Big Think Interview With Gloria Steinem

A conversation with the feminist activist.
  • Transcript


Question: Has feminism succeeded?

Gloria Steinem:  It’s hard to measure success when we’re dealing with between 500 and 5,000 years of patriarchy depending on which continent we sit, so I would say feminism has been successful and we have a huge distance to go, huge.  For instance, we’ve demonstrated in this and other modern countries or industrialized countries that women can do what men can do, but we have not demonstrated that men can do what women can do therefore children are still mostly raised, hugely mostly raised by women and women in industrialized modern countries end up having two jobs one outside the home and one inside the home. And more seriously than that children grow up believing that only women can be loving and nurturing, which is a libel on men, and that only men can be powerful in the world outside the home, which is a libel on women. So that's huge step we haven’t taken yet.

Question: Will same-sex parenting couples help to challenge these notions?

Gloria Steinem:  Both single males who are parents and same-sex couples of men who are raising children that is certainly a great help because those children will grow up knowing that men can be as loving and nurturing as women.  They will be much less likely to falsely divide the world into masculine qualities and feminine qualities, but there is a bigger and deeper connection between the women’s movement and gay and lesbian movements, which has always been true.  I mean they always come together, and our adversaries are always the same because the male supremacist, patriarchal, ultra-right-wing, whatever you want to... religious fundamentalists, whatever you want to call it is devoted to saying that sex is only moral and okay when it is directed towards having children and occurs in patriarchal marriage, so the children are owned.

So what the means is that both for women, all women, whatever our sexuality, it’s crucial to our health that we are able to separate sexuality from reproduction.  I mean whether or not we can control when we give birth is the biggest element in our health, our education, our economic welfare, our life expectancy, everything. So it’s crucial that we are able to separate sexuality and reproduction. And of course same sex couples stand for, in a way, the separation of sexuality from reproduction, so our adversaries are really all the same people.

On campus, sometimes kids ask me, “Well why is the... why are religious fundamentalists against both lesbians and birth control?”  You know this seems inconsistent to them. But it’s not.  It’s consistent because they are against any form of sexuality, of sexual expression that can’t end in conception, which happens to be a huge lie about human sexuality.  Humans can experience the same sexual pleasure whether we can conceive or not.  Sexuality has always been for humans a form of communication, a way we express love and caring and bonding, not only a way we have children if we choose to.

Question: Are men and women equal or do they have their own strengths and weaknesses?

Gloria Steinem:  But there aren’t two sides.  I mean I think what we…  We don’t actually know because we’ve been so deeply propagandized with the idea of masculine and feminine we probably don’t know what differences may be in a group sense, but what we do know is that the individual differences are much greater, so the differences between two women are quite likely to be bigger than the differences, generalized differences between males and females as groups for every purpose except reproduction, just as the individual differences between two members of the same race or ethnicity are probably greater than the differences between two races which might just have to do with resistance to certain diseases or you know.

So the purpose of feminism is to free the uniqueness of the individual and to understand that inside each of us is a unique human being who is a combination of heredity and environment.  I mean that is a binary too—I never understand why it’s heredity or environment; it’s both—that have for millennia upon millennia combined and resulted in this human being who could never happen before in quite the same way, could never happen again in quite the same way, so the purpose really is to free that in everyone and not look at labels.  Obviously there is no such thing as race and in many ways sex is a continuum, not a binary. So it doesn’t make sense to label people in that way.  Even when we do that we discover there is a huge overlap.  There are perhaps poles of what seem to be masculine and feminine.  Then there are 30% of each that are overlapped. That is a lot of people.

So I think if we could just lift up the labels and look at two things one, our uniqueness as individuals and what talents we bring to the world and what... You know there is a person inside every baby, right? And anybody who has ever met a baby knows there is already a person in there.  That is one thing and the other thing is community.  That human beings are communal beings and that we can’t exist or prosper by ourselves.  We need each other’s support. 

Question: What would have to happen for feminism to be no longer necessary?

Gloria Steinem:  You know I don’t think we know.  I never quite trust futurists, either, because I think they’re kind of telling us what they think our future should be. So what I think we need to do is infuse everyday and every action with the kind of values we hope will be in the future, with kindness, with nurturing, with dreams, ambition, using your talents, not resorting to violence, other forms of conflict resolution, with humor, with poetry, with music.

