Feminist activist and Writer, USA

Published Date: 8th December 2011

Open Windows | In Conversation

Feminist activist and Writer, USA

December 8th, 2011

As a young adult living in India, I had a limited perspective of the position of women in America—I believed American women and Indian women in America were powerful. After all, it was presented in every fancy font and in power drenched words—power clothes, power heels, power lunches, etc. On arriving in America and experiencing the real status of women, the bubble burst. I learned that external acquisitions were mistaken for power; inherent power was missing.

Several years later, I met a woman of real power, one of my heroes, Gloria Steinem. Ms. Steinem has led the Women’s Liberation Movement and dedicated her life to the advancement of women. With a gentleness that can only radiate from being anchored to self-value, she shed light on the cause of the all-pervasive negative attitude towards women and explained the essentials to protect women—empathy and equality.

What were your earliest observations that indicated women deserved better and could do more?

There was no women’s movement when I was growing up or when I was in college, at least nothing visible. So I thought that the only answer was an individual answer, you had to work very hard, behave and follow the rules, and that by being a “good girl” you would succeed. It took me a long time to realize that was not true. So I would say I was in my mid-thirties before I realized that there had to be a movement, that the problems were not individual, they were systemic. And so we had to come after them as a group.


What propelled you?

Well, in the first instance what propelled me was that I understood that I was being treated unequally. That I could not get political assignments as a journalist when less experienced men got those assignments or that I had a difficulty getting an apartment or that I got paid less, but I kept thinking if I just tried harder it would be all right.

And then two things woke me up. One that I went as a journalist to cover an abortion hearing because New York State was then trying to decide whether to liberalize their abortion laws. This was before the Supreme Court decision, just before, and I heard women standing up and telling the truth about what it was like to enter a criminal underworld here to get an abortion. I had had an abortion, one in three women needs an abortion at some time in her lifetime, so why was it illegal. So that was one big revelation. And another was that I was working with and writing about women on welfare, and they had done an analysis of the welfare system as if it were a gigantic husband. It was very funny, the analysis—that it was jealous, looked under your bed to see if there were shoes of any other man. So those two things woke me up to a burgeoning women’s movement and understanding that no single person could do this by oneself.


Was it difficult to write about these issues when you started?

Yes, we were a joke really. When we finally began to get serious opposition it was a step forward because anything related to women couldn’t be serious, it was a joke somehow. Or if it wasn’t a joke, it was detracting from important problems. So even on the left, otherwise, very progressive men would say, “But that’s distracting from questions of class or race,” not understanding that questions of class or race start with questions of sex and gender. In fact, growing up with two classes of human beings in your own home, one that cooks and one that eats, one that is less important than the other by birth probably prepares you to accept the equally manufactured differences of race or class outside your family.


Did you have moments of feeling alone or vulnerable?

Well, I was not alone. That is why it is so important that we have at least a few women friends who we work with, who we meet with. If we are alone, I think we do come to feel as if we are wrong and the system is right, as if we are crazy and the world is right. Because this was a contagion, there were women who were already activists and became activists. I do not think it is possible to do it completely by oneself; you need companionship. We are communal animals.


There has been much written and spoken about women’s rights and equality. As one of the original founders and leaders of the Modern Women’s Movement, how would you say this has translated into reality?

Generally speaking, waves of social and political profound change have stages to them. So the first stage is usually the idea that it is possible to change. That race is not biological or even exists, or that gender roles are biological instead of created. People are people, but if you are living in a structure that divides people in that way, the first step is consciousness. It is understanding that it does not have to be this way; it can be different.

As I say, hope is a form of planning. And that stage goes like wildfire, very quickly because it is within our control. We can talk to each other, we can have this new understanding. We can act together. It still goes on. You know people are still making that discovery, but a critical mass of people had made that discovery, certainly by the mid and late 70s.

Then two things happen. One is that you can make an institutional change because you have a majority support, and the other thing is that you get a backlash because you have majority support. Ever since the 80s, we have had a profound backlash, but it is inevitable. If you have a front-lash, you are going to have a backlash from the people who still think they should be higher in the hierarchy that existed up to now.

