From Gloria Steinem, as told to Marianne Schnall.
Renowned feminist organizer and activist Gloria Steinem has been moving women’s equality forward for over 50 years. Currently on book tour for her New York Times bestselling memoir, My Life on the Road, Gloria took a moment to share some powerful insights on where she thinks we are in the pursuit of gender equality, how feminism has changed since she first began in the movement, and how all of us – including men – can get involved in making a difference.
A Look at Women’s Progress
I think we've just begun [making significant progress for women]. We've accomplished some very important tasks. First, we know we're not crazy, the system is crazy. And this is very important. Second, we've built a majority support in this country and women's movements in many other countries, so instead of being a novelty, we are now a majority. And we have achieved new laws, new phrases, new definitions, new consciousness in very important and life-saving ways.
However, there is still so much violence against females in the world, whether it is son surplus and daughter deficit in Asia or sexualized violence in war zones or domestic violence here or child marriage in many other countries--all added up it means there are fewer females on earth than males. That hasn't happened before, as far as we know. So violence against women is clearly not solved, not at all solved, and the reasons for it, which are controlling women's bodies in order to control reproduction, are definitely not solved. The belief that women should control our own bodies may be a majority belief, but the minority that believes otherwise is against not only safe and legal abortions but contraception and even sex education. Or in other countries the ability for women to even leave the house without male written permission or a male companion, those restrictions and dangers are still with us.
A Woman in the White House
[In terms of electing a woman as president of this country], I think we're more ready [than we were in 2008], but it's going to be hell. There's going to be a demand for perfectionism on the part of Hillary Clinton, or any other pro-equality woman candidate, that would not be made of men. There are going to be attacks based on different standards of morality and different standards of dress and physical attractiveness. There are going to be men in the media, and perhaps some women too, who perhaps unconsciously associate female authority with childhood, because that's the last time they saw a powerful woman, and so they feel threatened and regressed to childhood by the sight of a powerful woman outside of the home.
And it's not just [about electing] a biological woman, it's a woman who stands for the majority issues of women. It would be a disaster to have Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina in the White House, so it's not just a woman, but a woman who stands for the majority needs of women. It's not just getting a job for one woman, it's making life better for all women.
How Feminism Has Changed in the Last 50 Years
I think [feminism] has changed because we now better understand the links between equality for women and every other issue. For instance, now we understand that equal pay would be the best economic stimulus this country could have. We understand that violence against women is the biggest normalizer of all other violence, because it tends to be what people see first in their families or neighborhoods and it normalizes the idea that one group is born to dominate another. So I think we understand the connections much better. Not well enough, incidentally, because if we did, we would be screening our police for domestic violence, which is the biggest indicator of other violence and is a supremacy crime; both supremacy by sex and race is a parallel motivation. It's not getting you more money necessarily or benefiting you in any real way, it's just a question of having a superior identity. If [George] Zimmerman had been arrested for domestic violence, Trayvon Martin might still be alive. If we did something about the fact that cops have four times the rate of domestic violence that exists in the population at large, we would be screening out racist and sexist cops.
So we do understand the connections better, but I think the fundamental principles were clear--the first big issue was legalizing and making abortions safe, so we were understanding that women's existence as the means for reproduction was the fundamental reason for our inferior status; the desire to control reproduction was the fundamental reason.
Men as Allies in the Movement toward Gender Equality
Men who see their enlightened self-interests in getting rid of gender categories and race categories are allies in a very reliable way because they see it as beneficial to themselves, as well as females as a group. The racial parallel is true here: the white allies were only sometimes helpful if they saw themselves as helping African Americans or other people of color; they were way more reliable if they thought of themselves as “I don't want to live in a segregated society, it is depriving me, as well as them.” And I think the same is true of men, men who really want to have a relationship with their children and raise their kids and have job patterns that allow them to do that. Men who don't want to die early of violence and tension-related causes understand that this cause is mutual.
For a man to say, “I have to leave work now because I need to do something with my kids,” it's sometimes viewed as a career killer. He doesn't have the right drive. So when they depart from their gender roles, they face some of the same restrictions. And more and more men are raising children or want to be close to their kids. They don't want to just lead work-obsessed lives and end up 50 years later with an engraved watch.
[To make it work, we need to] raise our sons more like our daughters, which means raising sons with the qualities you need to raise children, whether or not those sons have children. They're all qualities wrongly called feminine: attention to detail, patience, empathy. I don't have children, but I was raised as a female to have those qualities because they're perceived as feminine. Until men are raised with those qualities, too, they won't have the full circle of human qualities. Women tend to become whole people by venturing outside of the home, learning to aspire, to achieve, to deal with conflict--all these qualities that are wrongly called masculine. Men tend to gain wholeness by acquiring the qualities that are wrongly called feminine.
A Shift in Consciousness
Because I've been traveling much more than usual--my usual travel was already there and then the book tour got put on top of it--I've had an intense dose of just listening to the general public, so I got an explosion of consciousness. It comes out of both anger and despair and hope and accomplishment, but it's there. It's consciousness. It's incredible. I'm quite stunned by it. The consciousness is incredibly high because of Black Lives Matter and the cops and anger about election financing and global warming--and none of these problems can be solved without the female half of the population, and obviously seeing it that way creates new solutions.
I don't exactly know how to explain [this shift that’s happening]. It is partly the Web, because people can discover supportive information out of time, so people who are sixteen who might not know about me or you, know about me and you. I think there's more ability to realize there are shared concerns and shared values without the traditional media. And at the same time, people want to be together, physically. Especially in this age of the Web, as miraculous as it is, we still need to be in the same room with all five senses if we are to empathize with each other. So perhaps the highest use of the Web is getting the information and identifying the places and the possibility of being together physically.
Progress is not automatic--that's what movements are for. It depends on what we do every day. So any statement of ownership of our own bodies, however that occurs in our individual lives or our community or our collective lives, is crucial. And any insistence on equal pay is crucial and any redefinition of work to include caregiving work so that it also has an economic value, at least at replacement level, that's crucial.
The forces [people] want to rebel against have put a lot of effort into making them feel powerless. But the fact is that every single issue that we care about is now a majority issue. In most cases where we have lost or are losing, it’s because we haven't paid attention. For instance, state legislatures. Most Americans don't know who their state legislators are, so most state legislators are run by the interests they regulate. The Right to Life, the so-called anti-abortion movement, did not get what it wanted fully in Washington, so now it has moved to the state legislatures. It's up to us to know who our state legislators are, pay attention, at least as much attention in states as we do in Washington.
Change does come from the bottom up, and it will come from girls and women and men who understand that for us all to be human beings instead of being grouped by gender is good for them, too. I would say don't worry about what you should do, do whatever you can. And seek companions with shared values. If we're isolated, we come to feel powerless when we're not.
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Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, editor and feminist activist. In 1972, she co-founded Ms. Magazine, and she remained one of its editors for fifteen years. In 1968, she helped found New York magazine, where she was a political columnist and wrote feature articles. Her books include the [...]