And if we do that one day at a time we don’t exactly know what is going to happen because we don’t know all the circumstances, but since Marx was right about a lot things, but not about one big thing, which is the ends don’t justify the means.  The means are the ends, so I would not try to predict.  I mean people ask me and I say kind of semi-serious things like: "Well I want to go out of my house and walk in the park and see white men wheeling babies of color and I want those guys to be well paid because…" And to love children, but right now I see women of color wheeling white babies all the time, so I know there is something wrong or I want to pass a newsstand and see erotica, real erotica, which has to do with love and free choice, not pornography, porno means female slavery.  It’s all about passive dominance and pain half the time, so you know I can think of signs of success, but I think only those who live in the future will really, really see success, will really be freed and realize more human capabilities. 

Question: Is the younger generation of women apathetic about feminism?

Gloria Steinem:  No, I mean just even if you look at the public opinion polls as a kind of gross measure feminism is much bigger and stronger than it was in the 70s.  The reason you know me is because there were like you know 500 crazy women who were... I mean so we got to be well known. But the fact is that now it’s the issues of… raised by feminism have majority support in all the public opinion polls.  The word feminism even though the opposition has tried very hard to demonize it and to call us Femi-Nazis and terrible stuff still it’s there are about a third of American women who self-identify as feminists with no definition and with the definition it’s more than 60%.  Actually more women self-identify, even without a definition, than identify as Republicans or Democrats.

So the idea that feminism has not succeeded or that this generation has rejected it is just a new form of the backlash.  I mean when I started they would say... or when all of us started that feminism isn’t necessary.  Women don’t want these things, you know? And now the form the backlash takes is to say well it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore.  It is the narrative with pretty much all social justice movements.  People start to talk about post-racist, post-feminist.  What does that mean?  We’re clearly not post either.  Would you say post-democracy?  Clearly we haven’t reached true democracy yet. 

Question: Why do some women vote for Republicans even though the party wants to take away their reproductive freedoms?

Gloria Steinem:  It’s very difficult.  I mean, of course any group of people that has been subordinate absorbs the idea of our own subordination, and that it is natural, and comes to think that the only way to survive is to identify with the powerful. And I think that is not surprising, and it is what happens to a lot of right-wing women.  I mean they think they better do what the powerful tell them do otherwise they’ll be in even more trouble. So, I understand that, but anyone with any faith in the future, self respect, hope for themselves... you can’t vote for people who don’t vote for you and that is... There is a whole wonderful book called "The Republican War Against Women" that documents this from the '60s forward.  It wasn’t always true.  The Republican Party was the first to support the Equal Rights Amendment for instance, but it is true now.

Question: What happened to the Republican Party?

Gloria Steinem: The problem is that the old party of Goldwater, of Rockefeller—who were for instance, pro-choice, who supported the Equal Rights Amendment, who you know...—has been taken over by very ultra rightwing groups, some of whom are real totalitarians and so it looks like and the media treats it as if the country is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.  Actually I believe there are more independents than either Republicans or Democrats, and yet those are the... that is the choice we have on the party ballot. So frequently people just vote for the party out of power because they’re disappointed or angry at what is happening at the moment.  It makes it very volatile, very, very difficult to know. But I still hope that voters will look at the extreme positions of the Republican Party and know how bad they are for all of us. 

For instance, the party platform includes a constitutional amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would make a direct relationship between the law and a fertilized egg, which is when they say life begins; every fertilized egg.  What that would do in real life is nationalize women’s bodies.  You could legally search a women’s womb to see if she was pregnant.  You could forcibly restrain her for all nine months of her pregnancy.  Really we would be nationalized.  This is insane.  This is a party that used to be conservative, but now they... you know conservatives might want to get government off the backs of corporations, but not into the wombs of women, not deciding who can marry whom.

So it’s important that we recognize how extreme the Republicans are in almost every case and how against our self-interest it is to vote for them whether or not we are disappointed with the current crew.  At least they believe in the Constitution.  At least they have an idea of economic justice.  The Republicans are devoted to creating more rich folks.  In this country the salary of the average CEO in 1970 was I think 70 times the average worker.  Now it is 1,000 times the average worker. And this is bad for all of us because when you give more money to the very rich they don’t spend that much of it as consumers, but when you give it to the middle class they spend most of it, all of it, as consumers and it’s what drives… it’s why this economy is 70% driven by consumer purchases. So it’s good for everybody to diminish this huge social division and restore ideas of individual rights, which are in our constitution and which many of the republican candidates just don’t represent.  It’s...  I hope that real Republicans take back the Republican Party soon because the problem now is that a real centrist conservative Republican can’t get through the primaries to get to the general election.