So the idea that we had in the 70s is only somewhat institutionalized now, and of course, we have had continued understandings. For instance, in the beginning, we were talking about equal pay for equal work. Then we realized that the professions that are mostly female, what we call here the pink collar ghetto—the nursing, service professions—they had the same level of expertise as professions, say, pharmacy, which was mostly male. Equal pay did not help there, so we needed comparable worth. We needed to compare this profession to that profession—this is mostly female, and that is mostly male—and establish comparable worth as a standard. We still do not have equal pay, but we have moved, I think 17 cents in 40 years, towards it. We do have the concept of comparable worth, but that has not been reached yet. Even a parking lot attendant may make more money than a child care attendant, not because we care more about our cars than our children, but because the first profession is mostly male, and the second is mostly female. Besides that, we still have a big step in the future, which is to attribute value to work that is productive but unsalaried. So the work of child-rearing, taking care of relatives who are ill for example, that is a third of the work in the country, the country could not go on without it, and we could make it economically visible by attributing a value to it at replacement level, and making that tax deductible.


Why is so difficult to break these barriers?

Because people are profiting from the way it is. You know women are the biggest cheap labor source in the world, cheap or unpaid totally.


Women often make critical decisions within the home and drive a significant percentage of the consumer market. Why can’t we influence society to treat us better?

Women are said to make about 80 percent of purchases at the point of sale, including men’s underwear because it is so often part of a woman’s job to be the designated family shopper. That is an unequal burden—ask men to buy their own underwear. But to the extent that it remains true of household purchases, this gives women not only vote power but dollar power.

For instance, I would not buy a toothpick in Walmart because they discriminate against female employees here, and are the biggest foreign employer in sweatshops in China. Women could write the president of Walmart and tell him they are not buying low prices that have such a high human cost. Or they could write the president of Samsung about not buying its new phone because Samsung’s construction arm is building a naval base on Jeju Island in South Korea to house a US anti-ballistic system, and that base will destroy the unique environment on Jeju, the Island of Global Peace and a UNESCO Global Treasure. Even a few thousand or sometimes a few hundred such letters can have a significant impact.


Walmart might be entering the Indian market.

I know. When I was in India, we took a film that was made here called The High Cost of Low Prices, and that helped to keep Walmart out of India.


Women’s magazines appear to be catalogues for products that are selling the concept of power to women. Is it power they are selling or is it the illusion of power?

First, you have to remember that there is no women’s magazine, except Ms. Magazine that is controlled by women. Women’s magazines are run for profit. That means they are dependent on advertising, and advertisers will not come into the magazine unless they have “complimentary copy.” So beauty products want articles about beauty, clothing manufacturers want articles about fashion, shampoo manufacturers want articles on how to wash your hair, so by the time you are finished with supplying all that, there are a few pages left over.

It is not the fault of editors; it is the economic structure of women’s magazines as catalogues. Editors are usually trying to sneak in at least one article or a few pages that have information. But look at Newsweek, since Tina Brown took over as editor, it has 20 times more information about women than any women’s magazine because advertisers do not make the same unethical demands of news magazines.


So it is easier to have women’s articles in a non-women’s magazine?



And do we believe what is sold in women’s magazines?

I do not think we believe what is sold in women’s magazines, but the whole culture tells us that if we looked perfect, life would be better.

If they told men that they would do it too. The single greatest source of scholarship money in the United States are the Ms. America contests, in each state plus the national ones. It is ridiculous that a beauty contest is the single greatest source of scholarship money. If it were the greatest source of scholarship money for men, they would be entering beauty contests too. So it is systemic, it is the culture.


I was under the impression it was often through sports that one received scholarship monies.

That was true for young men, and now there are more for young women, but it is still nothing like the money lavished on men’s football and basketball teams. In poor neighborhoods, like the one I grew up in, boys dream of being athletes because it is the way to get out of working in the factory. Being poor, it is a way into college. Girls dream of being in beauty contests or in show business because it is their way out. It is the only place they see people who look like them succeeding. And as the saying goes, “You have to see it to be it.”


Why don’t we see more women change drivers, leaders, and intellectuals grace women’s magazine covers, with significant media space allotted to their stories of transformation and growth? If we do not show these stories to the younger generation, how can we expect any better from them?

About five or six years ago, we started the Women’s Media Center whose goal is to make women more visible, more powerful in the media. We critique coverage that is sexist or racist; we do original stories. We train women who have great knowledge and should be in the media, to be comfortable in the media. We do research and expose facts. For instance, of all the so-called clout positions—where you can decide which story to cover—only 3 percent are women. Now, I am not saying there are not good men, there are. But that is just out of proportion.

For instance, there are now more women who are booking talk show guests, but they still have to convince the producer that this is a story.


That must sell?

No, it is not about what the average American wants, but the myth of what sells. It is about the structure, the idea that only the young and the beautiful are acceptable. Or only people who can wear the high fashion that advertisers sell.


How has it become acceptable for women to demean and berate other women on national TV and in public platforms in America? Can this be an accurate representation of women in the most powerful country in the world?

