Gloria Steinem: Still Committing ‘Outrageous Acts’ at 75

… and other musings about the women’s movement by the feminist icon of the 20th century.

Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist, activist, author, Emmy Award-winning writer, lecturer and all-around wOw-worthy woman turned 75 years old recently. This and other world wonders got me thinking about how someone who has played such a major role in the modern women’s movement (that rippled to every shore in the world) sees herself and our world right now — and where she thinks we are headed.

Here’s what she said …

wOw: What do you think is the greatest achievement in women’s rights in your lifetime?

Steinem: A critical mass of people here and around the world no longer believe that biology should dictate women’s lives, so any woman who tries to be fully human is defying God, Freud and nature — and is crazy. That’s huge! It affects everything. That’s why there is now a global women’s movement, including some men who see that pretending to be superior limits their humanity, too.

Of course, consciousness changes a lot faster than power structures. We lose about six million lives every year just because they were born female — that’s due to infanticide, favoring boys with food and health care, deaths from female genital mutilation, sexual assault, dowry killings, domestic violence and the ideas enshrined in such terms as “crimes of passion” or “honor killings.” There are also more enslaved people now than there were in the 1800s — and sex trafficking plus sweatshops means that they’re mostly women and children.

This country is lagging behind just about every modern democracy in family-friendly work policies, national childcare and health care, sex education, contraception, maternal mortality, way behind in women in elected office — you name it.

But the big victory is that we know our fate can change, and we have more legal tools and local-to-global groups to do it. There are now several living generations of women — and some men, too — who realize that the sexual caste system is intertwined with every single thing we have to transform, from class and race and the idea that man should conquer nature to the violence in families that normalizes every other violence.

wOw: Can women who aren’t pro-choice be feminists?

Steinem: Absolutely, they can be anti-choice for themselves and do their best to persuade others; they just can’t support laws or harassment or clinic bombings that take choice away from other women. Feminists have always gone to the same lengths to protect women from being pressured into abortions they don’t want as to keep abortion safe and legal. The point is not what we choose but that we have the power to make a choice.

wOw: It seems that giving life is less valuable than taking it, that mothers are less valued than soldiers — even that taking a life at creation is more punished than taking a life in war. How did this happen?

Steinem: If you say that half the human race is inferior to the other half, then the inferior half devalues whatever it does. Being a nurse is comparable to, say, being a pharmacist, but nurses earn less because pharmacists are mostly men. I’ve marched with nurses on picket lines because the men who picked up garbage at the same hospital earned more than nurses did. I just talked to all the Texas librarians. They supervise one of the last public spaces, they democratize knowledge and also technology since libraries offer free access to computers. Right now, they’re flooded with job seekers learning computers or doing resumes and job searches — yet they and their libraries are supposed to get by on a tiny fraction of what’s paid to people who just move money around.

This devaluing is especially true of giving birth because controlling female bodies as the most basic means of production — the means of reproduction — is the way we got into this male-dominated mess in the first place. We also became the world’s biggest source of unpaid or underpaid labor, first for raising and socializing children and then for anything called “women’s work.”

wOw: Over the years, have you seen men in a different light since your feminist heyday? Feel differently about them? Have things gotten better?

Steinem: Probably because I had a very kindhearted father who raised me when I was little as much as my mother did – because she was often ill – I’ve always known that men were not distant or controlling by nature; men like that have never felt “like home.”  But I see them in the public world and other women’s lives and the everyday news stories of abuse.

It’s more of a feminist heyday now because I see more men who are real partners, real parents to their children and real allies to women. When I talk to groups of men, what they most want to talk about is how much they missed having real fathers. If we can help men become the fathers they wished they had, we’ll have a revolution!

Of course, I also see the tragedies caused by men who feel their masculinity and sense of self depend on controlling and abusing and even eliminating women — like the radio executive here last month who beheaded his wife when she asked him for a divorce, or the gangs of men who rape and eviscerate women in Bosnia or the Congo. This cult of masculinity doesn’t seem to depend on age, but on how males were raised.

But I would say in general that women and men are more able to be friends, to be honest with each other, to see each other as individuals, not categories. We’ve gained a global network of self-respecting women, and we’ve gained a smaller network of men who lead groups against male violence, who empathize with their wives and daughters, who realize there’s no such thing as democracy without feminism, and who see that the prison of masculinity is killing them, too. Olaf Palme, who was chief of state in Sweden, said that it’s up to governments to humanize gender roles because they are the cause of most violence on earth.

wOw: What do you think are the most pressing issues to address over the next ten years?

Steinem: I don’t want to pick out just one issue or area; we’re strongest when each woman joins women who share her experience, and they work on whatever needs changing in their own lives.

If we take the problem that afflicts the biggest number of women in this country, it’s the double-role problem. We’ve learned that women can do what men can do, but we haven’t yet learned that men can do what women do. What’s most discouraging about this is that many women are still accepting it instead of getting angry. More women probably protest unequal pay than protest unequal parenthood — or even the lack of flexible work patterns and childcare that are routine in many other countries. It’s obvious that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it, yet the media coverage of work/family issues almost never even mentions men or the government.

Men as nurturers are important not just to free up women, but for children. If they grow up being cared for only or mostly by women, they believe that men can’t be as loving and nurturing as women are – which is a libel on men – and they just replicate the gender roles that limit everybody.

In the world at large, and for young and poor women plus women in the U.S. military, reproductive freedom — and the lack of it — affects the biggest number of women. I hope that within a decade, every statement of human rights will include reproductive freedom right along with freedom of speech. Reproductive freedom just means the right to own our own bodies, to have or not to have children, in safety and without government interference. Whether a woman has children or not is the biggest single determinant of whether she’s educated or not, poor or not, and healthy or not, yet we’ve been suppressing sex education in schools and reproductive choices in health care. Some examples are so bizarre, you couldn’t make them up. For example, many health plans pay for Viagra but not for birth control. Also one-in-three women in our military in Iraq say they’ve been sexually assaulted by their own comrades, yet their health care won’t provide abortions.

wOw: Your famous “This is what 40/50/60 looks like – we’ve been lying so long, who would know?” has served generations of women (and Oprah said of you last year, “This is what 74 can be!”). How does 75 look and feel to you?

Steinem: The good news is I don’t feel much different from my younger self – actually, better than I did before my late 30s when the women’s movement came along to rescue me from trying to be somebody else. I’m working at what I love, I’m on the road as much as ever, I have as much energy and I have a chosen family of friends. Once in a while, when I’m doing something very ordinary, a feeling of well-being comes over me and I realize I’m happy.

The bad news is that all this makes me feel immortal – and causes me to plan poorly! I hear about something that happened 20 or 25 years ago, it seems like yesterday, and then I realize that even if I’m very lucky, this is all the time I have left. Even if I make it to 100 as I plan to do, it won’t be long before I’ll have to leave everything I love. I’m trying to use this to help me use time better. It’s not so much about aging now as about mortality.

The odd thing is that I knew this long ago. A stranger just sent me an e-mail with a quote of mine under her sign-off: “Life is time, and time is all there is.” I wrote that in my 30s, but then I went right on thinking I was immortal for the next 40 years. The distance between knowing and understanding, between head and heart, must be the longest distance on earth.

wOw: Are you as happy/healthy/strong/wise? What regimen do you keep — if any — for your spectacular beauty?

Steinem: I’m happy, healthy and strong, but I don’t know about wise. Every day I discover how little I know; it’s just that I also discover that other people don’t know as much as I thought.  I also have to tell you that words like “spectacular beauty” never entered my life until I was a feminist. I think I was just a surprise, as if people were saying, “If a woman could get a man, why would she want equal pay?”

Now, I look in the mirror, I see all kinds of age changes, and I think, “Well, I expected that, but not THAT!” Beginning at around 50, I started to realize that our bodies lose what they need to support someone else, and keep what they need to support us. How smart is that!? It’s interesting to watch my body do something that it knows how to do but I don’t.

I’m not health conscious by the standards of vegan joggers, but I’m more conscious than I used to be. I was the classic Midwesterner who grew up on cheeseburgers, malteds and candy bars. I didn’t do sports or know female people who did sports — except maybe Ladies’ Night Bowling — and I thought exercise was for athletes. The only thing I did was dance because I loved it and I thought it might get me out of Toledo and into show business. I’m still hooked on sugar and I still don’t do sports, but I’m a vegetarian because I had a brush with breast cancer more than 20 years ago and I learned the dangers of hormones and chemicals in animal fat.

Which reminds me: Why are there so many races for the cure and for testing, but not for prevention? It’s because there’s no profit in prevention. People who profit from creating carcinogens get angry when you point out the most obvious causes of cancer among people with no family history of it.

Anyway, I try to exercise two or three times a week when I’m not on the road, and I love walking in New York. I’m lucky to have low blood pressure, a lot of endurance, and an Olympic ability to sleep on planes.

When reporters started to ask at about 50 if I would have a facelift, I used to say maybe after 70. Well, here I am and I still wouldn’t. I’d like to say it’s because I can’t imagine Georgia O’Keeffe or Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks with a facelift, but the truth is I’m afraid I’d become like the guy with a bad toupee; when you’re talking to him, you can’t think of anything else.

wOw: Your marriage was tragically cut short by your husband’s unexpected death. But, blessedly, you had a wonderful union, even if only for a short time. What makes for a good marriage? And is the institution evolving for better or worse?

