self-respecting women, and we’ve gained a smaller network of men who lead groups against male violence, who empathize with their wives and daughters, who realize there’s no such thing as democracy without feminism, and who see that the prison of masculinity is killing them, too. Olaf Palme, who was chief of state in Sweden, said that it’s up to governments to humanize gender roles because they are the cause of most violence on earth.
wOw: What do you think are the most pressing issues to address over the next ten years?
Steinem: I don’t want to pick out just one issue or area; we’re strongest when each woman joins women who share her experience, and they work on whatever needs changing in their own lives.
If we take the problem that afflicts the biggest number of women in this country, it’s the double-role problem. We’ve learned that women can do what men can do, but we haven’t yet learned that men can do what women do. What’s most discouraging about this is that many women are still accepting it instead of getting angry. More women probably protest unequal pay than protest unequal parenthood — or even the lack of flexible work patterns and childcare that are routine in many other countries. It’s obvious that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it, yet the media coverage of work/family issues almost never even mentions men or the government.
Men as nurturers are important not just to free up women, but for children. If they grow up being cared for only or mostly by women, they believe that men can’t be as loving and nurturing as women are – which is a libel on men – and they just replicate the gender roles that limit everybody.
In the world at large, and for young and poor women plus women in the U.S. military, reproductive freedom — and the lack of it — affects the biggest number of women. I hope that within a decade, every statement of human rights will include reproductive freedom right along with freedom of speech. Reproductive freedom just means the right to own our own bodies, to have or not to have children, in safety and without government interference. Whether a woman has children or not is the biggest single determinant of whether she’s educated or not, poor or not, and healthy or not, yet we’ve been suppressing sex education in schools and reproductive choices in health care. Some examples are so bizarre, you couldn’t make them up. For example, many health plans pay for Viagra but not for birth control. Also one-in-three women in our military in Iraq say they’ve been sexually assaulted by their own comrades, yet their health care won’t provide abortions.