Conversation with Gloria Steinem
Note from Marianne Schnall: I originally interviewed Gloria Steinem back in 1995 (click here to read my 1995 interview). Eleven years later it was a pleasure to talk to her again and discuss her latest thoughts and insights.
INTERVIEW WITH GLORIA STEINEM(12/5/06)
Marianne Schnall: I just wanted to thank you for doing this interview, and for all your long-time support of Feminist.com. As you know, you’ve always been a hero of mine, and an inspiration to me - as well as to so many others - so thank you for all that you are and all that you do.
Gloria Steinem: Oh, thank you. And thank you for being a pioneer – when nobody else was understanding that feminist could have a dot com!
MS: There seem to have been some promising developments recently – we now have a democratically-controlled Congress, the first female speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the first evening news anchor Katie Couric, and even a very real prospect that we may have at least one woman running for President in the next election with a realistic chance of winning. Surely these are all good signs?
GS: They are all good signs, yes.
MS: My nine-year-old daughter was really mystified when I recently pointed out to her that there had never been a woman president. It is sort of astounding. And now it feels like maybe for the first time that it could be a realistic possibility.
GS: Yes, and it’s important -- because for one thing, little girls would look at themselves and women in a different way if they could imagine being the head of the country. It would free their hopes. And it would free the imaginations of little boys to see female and male authority. However, it doesn’t necessarily change the structural problems just to have one person at the top.
MS: As one of the original founders of the modern women’s movement, what do you think about where we are now on the road to equality? Would you have expected us to be farther along than we are all these years later?
GS: If I’d been trying to imagine this time 30 or 35 years ago, I think I would have been surprised that we have majority support on pretty much all of the issues now. In the beginning, we were so subject to ridicule -- even to the charge that we were going against nature -- that to see majorities in public opinion polls now would have been a big surprise. However, given that, I would have been surprised that we have such a disastrous administration with such anti-women and war-loving policies. I guess 35 years ago, I thought we had more of a democracy than we actually do. Majority support doesn’t help unless the majority is active and votes – but the opposition minority votes a much greater proportion, so we often lose by a narrow margin.
MS: What do you think are the biggest challenges that women face today?
GS: Whatever each individual woman is facing; only she knows her biggest challenge. However, if we add up the problems that affect the biggest numbers of women, then issues having to do with physical safety and reproduction are still the biggest. Female bodies are still the battleground, whether that means restricting freedom, birth control and safe abortion in order to turn them into factories, or abandoning female infants because females are less valuable for everything other than reproduction. If you add up all the forms of gynocide, from female infanticide and genital mutilation to so-called honor crimes, sex trafficking, and domestic abuse, everything, we lose about 6 million humans every year just because they were born female. That’s a holocaust every year. It makes sense that reproductive freedom is still the biggest issue – because the reason females got in this jam in the first place was because the patriarchal state or religion or family wanted to control reproduction -- to decide how many workers, how many children the nation needs, and who owned them in systems of legitimacy -- or even outright slavery. The International Labor Organization says there are about 12 million people living in literal slavery around the world, and 80 percent of them are women and girls.
MS: I have heard a lot of references lately – one in a book a friend wrote, and another while my daughter was doing a school report on the role of women in Medieval society – that the origins of patriarchy may have begun in primitive cultures when men realized that women gave birth and controlled reproduction - that men’s domination over women seemed to stem from an insecurity and almost a fear of women’s reproductive power. Do you think that is true?
GS: I used to agree with that, but now that I know more about original cultures, I think that people have always understood reproduction; it’s just that the knowledge of contraception began to be punished and suppressed in order to produce more children as property, labor, armies. For instance, among the so-called Bushpeople in the Kalahari in Africa -- the ancestors of us all, the oldest, longest-running, most successful culture on Earth – women had two or three children two or three years apart, just as they did on this continent in the 500 or so cultures that were here before Europeans showed up. Women well understood how to restrict birth through timing of sexual intercourse, herbs and abortifacients. I suspect the focus on men’s control of women as the means of reproduction came much later, in the last five percent or so of human history, with the idea of children as property and labor. One needed to have as many as possible, never mind about women’s health or mobility or brainpower. Women’s freedom was restricted in order to make sure of the paternity and ownership of children.
MS: How has modern medicine affected women and culture today – between birth control and abortion, having children later in life, in vitro fertilization, etc?
GS: It’s not so much the technology itself as it is who controls it. Anything can be used for or against the welfare of women -- or the welfare of anyone -- depending on who controls it. The women in the Kalahari take you out into the desert with their digging sticks and show you the herbs they use for contraception, for abortifacients, or to render themselves sterile when they’ve had enough children -- not to mention the herbs that work for headaches, and for migraine headaches. They have such sophisticated knowledge of the pharmacological use of plants that the big drug companies are still trying to steal their secrets. The knowledge has been there, but later it was suppressed by patriarchal systems. Look at the three centuries of murdering something like six million witches because they practiced medicine for women – they understood contraception and they performed abortions.
The same is true now. If technology and medicine are used by women to have children or not to have children or to have healthier children – that’s one thing. But if it’s used to say, ‘You’re not a real woman unless you have a child, therefore take all these dangerous hormones and have one at 54,” then it’s another story.
MS: After years of activism on behalf of women’s rights, you have recently turned your attention to women’s media, founding both The Women’s Media Center and GreenStone Media. What inspired you to found two these organizations and what are your hopes for what they can accomplish?
GS: I’m what they would have called in the 1930’s a “media worker” – I’ve always been a free-lance writer or a reporter – so I’ve always been concerned with media. That’s why we started Ms. Magazine -- to have at least one national publication that women controlled. I’m sorry we haven’t had more of a Media Movement, in the way, say, that we’ve had a Women’s Health Movement. In the beginning, there was a lot of mistrust of media, sometimes women’s groups would refuse to talk to the media at all. Now, that the media have become owned and controlled by just a few corporations, there are more women working in the media, there are very few women at the ownership and decision-making levels. That means we’re still in big trouble.
The symbol of it for me came after the last Presidential election. The University of Maryland did a poll showing that 60 to 80% of the voters who voted for Bush thought they were voting for the opposite of some of his most destructive policies – that’s how low the level of information was. For instance, he says he supports the environment, but there’s no little tickertape underneath saying that he wants to go for oil in Alaska, and is selling off the national parks, is weakening restrictions on corporate polluting and doesn’t even believe in global warming. So it’s a question of getting information out. I was in such despair about it that I just invited all the media women I could find who were free to come to lunch. I thought what would result was a stylebook to unspin the spin, and a way of getting stories out -- and that and other great functions did turn into the Women’s Media Center. But I didn’t realize there was a window of opportunity in radio.* The founding of the GreenStone Media effort was a surprise to me, and all thanks to the women who knew about radio. They understood that women were fleeing daytime talk radio because it’s so hostile and combative, and even the advertisers were discontent. Also FM music stations are not doing so well because people are getting their music in different ways. So there was an opportunity for a new kind of programming. That’s how GreenStone Media started. You might say that the Women’s Media Center is an effort to make the existing media more accurate and more complete, while GreenStone Media is trying to create new, women-controlled programming.
MS: I did a recent interview with Jane Fonda, also one of the co-founders of the Women’s Media Center and GreenStone Media, and in regards to talking about what women want from the media, Jane quoted you as saying, “Women want less heat and more light.” What did you mean by that?
GS: The premise of most media is that only conflict is newsworthy. And that’s just not true. I think for a lot of men, too -- certainly for most women -- there’s enough real conflict without manufacturing it. The media formula is always to have a pro and con, to say there are two sides to any issue, when in fact there may be ten sides. Even in Japan, they often have three people, rather than two, when discussing an issue. We all assume because it’s the culture we’re brought up in, that there have to be two sides fighting. When we were doing research and surveys for GreenStone, I would say to women, “Well, how would you feel about having three?’ and even that was like a glass of water in the desert! [laughs] Why are solutions not just as newsworthy as problems? The notion that hostility is necessary all the time to create interest and news is not going to help us come to agreements and solve the huge problems we have.
I just think that culturally, women – we’re all human beings – but at least we don’t have our masculinity to prove [laughs]. GreenStone programming is about information, humor, and community. You can tell by our slogans: “A lecture-free zone.” “Respect spoken here.” And “We’re as edgy as you can get with the kids in the car!”
MS: People turn on the news these days and are barraged by all the “bad news” in the world, feeling detached from what’s happening in the world, as if it is all a bad movie. How can the media help people cope and contribute to being a part of the solution to the world’s problems? What changes would you like to see in the media overall?
GS: They could start by reporting on solutions and possible solutions. We all know as we travel around this country or around the world that there are huge problems, and also people doing amazing things on the ground -- but those people rarely get reported. Our media are so into conflict that they sometimes say to me, “Bring an ‘anti’ with you.” [laughs] So why not make solutions as newsworthy as problems, and treat conversation about possibilities as interesting? As it is, reporters immediately push their interviewees into the most extreme version by saying in a shocked tone, ‘Well, are you saying that …” [laughs] They’re trying to make people be as hostile and opposed to each other as possible because they think only conflict is news.
MS: Speaking of women’s media, recently I had the opportunity to leaf through several women’s magazines. I couldn’t believe how much focus there was on beauty and on a woman’s looks, and then of course half-way through it I found myself saying to myself, “I need that under-eye concealer” or “Maybe I should try that diet tip to lose those five pounds.” The media blames women for supporting this type of content by buying these magazines, yet feminists say the media and society keep reinforcing the appetite for it by the images they constantly inundate us with – how can we ever break out of this cycle?
GS: First, we can understand that the reason women’s magazines look the way they look is much less about readers than it is about advertisers. Advertisers simply won’t place ads in women’s magazines unless you write about their products. Other magazines may be punished if they write negatively about some product area, but only women’s magazines have to write positively or they don’t get the ads in the first place. A lot that women liked very much has gone out of women’s magazines – fiction and a lot of articles that aren’t just about products. Only Oprah has enough power to put in a few non-product articles about self-improvement you can’t buy, and even those seem to avoid criticizing companies that, say, damage the environment. Other women’s magazine editors have to sneak in a couple pages here and there about something that isn’t about a product. Really, they’re catalogues, not magazines, and should be given away free. They’re much cheaper because of advertising, but I think we would be better off if we paid for the magazines – just as we do for books -- and they had what we care about in them.
MS: Yet it also seems – just thinking about Eve Ensler’s last book “The Good Body”, that this whole beauty stuff has become so infiltrated and ingrained in our society that it’s almost hard to know how to break out of it. And Eve’s theory that it’s taking away from women’s power or our contribution to the world because we are so fixated on how we look.
GS: It’s not a theory - I think it’s a fact. It has probably increased both because advertisers can get away with it, because the magazines have not stood up to them and said, ‘No, not only are we not going to only write about beauty, but we’re also going to expose how much your products cost as opposed as how much you charge for them, or which of these high fashion items are made in sweatshops’ [laughs] – you’ll never see that in a women’s magazine! You’ll never see anything but unmitigated praise for products that advertise. It’s also increased because there’s more need to make women insecure about our looks, to feel that if we just looked right, everything would be OK. We’re changing ourselves to fit the world instead of changing the world to fit women.
MS: I know you speak a lot on college campuses. What is the most important message that you hope to instill in young girls?
GS: That each of them is already a unique and valuable person when she’s born; every human being is. Inside each of us is a unique person resulting from millennia of environment and heredity combined in a way that could never happen again and could never have happened before. We aren’t blank slates, but we are also communal creatures who are born before our brains are fully developed, so we’re very sensitive to our environment. The question is: How to find the support and the circumstances that allow you to express what’s inside you?
MS: Right. And Jane Fonda, when I asked her a version of the same question, said something like “We don’t need to be perfect – we just have to be complete. ”
GS: Right. There is no perfect.
MS: Recently an intern who is in college was telling me how her friends would never call themselves feminists or take seriously the causes of the women’s movement. Do you see this same thing in young women? And how can we help young women feel connected, energized and supported by feminist work and see its relevance in their lives? Do you feel younger generations of women take feminism’s work for granted, and have become complacent?
GS: We have to realize that young women’s activism won’t look exactly like ours because they’ve had different experiences – which is a good thing. One example would be safe and legal abortion – though many also recognize the threat to it, it’s hard for them to imagine a world without it -- but they’re mad as hell that there’s no comprehensive sex education, that the morning after pill is in contention, that pharmacists can just on a personal whim refuse to fill their prescriptions. They’re angry about all of that. We all get radicalized by what affects us. Actually, younger women – just by the measure of public opinions polls – are more likely to support feminist issues than older women are.
MS: In my interview with Eve Ensler, we were talking about all the misconceptions people have about feminism and what it means to be a feminist and she said, “I don’t know if that word is helping us anymore, or not helping us.” What do you think? Has the term “feminist” been so misused and misunderstood that we should almost leave it out of the language we use on these issues?