Question: Why are mama grizzlies an inappropriate mascot for Sarah Palin?

Gloria Steinem:  Well first of all, if Hilary Clinton hadn’t come within very close to the White House we would not see the Republicans recruiting obedient women. So it’s not really Sarah Palin's fault that she got named to be Vice President when obviously she was not prepared for this kind of position.  In her current incarnation she has frequently talked about "mama grizzlies" as being kind of representing right-wing women and that is such a libel on mama grizzlies, who are so different.  I actually researched them, inspired by her, and discovered that they are famous for their exertion of reproductive control in their lives.  That even compared to other bears, brown bears say, they mate later; they have only one or two cubs instead of four; they wait four years instead of two between having cubs; and even once they’re pregnant if they see that it’s going to be a really hard winter, they themselves are not in good health or the food supply is low they reabsorb, their bodies reabsorb the fetus.

So, I mean, they are kind of the prophets.  If you wanted to have a totem for reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right the mama grizzlies would be up there.

Question: What’s wrong with the political discourse about abortion?

Gloria Steinem:  Well the democrats, many democrats in tight races have suddenly started talking about abortion when before even sympathetic ones who voted for that as a right to privacy and a woman and her doctor make the decision, even they didn’t want to talk about it.  They sort of hoped it would go away. So as a result they really don’t know how to talk about it and they confine it to being a "social issue" and this is an "economic year." 

Now it happens that first of all it’s not a social issue.  It’s a fundamental human right to decide to have children or not to have children. But also it’s the biggest economic influence in a woman’s life whether she can decide when and whether to have children or not.  They just are not phrasing it in the proper way, so it makes even voters think "Oh well, one in three women needs an abortion at some time in her lifetime and that is only once and even if it’s criminal and even if it’s dangerous, the fact is the economy affects us every day." But whether you have children or not is the biggest factor of a lifetime in your economic status... or whether you can decide when to have children. 

So they’re just not… they just don’t understand how to talk about it even though we’ve been trying to say this for 40 years, so I wrote that op-ed in order to try to say to voters we have do it.  We have to know how these folks stand.  For instance, there is a candidate for governor of Illinois named Brady who not only loves assault weapons, not only thinks that guns should not be registered and all past registrations should be destroyed, but is also against equal pay—against any enforcement of equal pay—and is for the Human Life Amendment, which would nationalize women’s bodies, so I mean this is the perfect recipe for barefoot and pregnant.  Women become what these authoritarian groups have in mind, which is cheap labor ourselves, as workers, and sources of ever-more-cheap labor.

Question: Can stripping or prostitution ever be empowering for women?

Gloria Steinem:  The word "empower" is troubling.  I mean I have spent 40 years talking to women.  I sat before the election, interviewed prostituted women in Las Vegas and so it isn’t... You know little girls do not wake up in the morning and say "I dream of being a prostitute."  It is a terrible, terrible life.  Body invasion is more traumatic than even getting beaten up.  In certain circumstances, obviously, it may be a way to survive. And we rationalize ways to survive. But I think what we need to look at is we need to pull back and say to ourselves why is it that men need... some men; it’s actually not the majority of men... but that some men go to prostitutes and need that kind of dominance.  It’s the disease of... It’s getting addicted to masculinity.  What is that about? 

In the egalitarian cultures...  People think prostitution has always existed, but it hasn’t and even rape was very rare.  For instance, when Europeans arrived on this continent they wrote about how shocked they were that the 500 or so native groups here didn’t rape even their female captives.  They were shocked.  So we need to stop asking so many questions of the people who are in various circumstances and feel they have to do this and start asking on the demand side why is there a demand for this.  What has been eroticized by male dominant systems of all kinds is dominance and passivity.  We need to eroticize equality.  I always say to audiences of men: "Cooperation beats submission. Trust me."  At least it makes them laugh.  That is what is troubling and of course in the meantime we have to stop arresting prostitutes and not arresting traffickers and pimps.  It’s absurd.  We’re arresting the victim or the survivor and not the oppressor.

Recorded on October 28, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler