Looking Back, Moving Forward: an Exclusive Interview with Gloria Steinem
August 22, 2016
Last year, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) re-imagined and re-launched our online store. Working as a team, we developed products that address the core of the work we do. We decided to honor pioneering women who have made a significant impact on our lives and our work through our “Feminists&Me” tee. In 2016, we are honoring each woman through our “Spotlight on Feminists” series. (See the rest of the posts here: Sojourner Truth & Susan B. Anthony & bell hooks)
Gloria Steinem needs no introduction. She’s been described as a founding mother of the Women’s Rights Movement. She is a tireless advocate for equity, equality, social justice, and peace. She is an inspiration for countless women and men in this country and beyond.
Earlier this year, Steinem agreed to sit down and answer a few questions from our staff. Here’s what she had to say…
NNEDV: First, thank you so much for agreeing to be e-interviewed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)! We are huge admirers of your work –what’s your craziest story from the trenches?
Gloria Steinem: There are too many crazy stories from the trenches to count. Because I’ve traveled so much over the years, they often have to do with discovering the surprising next chapter in a novel I saw beginning years before, or discovering how wrong the stereotypes are of who’s a feminist and who isn’t. For instance, there is an idea of feminism as being White and middle class, but in my experience from the beginning – including in the first public opinion polls – African American women have been about twice as likely to support the issues of women’s equality as White women have. From Aileen Hernandez fighting to include sex discrimination in the EEOC to Shirley Chisholm single-handedly taking the “White male only” sign off the White House door, I’ve learned feminism disproportionately from Black women, yet perhaps because Women’s Studies and Black Studies grew up separately, I rarely see that reflected in academia. Now, I see terms like “White feminism” debated on the web, though that’s a contradiction in terms. Either feminism includes all females or it isn’t feminism.
NNEDV: Many have called you the greatest living feminist of our time. How do you respond to that / handle that kind of pressure?
GS: It’s super clear to me that the feminist movement would have gone forward without me – and it will continue without me. The whole point of a movement is collective strength. It’s about being linked, not ranked. I feel lucky to be able to be part of what I love, but the old image of one person with a torch is the problem, not the solution. We each need a torch to see where we’re going. Collective light is way brighter!
NNEDV: Unfortunately, negative connotations persist about the word feminist and the movement of feminism; there are lingering ideas about what a “good feminist” is or does/does not do. While we’ve made huge gains, we still don’t have equal pay for equal work. We don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Why do you think so many people do not identify with a movement that is about equality at its core?
GS: In my experience, there are two reasons why people don’t support the word “feminist.” The first is that they don’t know what it means, maybe really think it’s anti-male or what Rush Limbaugh says, and learning its definition makes them support it. The second is that they do know what it means and they oppose it. It seems unnatural to them, against God or nature. Freud. But now, female equality is a majority belief, and the main problem is that people assume we already have it – that is, equal pay or the ERA. The same adversaries who used to say the movement was impossible are now saying that it’s over. In both cases, you have to remember how many billions of dollars corporations are making from unequal pay, and how challenging it is that we are on the verge of becoming a country no longer ruled by White males. The first generation that is a majority of babies of color has already been born. It’s why the same groups are often against contraception, legal abortion, and also immigration — they see the old race and sex-based hierarchy slipping away.
NNEDV: Domestic violence is a huge problem in the United States: 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Three women are killed every day by a current or former intimate partner. The statistics are staggering and don’t seem to be improving. Have you noticed a change in the way that our country responds to victims of domestic violence over the course of your lifetime?
GS: As tragic as the domestic violence realities are, there has been a huge change in my lifetime. When I was growing up in Toledo, there was no term for domestic violence, it was just called “life,” and the usual question was what a woman had done to deserve it – or she might even brag about it because it was a proof of jealousy or caring. If the police were called, their definition of success was to get the victim and the criminal back together again. At least now, we know that it’s unnatural, doesn’t have to be – and also that violence in the home is the normalizer of other violence.
NNEDV: Wave your magic wand: what is one thing you would do right now to help serve and/or support victims and survivors of domestic violence?
GS: If I had a magic wand, I would confine the criminal to a prison or shelter, and let women and children remain at home. Also I would tell every part of law enforcement that domestic violence is a Supremacy Crime – no motive of money, just “masculine” control and power – just as racism is also a Supremacy Crime, with no motive except control and power as the gain. One is the best indicator of the other. For instance, if Zimmerman’s violence against women had been taken seriously, Trayvon Martin might still be alive.
NNEDV: Many people are not aware that 99% of domestic violence cases include some form of financial abuse (e.g., hiding assets, giving an allowance, sabotaging employment, ruining credit, stealing the victim’s identity, and more). The importance of financial independence cannot be overstated. You’re famously quoted as saying that a modern woman is one who “has sex before marriage and a job after.” How do you think we can improve economic equity that can lead to or result in greater protections and economic justice for women?