Steinem: We were more surprised than anyone else when we got married – I was 66 and he was 59 – but we loved each other and wanted to be together, and the women’s movement had spent 30 years equalizing the marriage laws, so why not? Of course, “husband and wife” still sounded like roles, not people, so we referred to each other as “the friend I married.” We got married legally in a Cherokee ceremony in Oklahoma. It turned out to be very important two years later when he became very ill with primary brain lymphoma and there were medical permissions and almost a year of huge expense that wouldn’t otherwise have been covered by my insurance. It made me realize even more deeply that marriage has to be an institution open to everyone.

I think the rock-bottom requirement for any good partnership is that you want what’s best for the other person. Then come such things as shared humor and sensuousness, loving to do the little stuff together, and respecting each other’s work and purpose in life.

So does an honest idea of marriage. Margaret Mead always pointed out that marriage worked better in the 19th century because we only lived to be 50. The problem now is that we’re made to blame ourselves if it doesn’t last for a lifetime that’s about 30 years longer. David and I married late. Other people marry early, raise children together and then go amicably off to another stage of life. Who says that living longer or having different stages in our lives is a failure?

Yes, the institution of marriage is getting better because it’s more equal, freely chosen, no longer the only way to have sex or get out of your parents’ house. It’s become a “want to” rather than a “have to.” Even its words are changing from the old, bad ones like “marriage trap,” “ball and chain,” “my husband lets me …” and so on.

wOw: You wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times in January 2008 before the primary elections saying that you thought Sen. Obama was seen as unifying his race while Sen. Clinton was seen as divisive by her sex (playing the gender card, etc.). You felt the gender barrier was not taken as seriously as the race barrier. Upon reflection, do you think it was Secretary Clinton’s sex that lost out to Obama’s race?

Steinem: I think race and sex are intertwined and can only be uprooted together. For one thing, most people in the world are affected by both, and for another, racism needs some degree of visible difference to keep going in the long run, and the female body has to be controlled as the means of production in order to maintain that difference. That’s why it’s not practical to be a feminist without also being anti-racist, and it’s not practical to fight racism without also being a feminist.

I also wrote about supporting both Clinton and Obama for a year, then when I had to decide who to vote for in the primary, I supported Clinton. She had far more experience, especially with the ultra-right wing, but I also made clear that I would be happy to work for Obama. What made me the craziest about the election was that sex and race were being ranked instead of linked – even though Obama and Clinton were almost identical on issues.

I never thought Hillary Clinton could win, which made it all the more important to support her – not because I believed that sexism is more serious than racism. I didn’t think she could win for the same reason that over the years when asked when we would have a woman president, I’ve always said that several varieties of men would come first. It’s because sexism is more pervasive. Females are half of every group, and most of us of every race have experienced female authority when we were children, so we think it’s not appropriate to adulthood. Some people feel regressed to childhood when they see a powerful woman – which is another reason why men should play an equal role in raising children, and why women should be equally in authority outside the home.

I think that Clinton and Obama are not the end but the beginning. Together, they showed us the talent we’ve been missing for 200 years by choosing our national leadership from such a tiny talent pool – only about six percent of the population, which is what’s left after eliminating Americans by sex, race and class. They symbolize the richness of future leadership.

wOw: President Obama reversed the “global gag rule” that withheld U.S. foreign aid from any group that referred women for abortions, even if it used its own funds to do so. What new legislation do you wish Obama would put forth next?

Steinem: There’s plenty just waiting to restore the damage done by eight years of Bush marching in lockstep with the anti-woman right wing. For instance, there are seven bills gathered together under the heading, “Prevention First.” They include REAL, which stands for Respectful Education About Life; a bill that would restore sex education to schools. Under Bush, federally funded sex education was the only subject in which knowledge was valued by its absence. Our tax dollars were used fraudulently to support abstinence-only education that increased all the problems it was supposed to diminish, from unwanted teenage pregnancy and STDs to abortions and an increased number of abused children. These seven bills also include treating prescription contraception like any other prescription, making emergency contraception available at hospitals for rape survivors — and much more.

We also need to include reproductive health in any upcoming health-care legislation — from contraception and safe abortion to prenatal care — and not just exclude parts of our bodies.

It isn’t part of national discussion yet, but there’s also an opportunity to change tax policy so that caregiving has an attributed value – whether it’s raising children or caring for elderly parents or AIDS patients, whether by women or by men – and this value becomes tax deductible if we pay taxes, and tax refundable if we’re too poor to pay taxes. It’s in the national interest to reward doing this work at home where it’s less expensive and usually better done, and we would finally be making visible a third of the productive work in the country.