It is part of the backlash. The combination of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay and lesbian movement has been a really big challenge to white male dominance. So, I think subconsciously, if not consciously, there is an effort to make the majority of people fight with each other instead of unifying for change from the people in power.

Of course, some men are better feminists than many women and white people who are more anti-racist than some people of colour. It’s not as if it has something to do with biology, but it’s the culture. For instance, for many years, the only shows on television that showed black families.


There was a comedy, Different Strokes.

Yes, first there were none, and then there were only comedies as if it were fun to live in the ghetto. And the big shows about white families were about the very rich and there were melodramas “Dallas.” So the overall cultural message was, “Oh, it is very difficult to be rich, and it is a lot of fun to be poor.” Consciously or not, that was countering the movements for social change.


How do women become part of a detrimental system? It is painful to watch, even for a few seconds.

I agree with you; it is difficult to watch. I think it depends on the women. Sometimes they need a job, and sometimes they have been raised to feel that women are their competition, and they can only survive by getting the favor of the man in power. Feminism is about being responsible for our own actions. I am not excusing women who oppose other women, but the problem is not usually the individual—it is the system.


How does advertising, with its sexualization of young people and violent imagery, impact developing minds?

Well, there are many brilliant books and films exposing the influence of advertising imagery.

Advertising imagery is unrealistic—it is manipulated. In the past, these images were changed by airbrushing, and now they are modified by the computer. There is a perfection that does not exist.

I think it is quite helpful just not to look at them for a month or so. I was giving a lecture someplace and afterwards we were having this same discussion, and a young woman of 12 or so got up in the audience and said: “I just do not ever look at beauty magazines anymore, they made me feel ugly.” And I said, well you’ve just diagnosed the whole problem.


So it has permeated to a girl as young as 12?

Yes. But I think it would help if we, just as an exercise, for a whole month did not look at any of that imagery. Instead, we just look at real people—in streets, in health clubs—peoples’ real bodies. It transforms our consciousness.


Do you think men are affected too? We see them portrayed as sexual objects, all waxed, polished, and stuffed into the briefest of Speedos?

Yes, of course, it does. Men’s bodies are relatively less on media view, but it certainly puts pressure on men as well. It is quite all right in movies or life for a man to marry a woman 20 or 30 years younger, but it is not okay for a woman to marry a man 20 or 30 years younger. There is still a difference.


And what about aging? I did not want to be 22 when I was 28 years old, but I find women do not want to accept aging. If we deny it, aren’t we denying the many facets of life we have experienced and in the process become?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with it. Men are age conscious too, but not nearly as conscious as women. And the reason it is greater in women is because society—culturally broadly, values us when we are potential child-bearers or child rearers. Our value begins to diminish a lot, at about 50. Ironically, that also sets you free. The so-called feminine role, which is like a vice, begins to diminish.

But we are making progress, decade by decade. If you think of the era of Marilyn Monroe, who was made to feel finished at 30, and you see Meryl Streep now playing in a romantic comedy at 60, we are making progress a decade at a time. But women are still made to feel that age is a greater penalty.


There are enough and more platforms informing women about invisible panty lines, bikini waxing, and decorating their private parts. But we still do not use the word vagina. In many regions of the world, we do not talk about menstrual cycles, and we do not want to understand the gravity of trauma caused by incest and rape. Why do we feel discomfort in dealing with topics that matter?

Because so much in a patriarchy or a male dominant system you are a possession. Classically, at least, you are a virgin and then one man’s possession. Period. And if you do not fall into those two categories, you are disreputable or a prostitute, and you can be punished. So it is changing, at least now couples live together before they get married. That was not true when I was growing up, that would have been a great shame. There is less emphasis on virginity than there used to be. And there is a whole array of important anti-violence events called The Vagina Monologues.


I watched Eve Ensler perform the Vagina Monologues a decade ago. It was liberating and empowering.

Yes, and when they started, the New York Times would not even advertise it because they would not use the word “vagina.” I ended up writing an introduction for the book about the play in order to encourage the publisher to put that word on the cover as the title. So there has been some advance there, but it is still unrealistic.

In my experience, the men who understand best how traumatic rape is are men in prison who have been raped. In the absence of women, the weaker men are used as women, and they write me and say: “Now I understand. Body invasion is the most traumatic.”


Rape is only referred to as a statistic anymore; society lacks empathy.

That is why it is very important to tell stories at every level and in every way. It is important to tell the real story of each woman’s life, of how it feels, of what is happening, what domestic violence is like, child abuse or whether it happens to boys or girls. Our brains work on narratives, not statistics. That is what is important about what you are doing—you are telling stories—and that is the way we empathize, and we understand.