GS: It doesn’t matter what word we use, if it has the same content, it will be treated in the same way. There are other words - there’s “womanist”, there’s “Mujerista”, there’s “women’s liberationist” – all mean the same thing and they get the same ridicule. I think we just need to choose what word we feel comfortable with that says women are full human beings, and whatever that word is, it will get a lot of opposition. But it will also attract a lot of support. But this is a revolution, not a public relations movement.
MS: Right. And with a site called ‘Feminist.com’ we’re sort of tied into that word, so we always try to redefine what feminism is, and break out of some of the stereotypes.
GS: It’s a good word. Actually, more women self-identify as feminists than as Republicans. Feminists are more respected than lawyers [laughs] – it has a remarkable amount of support – it’s just that it’s treated as if it’s failed if it’s not 100%. And also we forget that the pattern of women’s activism tends to be the reverse of men – that is, women are more conservative when we’re young and we get more radical as we get older, but men are the other way around – rebellious when they’re young and more conservative as they get older. That’s because men gain power as they get older and replace their fathers. Women lose power as they get older and replace their mothers.
MS: Actually, speaking of men, one of the things that Feminist.com has been trying to do is welcome men to our site, and to the dialogue – we have this column “Men as Allies” written by a men’s group – and we have been getting increasing numbers of donations and e-mails from men wanting to understand feminism or asking how they can support it.
GS: That’s great.
MS: How can men be included in feminist work?
GS: In much the same way that white people can be included in anti-racist work once we realize that racism restricts us, too. Once men realize that the gender roles are a prison for them too, then they become really valuable allies. Because they’re not just helping someone else, they’re freeing themselves.
MS: Last Friday there was an article in The New York Times featuring a very disturbing story and statistics about the prevalence of sexual abuse of very young girls in countries like Africa, and the fact that there is rarely any kind of adequate punishment or justice for these crimes. The writer stated that she believed that the situation stems from gender inequity in these countries. Can you explain why this is and what we can do to change this?
GS: As long as women are possessions not people, or objects not subjects, and there’s this enormous motivation to control reproduction, which in turn produces the gender roles – then the result is that masculinity is defined by dominating women. It’s like a drug – men get hooked on the idea that they have to be violent towards women, or at least control women, in order to be real men. And if they are not doing that, then they feel like an addict without a fix. This is probably worse in countries that have been under colonial domination, so the model of ruling manhood was doubly cruel and dominating, and men’s minds are still colonized by it. So we have to humanize the gender roles, which are in any case, the biggest source of violence on Earth, as at least one chief of state has pointed out – Olaf Palme of Sweden – and then he, too, was murdered.
MS: Do you think the situation has improved for women globally? It’s not always in our awareness the outrageous things that are happening to women and girls around the world, but when you hear about them they are very shocking and disturbing. What do you think of the situation for women from a global perspective?
GS: I would say that the main good news is that we understand now that women’s subordinate position is not natural. Maybe a half century ago, most people would have said this was inevitable -- and even blamed women for it – you know, it’s because we’re getting uppity or disobedient, that’s why we’re subject to violence. There’s much more widespread understanding that this is wrong and has to stop. So we’ve advanced in consciousness, but we have made very few advances in the actual structure of gender inequality and the violence that follows it.
MS: What do you think is the most important area for change in the world, not just necessarily women’s issues, but globally?
GS: I think that probably that we see that they’re all tied into each other. It’s not a laundry list of separate issues anymore, it’s a seamless web of connections. The same idea of masculinity that says you have to dominate women says you have to dominate nature, and that becomes the source of evils visited on the environment. We’re not separate from nature – it’s not man conquering nature, it’s people as part of nature saving ourselves.
MS: Right. That we’re all interconnected and interdependent with humanity and the Earth…
GS: Yes, the very same idea that all sex has to end in conception oppresses women most of all, but it also oppresses gay men. Gay men and lesbians are despised because they stand for a form of sex that is about communication, not about conception, but all women need to separate sex from conception for our health, freedom, survival – so our movements rise up in the same times, have the same enemies and need to support each other.
MS: Feminism is often described as women having the ability to make choices for ourselves and our lives, but often it seems as though women have become so brainwashed by society that we ourselves don’t know who we are and what we want. How can we better help women stay in touch with ourselves so we can make empowered choices?
