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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
INTERVIEWS

Interview with Gloria Steinem
Excerpts of an interview conducted by Marianne Schnall
(April 3, 1995)

Click here for Marianne's latest interview with Gloria Steinem!

MS: RECENTLY, A WOMAN SAID TO ME, "I'M NOT SURE IF I'M A FEMINIST". I SPENT A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT HOW A WOMAN CAN NOT BE A FEMINIST. WHY ARE SO MANY WOMEN SO SCARED TO CALL THEMSELVES A FEMINIST TODAY?

GS: I think there are two reasons. One is because they're not sure what the word means. But if they go to the dictionary or look at any of the definitions, they feel comfortable with it, and they say "OK". The second one is they do know what it means - and realize that either they disagree with it, if they really believe in the traditional position of women, or fear the punishment that it will bring - and it does bring punishment. It brings great mutual support, but it also brings punishment. If you say you're for equal pay for yourself, that's a reform, but if you say you're a feminist, then you're talking about all women as a caste, and that really is a very basic change. I think by far the larger problem is that people don't know what it means, and that has been increased by a dozen years of Reagan and Bush, the right wing, trying to make "feminism" and "liberalism" and "affirmative action" into bad words.

MS: WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF BEING A FEMINIST TODAY? I'VE NOTICED IN SOME OF YOUR WRITINGS THAT YOU OFTEN SPECIFY THAT YOU ARE A "RADICAL FEMINIST".
GS: I would still go along with the dictionary definition of someone, which can be a woman or a man, who believes in the full social, economic, political equality of women and men. To say "radical feminist" is only a way of indicating that I believe the sexual caste system is a root of race and class and other divisions. But whether or not one believes that, one may act exactly the same in the present, in the short run.

MS: HAVING BEEN A FEMINIST LEADER OVER THE YEARS, WOULD YOU HAVE PREDICTED THAT THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT WOULD BE FARTHER ALONG THAN IT IS TODAY? DOES OUR PROGRESS MEET WITH YOUR EXPECTATIONS?
GS: I think I would have been surprised twenty or twenty-five years ago to find that the women's movement is as popular and strong and far along as it is. But considering its numbers and popularity in public opinions polls, of the issues and so on, I also would have thought that the structure would have changed more, that in terms of the government and business and education and the structures of our lives, there would have been more change. I think I was too pessimistic about how much such a radical change could spread, but too optimistic about the state of democracy in this country. I thought that once we got the majority everything would be fine. But, of course, look at the abortion issue, seventy percent of the country supports a woman's right to abortion, but look at the forcefulness and violence of the opposition.

MS: THERE IS A PATRIARCHY IN THE POLITICAL SYSTEM OF THIS COUNTRY. WHAT'S NEEDED TO CHANGE THAT AND HOW DO YOU SEE THE POLITICAL SYSTEM SUPPRESSING WOMEN?
GS: The electoral system is not where change starts - it usually starts in communities and from the bottom up - but it is where change can be stopped. So it's very important that it be representative, which it isn't right now, for the most part. And it's certainly even less representative in state legislatures than it is in Washington. There are a lot of problems, money being chief among them, and how much it costs to run. But the problem we can solve is the vote. Right now, this is the least participatory democracy in the world. Only about thirty-nine percent of the electorate voted in the last election. In India, seventy percent of the electorate votes, even with all the difficulties of that huge population and illiteracy. Women are still not voting in the same percentage of our potential voters as men are. And that's even more true of poor women and young women and other specific groups. So, the most important activity for the next year and a half, until the Presidential election, is registering and getting out to vote. Sixty-five percent of eligible voters aren't registered at all. We make it tougher to vote in this country than any country in the world. In Canada, for instance, two employees of the government go to every household to make sure you're registered and the polls stay open longer. So, we have to both change the system, and do it anyway by going through our apartment houses, our blocks, our families, our telephone books and making sure that everyone is registered to vote and gets out and votes for themselves - out of self respect - that they know the issues and vote for themselves. If only a couple hundred more people in each precinct had come out in the last election, for instance, we wouldn't have lost control of Congress. Every immigrant group has had to deliver its own vote. In a way, women are a psychic immigrant group. But we've been depending on the media and the political parties to deliver our vote. That just doesn't work. We have to do it ourselves.

MS: YOU HAVE A CHAPTER IN YOUR LATEST BOOK CALLED "REVALUING ECONOMICS". HOW DOES THE NEED TO REVALUE OUR SYSTEM OF ECONOMICS RELATE TO THIS IMBALANCE OF POWER? CAN THERE BE ANY REAL PROGRESS WITHOUT, AS YOU PUT IT, A STRONG WOMEN'S ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT MOVEMENT?
GS: There are women's economic development movements from the bottom up, and there are also women business owners who also deserve our support. I think we, as consumers, should make an effort to purchase goods and services from companies that either are owned by women or are fair to women. Up to now, we've been mostly, understandably concerned with equal and comparable pay. We need to now also be concerned with owning our own businesses, however small they may be. There have to be a lot of us who have jobs we can't be fired from if we're going to have a strong movement. We also have to re-define work, so that the work of caring for children and doing human maintenance in the home is counted as productive work, has attributed value. That means changing the national system of accounts. And we also have to see to it that men raise children and work in the home as much as women do. Otherwise, women always end up having two jobs. That's just not possible. You can't do two jobs.