GS: Glad you asked me about that quote! I did not say that, I would not prescribe what an individual woman should do; that’s her unique decision. Yes, we need financial literacy courses at every level, from grade school through college. In general, women need to understand that the Golden Rule only works if it’s reversible. We have to treat ourselves as well we treat others. Gender tends to make men feel money is more important than it is, and to make women feel it’s less important than it is.
NNEDV: April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Our partners at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center do an incredible job raising awareness about this devastating and unfortunately all-too-common crime. National attention has increased on this issue, with the documentary The Hunting Ground, and Lady Gaga’s accompanying performance of the song “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars this year (she was robbed!). How do you think we can capitalize on this increased attention and move people from awareness to action?
GS: We’ve been fairly successful in explaining that rape is not sex, it’s violence. While advancing on that front, we must explain that pornography (porne means females slaves) is about dominance and violence, while erotica (eros means love) is about free choice and mutual pleasure. We are allowing pornography to normalize dominance and violence to millions on the web, and to take the place of sex education suppressed by right-wing religious groups.
NNEDV: In the past you’ve said, “I learned feminism from Black women.” How did you come to realize that you had a lot to learn from women of color? How do you think allies can continue to authentically engage with and support marginalized communities and live our values of inclusivity and equality?
GS: I had the great good luck to meet Black women who were ahead of me on the path, from speaking partners like Flo Kennedy, to writers like Alice Walker and bell hooks, and empowering leaders like Wilma Mankiller. Also I had lived in India for a couple of years, and met women who had led the women’s and independence movements there. I fear that when we talk about being “inclusive,” we evoke an image of White women including women of color instead of looking at the reality. For instance, the suffrage movement was largely inspired by the fact that the very unequal White women in upstate New York saw and came to know the very equal women of the nearby Iroquois Confederacy; especially the Seneca women with whom they had Sunday dinners. They were appalled by the inferior status of White women, and referred to them as “those who die in childbirth.” Statistically speaking, White women are more likely to have grown up in undemocratic families with dominating fathers – which takes a while to understand as not natural or inevitable — and Black women are more likely to have grown up in democratic families with women as role models. I don’t mean to over-generalize, but I do think it helps when White women realize we have at least as much to learn as to teach. When we are organizing, we need to look for everybody who’s affected by a problem, and make sure we’re in a group that represents all that wisdom from the beginning.
NNEDV: Emma Watson, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and proponent of the HeForShe campaign, recently started a book club called “Our Shared Shelf.” She selected your recent memoir, My Life on the Road, as the first book and interviewed also you as part of this group. Do you think celebrity-activists, like Watson, are helping to bring a younger audience / Millennials into the feminist movement?
GS: Yes, of course, well-known activists like Emma Watson, Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay, Beyoncé, and many more are super important, not only because their celebrity gives them the equivalent of a printing press, but because young women know their personal stories and have a degree of trust in them. It’s not just celebrity; no amount of celebrity is going to give Sarah Palin or a Kardashian the same credibility and influence.
NNEDV: Empowering girls and women is a crucial part of ensuring equality and ending violence. Looking back, what do you wish you would’ve known sooner? Or, what would you tell your teenage self?
GS: When I was a teenager – and well into my thirties – I thought I would eventually have to conform, have a conventional marriage and children, even if I had my own life for a while when I was young. I so wish that I had known earlier that not everyone has to live in the same way, that each of us has a right to follow our own interests and talents and instinct. We are each unique, and we share humanity. Categories of gender, race, caste, and class are made up. We can un-make them up.
NNEDV: Having done this work for so many years, is there anything you would have done differently? And, looking forward, what do you see as the biggest issue facing women today?
GS: There are many things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have wasted so much time doing what I already knew how to do, or was expected to do, or was doing for approval. There are books I did not write and now will never write. I would say to younger women: Time is all there is. Follow what you love to do, what is unique to you. For women in the world today, the greatest danger is violence, which cuts short time even more. For the first time that we know of, violence against females — from son preference and sexualized violence to female genital mutilation, forced childbirth, domestic violence and more – means there are now fewer females on earth than males. We and the millions of peaceful men need to focus on preventing violence.
NNEDV: NNEDV also has a book club, Reader with a Cause (we’re currently reading Asking For It by Kate Harding) – so we have to know: what’s on your night stand / currently reading shelf? OR what books have you read in the last couple of years that you consider “MUST reads?”
GS: I just came back from Australia, so I am reading Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, published by Spinifex, the great feminist press there. “Must reads” include Sex and World Peace by Valerie Hudson et al, because it proves that violence against females is the normalizer of all other violence not in self-defense; The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein, because it shows that raising children or being raised to raise children is what allows men to escape the masculine prison and become whole people; Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist because it explains the invention of racism to justify colonialism; Feminism Is for Everyone by bell hooks because it is what its title says; and all the poetry of Alice Walker and Robin Morgan.
NNEDV: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions! Any last words / last piece of advice for our friends/readers?
GS: Last words? Okay, here are three: 1) If we raised even one generation of children without violence, we have no idea what might be possible. 2) When children say, “It’s not fair” and, “You are not the boss of me,” they already have the core of every social justice movement. 3) If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but you think it’s a pig – it’s a pig. Trust your instinct.