GS: Yes, in order to make a choice, you need the power to see there is one, much less make it. The most effective means we have is to talk to each other in groups. Human beings are communal creatures. If we’re by ourselves we come to feel crazy and alone. We need to make alternate families of small groups of women who support each other, talk to each other regularly, can speak their truths and their experiences and find they’re not alone in them, that other women have them too – so it’s a systemic problem. It makes such a huge difference. If I could have one structural wish for the women’s movement, it would be that we have a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous group structure all over the world, so that wherever you go in a different village or town you can find the feminist equivalent of an AA group to go to once a week and to get some support, and some help with seeing the politics of what’s happening to us.
MS: At that great Women’s Media Center meeting with Sheryl Sandberg of Google, we talked a lot about the need for the workplace to support women who are trying to balance their family and careers. If you could set standards for a business to be called “women-friendly” or “family-friendly” what would they be?
GS: The standards would be ‘family friendly’ because unless men are as responsible for babies and little children as women are, it will never work. I think it’s terribly important that we always assume that men have or should have, or could have the same concerns about their kids that women do. Otherwise a family-friendly policy will be seen as a penalty of employing women. More important, kids will grow up without nurturing fathers, and then they will re-manufacture the masculine roles, both gender roles, because that’s what they’ve seen in their household. So nothing could be more important than assuming that men need to be asking how can they combine work and family just as much as women do. Men need these child-friendly, family-friendly policies, just as much as women do.
We have a lot of role models because almost every developed country on earth has better policies than we do. Having time off, paid time when a child arrives in our lives, whether by birth or adoption, having a shorter work week or a shorter work day available for the parents of young children, having a national system of childcare – almost everybody else has some version of these except us. Having childcare available where we work, onsite childcare – that was a commonplace of working during World War II – they had all these wonderful childcare centers in factories. But then when they wanted women to go home again after the war, they closed them up. So we know it’s quite possible.
MS: Are you optimistic that we can ever close the pay gap or break the glass ceiling? What changes would need to take place, and this is all inter-related?
GS: It is inter-related. Women still have to work three months more a year than men to get the same pay. But it’s also true that we need to give an economic value to care giving – whether it’s done by women or by men. So it’s not just about salaried work – but it’s about the invisibility of care giving and unsalaried work.
MS: There has been some criticism that the feminist movement and women’s media often only narrowly looks at the concerns and lives of middle class white women, at the neglect of the experiences and issues that affect different ethnicities and classes of women. Do you feel this criticism is warranted, and how can we make sure the women’s movement is inclusive and speaks for all women, of different races, income levels, etc?
GS: The whole country needs to be concerned with this, and the women’s movement shouldn’t be speaking for anyone – it should be amplifying the voices of the women themselves. So I would say two things: one, the women’s movement is more inclusive than any movement this country has ever seen, and two, it’s not inclusive enough.
MS: I heard you are writing your memoirs. What is the book focusing on and when will it be out? What has it been like going over the experiences of your life as an activist?
GS: I am not writing my memoirs – well, you might call it that – but it’s really a road book about being on the road for thirty-five years as an organizer. I don’t think of it as a memoir in the sense of biography. I’m trying to convey the sense of the country that one gets from traveling in it as opposed to reading the media about it. And also I am hoping that it might entice a few more people into going on the road and becoming feminist organizers. I think it’s the least visible part of my life. People might be more likely to think of the magazine or the foundation or other things, but in fact, the single thing I’ve done more than anything else, and I do part of almost every week, is to go out on the road and speak and be an organizer. It’s very satisfying, there’s no substitute for it – even the Internet can’t substitute for people being in the room together. This road book that is still in the early stages – because I’m on the road and haven’t had time to write it [laughs].
MS: You have become literally an icon to so many people in the women’s movement – you are probably the world’s most famous feminist. Has this a burden or a blessing – and how do you see yourself and your role in the history of the women’s movement?
GS: You know, I get up every morning and try to remember to do what I’m supposed to do and get my dry cleaning [laughs] and so I don’t see myself in that way. I just do the best I can, and try to make some balance between what needs doing and what I can uniquely do.
MS: At the Women’s Media Center meeting, many women were talking about the need for truthful mentors and role models – successful women who talk honestly about coping with the challenges they face in their lives, and the obstacles they still struggle with. Do you think this is important, to have successful and admired women who talk to us not down from a pedestal, which just perpetuates the fantasy of being perfect, but instead in sharing their struggles and vulnerabilities, their imperfection?