There are a lot of things that don’t need legislation, just looking at the way policy already affects the female half of the country – and vice versa. For instance, a lack of childcare doubly burdens young girls who have to become substitute parents for their younger siblings. Hospital emergency rooms are bearing an impossible burden, and half of the women who need them have been hurt by an intimate partner.

wOw: What is your new book about? Of the four books you have written, which remains the most meaningful to you?

Steinem: I’m writing an on-the-road book about being an itinerant feminist organizer for almost 40 years. It’s been the least visible part of my life, but the biggest and most important part of my time. As Gandhi always said, you have to go where people are. People still need to be in a room together with all five senses; that ‘s why we have reflector cells in our brains — they allow empathy. Mass media and the Internet are great, but you wouldn’t expect babies to bond with their parents over the Internet, and adults have a hard time doing that, too. In the abolitionist and suffragist era, there were many traveling organizers, and I’m hoping to tempt a few readers into this wandering life. Going on the road is right up there with life-threatening emergencies, meditation and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.

Choosing a favorite book is like choosing a favorite child. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions is still the most translated and used in courses. As a writer, I’m glad it’s still relevant, but as an activist, I wish it weren’t. Revolution From Within is deeper and gets more this-changed-my-life responses. The most unusual one lately was from a young man who had a paragraph from Revolution From Within tattooed on one side of his chest, and  sent me a photograph. I was shocked! When I asked a young woman in my office what she thought, she said, “I would have chosen a different font.” I guess you could say that’s a generational difference!

wOw: Men continue to dominate decision-making roles in corporations, government and the media. Do you see any strong strides in these three areas?

Steinem: Women in corporations are like an immigrant group. We have a hard time making it up through someone else’s hierarchy, so we’re more likely to start our own businesses, in the way that Irish and Italians and Jews had to do. Yes, it’s important to keep pressing inside corporations, but by itself, it’s not enough.

Politics gives us the best chance of choosing our own leaders, not just having them picked for us. Our voting power was how we got Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink and Shirley Chisholm and Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee and Hillary Clinton; all very different from those who were hired; say, Carly Fiorina and Condoleezza Rice.

In media, we now have a large group of women with expertise and a track record, but on camera, they still have to be younger and better looking than their male counterparts. Off camera, they still occupy only about six percent of the “clout” positions; that is, the jobs where programming and news decisions are made.

This last dilemma is why we started the Women’s Media Center. It monitors the media, as we did during the election, it trains women experts to be on-camera authorities, and it covers stories that are otherwise invisible. You can go to womensmediacenter.com with your coffee in the morning.

wOw: Are you still friendly with any of the “groundbreakers” — Susan Brownmiller, Germaine Greer — or know what they are up to?

Steinem: I only once met Germaine Greer, but I sometimes see Susan or Kate Millett. I often see and work with Robin Morgan, Alice Walker, Wilma Mankiller, Dolores Huerta, Marilyn French, Esther Broner, Suzanne Braun Levine, Letty Pogrebin, Marie Wilson, Ellie Smeal, Marlo Thomas. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Holly Near, Johnnetta Cole, Marysa Navarro – and a lot more. I can’t imagine any bigger reward than their friendship, smarts, humor, knowing they’ll be there no matter what, and the “Aha!” of understanding because we’re always discovering something new.

wOw: In your wonderful book, Outrageous Acts, you advocate that we should do something outrageous every day. Your quote: “Once I began to listen to my own authentic voice — or at least to realize I had one — I discovered a new answer to my earlier rhetorical question: How much more rebellious could I get? The answer was: a lot.” Are you still doing outrageous acts? What did you do on your birthday?

Steinem: I had a great dinner with friends in a Lower East Side restaurant. My only regret is that I didn’t tape the stories they told, from one who had gone to a Buddhist retreat in the Himalayas but found she could only meditate on sexual fantasies, to another who identified with his favorite age of 59 and then never changed it.

I’m thinking of having a tattoo for my birthday. I like the art nouveau-looking ones that I see on women’s backs just below their jeans — it’s rebelliously known as a tramp stamp — but if it hurts, I won’t do it. My real birthday present to myself is going back to Zambia to live with elephants for a few days.

Gloria Steinem’s birthday is being celebrated through the Ms Foundation’s Be Outrageous! Commit, Share and Support Outrageous Acts for Simple Justice (see the video below and visit the Facebook Outrageous Acts page and at the website Outrageousacts.org.

Comments are closed.