MS: IT COMES DOWN TO ASKING PEOPLE TO RECONSTRUCT THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF GENDER ROLES AND THEIR WHOLE SYSTEM OF VALUES.
GS: Right. In a way, what happens to men is called "politics" and what happens to women is called "culture". We've taken one giant step forward by convincing the majority of the country that women can do what men can do. But the next step is convincing the country that men can do what women can do. So far, we don't believe it ourselves.

MS: HOW CAN A MAN CONTRIBUTE TO THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT? YOU SAID EARLIER THAT MEN CAN BE FEMINISTS - IS THERE A MISCONCEPTION THAT TO BE A PART OF THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT YOU HAVE TO BE A WOMAN?
GS: If you think about the racial parallel it gets more clear. I'm white and you're white but we can work for racial equality. We become very good workers for racial equality only once we realize that we're also being ghettoized. We're being culturally deprived. We're stuck in a white ghetto. Once men realize that they are also deprived - not as much as women, just as whites are not as deprived as blacks - but there is a full circle of human qualities we all have a right to. And they're confined to the "masculine" ones, which are seventy percent of all of them, and we're confined to the "feminine" ones, which are thirty percent. We're missing more, but they're still missing a lot. If a man fights to be his whole self, to be creative, to express emotions men are not supposed to express, do jobs men are not supposed to do, take care of his own children - all of these things are part of the feminist movement.

MS: THE ABORTION DEBATE CONTINUES TO INTENSIFY, AS DOES INTIMIDATION AND VIOLENCE AGAINST DOCTORS, CLINIC WORKERS AND PATIENTS, WHICH HAS BECOME A NATIONAL FORM OF TERRORISM. HOW DO YOU SEE THE DEBATE OVER ABORTION BEING RESOLVED OR IS IT GOING TO BE A CONSTANT FIGHT?
GS: I think it's going to be a fight for a very long time because it is the bottom line. How women got to be inferior, how patriarchy got born, so to speak, is because of controlling women's bodies as the means of reproduction. That's the definition of patriarchy. By saying what seems to us a very reasonable and just thing, which is we would like to control our own bodies, we're seizing control of the means of reproduction. That's quite radical. We should understand reproductive freedom is not just another issue - this is the issue. You'll find right wingers who will be anti-abortion even though they know it's costing money. It's the one issue I know of in which they will go against their financial interest because there's a deeper form of control. We also need to keep explaining that we're talking about reproductive freedom, and that means the freedom to have children as well as not to have children. We would go to the same lengths to make sure that a woman isn't coerced into having an abortion as we would to make sure she has access to a safe one.

MS: WHAT'S YOUR PERCEPTION OF WHAT AMERICA'S ROLE SHOULD BE IN THE GLOBAL WOMEN'S MOVEMENT?
GS: What women in other countries ask us to do and want us to do. Not imposing, but responding.

MS: SO YOU DON'T SEE IT AS AMERICA'S RESPONSIBILITY TO BE CRUSADERS ON BEHALF OF WOMEN RIGHTS AROUND THE WORLD?
GS: If we're asked to be, yes. But only if we're asked to be, because feminism is about giving each other the power to make decisions. We don't know what those women need. It's up to them to decide.

MS: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE PUBLIC ON BECOMING POLITICALLY ACTIVE?
GS: If you don't stand up for yourself politically, no one else will. So we have to use our votes and our dollars and our voices to be engaged and involved in these issues. In every other arena we know that if we're not involved in a decision, it won't reflect our wishes. But many of us here have been conned into ceding our powers in the political arena. One vote does in fact count. I was campaigning for two or three months before the last election, and some of the people I campaigned for, very good candidates, won by a few thousand votes, a few hundred votes, or in one case, I think, only four votes. If only a couple of hundred more people per precinct had voted, we wouldn't have right wing control of Congress now. Don't let the process overwhelm you - break it down into doable chunks.

MS: THERE HAS BEEN FRUSTRATION AND RESISTANCE ALONG THE WAY, YET YOU'VE CONTINUED TO PERSEVERE. WHERE DO YOU DRAW THAT STRENGTH FROM, TO KEEP UP THE FIGHT?
GS: First, I have companionship. I was always working at Ms. Magazine, where we're very different, but at least we share a lot of the same values. And also, I was going around to speak or organize and meeting other people. We're communal creatures, we can't do it all by ourselves. I think it's much more difficult for a woman who is isolated in her office or her factory and feels like the only person who thinks the way she thinks. We each need to find three or four or six or twelve people and meet with them once a week and keep this kind of community support. Also, we need to think about the alternative. Think about the reality of the alternative. Suppose you don't do this difficult thing. Is life going to be so wonderful? I don't think so. It's usually easier to stand up for oneself and ones' group in the longrun.

MS: DO YOU FEEL OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE?
GS: Yes, I'm optimistic. But I also know nothing will happen automatically. Change depends on what you and I do everyday.

Click here for Marianne's latest interview with Gloria Steinem!

 


©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this article may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .


Other features at Feminist.com:

Gloria Steinem's web site

Leaps of Consciousness (Gloria Steinem's keynote speech from the Women & Power Conference)

More interviews by Marianne Schnall

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com

 


 

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