GS: It’s important for all of us to be authentic with each other. If I think some woman or man is so different from me that she or he is doing things that I can’t possibly do, then by definition, they are not empowering me, they are dis-empowering me. So it’s crucial that we’re honest about the bad news and the good news. I think women are sometimes less honest about the good news. They can’t even take a compliment [laughs] - they immediately apologize for it. So I’m not sure which way the excess goes, but I do think there’s a tendency -- in the media and maybe in ourselves as we look at someone else who’s successful -- to think, “Oh, they’re different from me, I couldn’t possibly do that.”
MS: In terms of getting older – to me, I’m so thankful that I’m not twenty anymore. I’m 39 now and feel that every year I come more into a sense of who I am and what’s important in my life. How can we better help women better embrace the aging process rather than fear or fight it – to see getting older as a time of deepening wisdom and coming into our true power?
GS: Honesty about our age would help. I always try to say my age [laughs] because I figure it’s a form of coming out.
MS: How old are you by the way?
GS: I’m 72. It would help not to treat age as if it were any less of a pleasure than it was when we were six and saying, ‘I’m six and a half.” [laughs] You know, we could be saying, “I’m fifty and a half’ and say it with joy. Each age is different and has different discoveries and pleasures. Of course, some of it is tied to looks. We could all use more role models like Georgia O’Keefe and fewer with plastic surgery. And some of it at my age is tied to the shortness of time that is left. There are too few role models in this culture for seeing life as a natural cycle.
MS: One of the big issues right now for women seems to be finding balance in our lives. Jane Fonda told me she has calendar software in which she yellows out 3 weeks at a time in which she disappears from public view and takes time to nurture herself. I don’t know if this was a joke, but she remarked to me that she sent it to you in the hopes you would use it?
GS: She told me about it. [laughs] She has been a wonderful friend because she can see that saying no is not my strong suit [laughs]. And I need to do that in order to write – I need to just mark those dates out. I need to go through weeks and put a vertical line through it.
MS: You are so busy - how do you create balance and re-charge yourself?
GS: Badly. [laughs]
MS: Since you are saying these things about Jane, I just wanted to let you know – when I interviewed her it was right after you had done a lot of media with her for GreenStone and she said about you, “I’ll tell you one thing, this last two weeks when we’ve been doing media together and traveling together – gosh, what a joy to be with her, and to listen to her and to watch her and learn from her. What a blessing.”
GS: Well, it’s a blessing for me to be doing it with Jane. I was interested that after we did “Charlie Rose”, the main response I got from women was how happy they were to see two women who liked each other. If you think about the ridiculous media formula of conflict as news, it means that, if there are two women on the screen, they’re fighting. I think women are really hungry to see what is true in life, which is that very different women are friends, and support each other and help each other, and disagree creatively not with hostility.
MS: I didn’t know you were on “Charlie Rose” – I would have loved to have seen that. The one I did catch was when you and Jane were on “The Colbert Report” doing the “Cooking with Feminists” thing. I loved that - you managed to get some important information out there - but you guys were also really funny!
GS: It was fun! And it’s also a joy to do things together because you’re not wholly responsible – you know that if you forget to say something, the other one will bring it up [laughs] – it’s a pleasure.
MS: Also, just in terms of being funny - Jane Fonda talked to me about how you have all decided to make sure there’s laughter in GreenStone’s programming – the importance of being funny - so that was great to see.
GS: It’s very important. It was fun for me in a different way because I used to write for “That Was the Week It Was” years ago, which was the parent of “Saturday Night Live,” so it was fun to be back in that setting. But just in general, laughter may be the only free emotion – the only emotion that can’t be compelled. You can certainly compel anger and sadness. You can probably compel love if someone is isolated enough and dependent enough, they come to believe they love the person they are dependent on. But you can’t compel laughter – it’s totally free.
MS: Any particular philosophy or practice that has most helped you face the challenges in your life?
GS: Hmm. I wouldn’t call it a philosophy, but I think we all have some inherent sense of time that is probably in instilled by our childhood. Some people live in the past, some people live in the present - which is probably the most rewarding -- and some people live in the future. I live in the future – so I am always thinking, ‘What if?’ or ‘This could be’ or ‘This could change’ or trying to understand why something happens. The great joy to me is that moment – that ‘aha!’ – when you think, ‘oh, that’s why!’ [laughs]. That excitement and pleasure in realizing why something is happening, how it could be different – that definitely keeps me going.
MS: With all your many years as an activist, writer, lecturer, and being on the road - what is the source of all your energy and how do you keep from becoming burned out or discouraged?