We go through life watching wars and reading about genocides and rapes, yet we squirm and distance ourselves from the sight of a little child crying or an adult in distress. Why are we becoming desensitized to violence and destruction?

The media in general in most countries is organized around “hard” news and “soft” news—it is gendered. Hard news is statistics, generality, broad statements, impersonal—and that is not the way our brain works. We have been sitting around campfires for millennia upon millennia, listening to each other’s stories.

Empathy requires identification with another human being. You do not get that from statistics. You get it from stories. That is why every social justice movement I know of has started with stories—with people sitting in a group and one person says what they think is unsayable, that they have been raped, for instance, and six other women say, “That happened to you, I thought it happened to me, I thought it was my shame.” And then you see that if it is a group problem, you can solve it in a group way.


Is this what we witnessed with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, where a woman without financial or political clout stood up courageously for herself and spoke out?

That was a great sign of progress. Even though it did not meet the narrow standards of the courtroom, it served a very important purpose.

A hotel housekeeper knew she had rights, which she would not have known probably 20 years ago. She came forward and told the truth. Her whole union supported her; all the women and many men supported her, and three other women in France came forward to say that Straus-Kahn had also sexually assaulted or harassed them. Otherwise, he might well have been President of France, but with this, he is not going to be President of France.

It takes one voice of courage to evoke and bring about voices from around the world?

Exactly. In the case of Anita Hill, although that case took much longer, in the end, people believe the story of the woman who came forward because she has inspired other women to come forward. So it is terribly, terribly important that we support each other in telling the truth.


Why do we see fewer women in political leadership positions in the United States compared to many other countries where patriarchy is still a dominant system?

Because the US is arguably still the world’s most powerful and media-influential nation, there is often more competition for decision-making positions here. We also have a less hereditary system than countries where, in the absence of a son, even a daughter of a ruling family could become chief-of-state, think of India and Pakistan. Also, this is a multi-racial country, and racism has to restrict females as the means of reproduction—say, to restrict women of the so-called superior group and exploit women of the so-called inferior group—in order to maintain racism into the future. That is a reason one-race countries, say Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are often more egalitarian for women, even though they are still struggling with patriarchy. Racism and sexism are intertwined— the first can’t survive for long without the second. That is why both must be fought together. Plus, the fact that most women on earth suffer from both forms of discrimination.


I was hopeful of Senator Hillary Clinton becoming the President of the United States.

She would have been a wonderful President; I hope she will run again. She used her eight years in the White House as an apprenticeship and then ran for Senator. No other First Lady in the history of this country has run for office on her own, not even Eleanor Roosevelt. Hillary Clinton did that, and she became a powerful Presidential candidate.


Why do you think she didn’t win the nomination?

I supported and campaigned for her because she was more experienced. I always made it clear that I would also campaign for Obama if he were the nominee and I did campaign for Obama.

I never thought Hillary could win the nomination because I think in a deep sense, as long as we are raised by women when we are infants and little children, more than by men, we will associate female power with childhood. I think it is part of the reason that men on television were so threatened by Hillary Clinton.

It made them feel regressed to childhood, which was the last time they saw a powerful woman, when they were eight or ten. So in a big anthropological and spiritual sense, until men are raising children as much as women are, and women are as powerful outside the home as men are, we will not really be able to choose from all of the human talent for our leaders.


How can men support and celebrate women in and out of the home, to improve the status of women in society?

Men can support women in every and anyway. From personally objecting to violence against women, including sex trafficking and prostitution—as in the slogan, “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex” to supporting the dreams of daughters as much as sons and showing their respect for “women’s work” by doing it too. They can be real parents, and can also object when women are being paid less.


Is there a correlation between violence in a home and society at large?

Yes. You can exactly predict the degree of violence in society by the degree of violence in the home. When violence gets normalized in the home, it is okay in the street, it is okay in foreign policy.


Can invisible women in a visible society, claim their visibility?

Yes, speaking up, telling their stories and not being just good listeners. The so-called “feminine” idea is that we are supposed to be good listeners.


What quality in a woman inspires you?

Authenticity. That she is her own authentic self as much as she can be. I think we are born unique, the differences between two women are probably bigger than the generalized differences between males and females, like the supposed differences between so-called races. It is the uniqueness of each person that matters. I love hearing women speak their own stories as well as our shared humanity.


How would you like your legacy to be honoured and lived out by future generations?

I hope that whatever part of my life might be useful to them, that it would help them to feel empowered to be their own unique selves. I do not want them to feel they have to be like anybody else, including me, but to be that unique person that was born in them.

We are linked to other people, not ranked, linked.


To learn more about Gloria Steinem visit her website.