GS: The source of all my energy is other people – mostly women, but some men too. I’m very lucky because I can work full time at what I love and care about. So I am constantly able to talk to people who care about similar things. It’s much more difficult for women who are in families that oppose them, who are in offices that ridicule them. I have a community wherever I go.
MS: What lessons or words of wisdom have you gleaned through your life experience that you think have been most important?
GS: I think in the beginning of the women’s movement, we attributed everything to an immediate external injustice – we didn’t understand how powerful early patterns were. So if we saw a woman who was doomstruck in a particular way – that is attached to violent men, or otherwise self-destructive – we either didn’t understand it or we blamed her without seeing that this probably felt like home to her, this is what she had experienced in her childhood and what she had grown up feeling was natural -- that there weren’t any men except the ones who were destructive. So I think we see life and politics in much more realistic layers now – and that helps a lot.
Lately, I’ve also been seeing history in more realistic layers. I’ve come to realize that the ancient cultures – the original cultures, which account for 95% of human time on earth – were gender-balanced and balanced with nature. If it happened before, it can happen again. The Native American cultures were probably the inspiration for the suffragist movement, for instance. One of the most devastating arguments is “Well, this is human nature, it has always been this way so it always will be.” To understand that for 95% of human history it was different is very helpful to me in believing that it can be different in the future.
MS: It’s amazing to me that you just said that because my 9-year-old daughter Jazmin has taken it upon herself to create her own subjects for her reports at school, choosing women’s roles in Medieval society, insisting on doing a report on a lesser known woman explorer when all of the few women on the list of famous explorers were taken - and the latest was that her class were doing reports on the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes, so she decided to focus on The Roles of Iroquois Women in the Iroquois Tribe. I hadn’t known what you just said, which is that the enormous power, responsibility and respect given to women in the Iroquois society seemed to have served as inspiration for the early suffragists.
GS: I think the Iroquois Confederacy of seven nations was the confederacy that was the model for the U.S. constitution. However, the framers ignored the fact that female elders chose the Chief, advised the Chief and could depose the Chief; also that women controlled their own fertility and had two or three kids, two or three years apart. The sight of these cultures probably had a very great deal to do with inspiring the suffragists. Your daughter should read Sally Roesch Wagner because she has done a lot of research on this. [note from MS: see newly posted article: The Untold Story of The Iroquois Influence On Early Feminists by Sally Roesch Wagner]
MS: Jazmin really has enjoyed learning about these cultures and we even posted some of her reports at Feminist.com – she has been writing heartfelt little introductions about why she’s doing this. And it’s been wonderful for both the boys and girls in the class and to get to hear about women’s experiences and accomplishments. Do you think that women’s history should be more integrated into school curriculums? Any changes you would want to see in the educational systems?
GS: An awful lot of it is still a brainwashing not an education. So, yes, indeed, we ought to have human history. And women’s history, and African American history and Native American history ought all to be called remedial history.
MS: Absolutely. I’m learning about some of this through Jazmin. And the teachers have been really supportive in letting her choose these topics and giving her positive feedback about posting her reports online.
GS: Oh, that’s great. That’s wonderful.
MS: The other site that I run is EcoMall.com, which is an environmental site, and I know the environment is also a cause that you care about. There have always been prominent women who have been actively involved over the years on behalf of environmental causes – such as Rachel Carson, Helen Caldicott, and recently Julia Butterfly Hill, Wangari Maathai – how do you see women’s roles in the environmental movement?
GS: Yes, the idea of masculinity is based on conquering women or at least being superior to women and nature, so it’s easy for women to identify with nature. Whether or not they describe it that way, the same forces that are trying to rape women are trying to rape the environment. Women are the unpaid troops of the environmental movement, though as usual, males are more likely to be the paid leadership. Women have always been the huge majority – something like 80% – of the environmental movement. Not because we’re smarter, or more moral, but just because we aren’t afflicted with this masculine idea that we have to conquer nature and the environment.
MS: Environmental awareness seems to be increasing, between the success of Al Gore’s movie and the trend that we’re seeing…
GS: Even in Al Gore’s movie – wonderful as it was -- didn’t have among its activist suggestions that we help people who don’t want to have children not to have children. It named overpopulation as the single greatest problem for the environment, yet in all of its excellent activist suggestions, it didn’t include remedies. This was the inconvenient truth about “The Inconvenient Truth” [laughs].
MS: As an activist, people look out at the world right now, and can feel so overwhelmed with all that is happening in the world and want to contribute to positive change and just don’t where to start– what advice would you give to them?
GS: First of all, change is like a house – you can’t build it from the top down, only from the bottom up. Whatever small change we make will be like a pebble in a pond, it will reverberate outward –and also it will be fun. It’s important to understand what joy there is – we’re meant to use all five senses- we’re meant to be active and contribute to the world. What’s the alternative? Just sitting there and wondering, ‘Oh, if I had just done this, maybe…’ I’ve learned only one thing: No matter how hard it is to do it, it’s harder not to do it. Then you’re stuck with wondering, “what if I had said…. What if I had done….”?
MS: Are you optimistic about the current state of humanity to get its act together?
GS: I’m skeptical, but optimistic. I’m not pessimistic because I think pessimism defeats you before you start. I’m skeptical because it’s important to be realistic and use our energies well, but hope is a form of planning.
MS: Recently I went to the Enlightened Power conference that Omega organized. And Marianne Williamson gave this amazing speech. And one of the main things she was talking about was that as activists, who are trying to make the world more peaceful, that we have to also make sure that we are contributing peace in the world, even in how we are advocating for peace. That because it can feel a little bit like “us vs. them”, to be sort of be wary of that.
GS: Gandhi said it all when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
MS: What is your prayer or vision for the future? What would you like to see?
GS: The localization of everything. So there’s no more violence in our families than we want to see in the world. So that we are eating locally instead of eating meals that have traveled for a thousand miles. So that the microcosm is what we wish the macrocosm to be.
MS: Well, I have been feeling hopeful, that there are a lot of hopeful trends happening.
GS: Whether it is or not, we can create our own hope.
* Note: Since this interview, GreenStone Media has decided the window isn't open yet. After more than a year of investment and program development, its drive-time and noon programming was successful on the small radio stations that accepted it, but medium and large size stations wouldn't give it a try. Without the capital to buy a radio station or buy unsponsored time, GreenStone couldn't reach listeners, and ceased operations in August, 2007. Gloria commented: "I believe the need is still there, and someone in the future will build on this new programming. Meanwhile, I thank everyone who contributed, worked and listened. I'm proud of the programming that got prizes from Women in Radio and fan mail from truck drivers. I hope other progressive women and men will continue to take on the media."
Other Gloria Steinem features at Feminist.com:
Groups Affiliated with Gloria Steinem:
If you want to learn more about what Gloria is involved in (in addition to Feminist.com) - or find effective places for your own work and contribution - check out these links:
Gloria Steinem's Official Website
Gloria Steinem travels widely as a feminist activist, organizer, writer and lecturer. Her books include the bestsellers Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Moving Beyond Words, and Marilyn: Norma Jean, on the life of Marilyn Monroe. She was an editor of The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. Steinem co-founded New York Magazine and Ms. Magazine where she continues to serve as a consulting editor. She has been published in many magazines and newspapers here and in other countries, and is also a frequent guest commentator on radio and television.
She helped to found the Women's Action Alliance, the National Women's Political Caucus, and Choice USA. She was the founding president of the Ms. Foundation for Women and helped create Take Our Daughters to Work Day. She recently co-founded the Women's Media Center. She has served on the board of trustees of Smith College, and was a member of the Beyond Racism Initiative, a comparative study of racial patterns in the U.S., South Africa, and Brazil. She has also co-produced a documentary on child abuse for HBO, and a feature film for Lifetime.
Ms. Steinem has received the Penney-Missouri Journalism Award, the Front Page and Clarion awards, National Magazine awards, an Emmy Citation for excellence in television writing, the Women's Sports Journalism Award, the Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Writers Award from the United Nations, and most recently, the University of Missouri School of Journalism Award for Distinguished Service in Journalism.
Other recognitions include the first Doctorate of Human Justice awarded by Simmons College, the Bill of Rights Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the National Gay Rights Advocates Award, the Liberty award of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Ceres Medal from the United Nations, and a number of honorary degrees. Parenting magazine selected her for its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 for her work in promoting girls' self-esteem, and Biography magazine listed her as one of the 25 most influential women in America. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. She has been the subject of Lifetime and ABC biographical television documentaries, and The Education of a Woman, a biography by Carolyn Heilbrun.
She is currently at work on Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered, a book about her more than thirty years on the road as a feminist organizer; and with the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College on a project to document the grassroots origins of the U.S. women's movement.
Gloria Steinem is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.
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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of 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 with a diversity of well known women, is Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women
Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice. 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.