Gloria Steinem: The Iconic Feminist Speaks to our Generation
Who is Gloria Steinem?
Any given teenage girl can rattle off the most intimate details about random T.V. starlets, but so many of us are unaware of a woman who has had so much impact on our lives just because she doesn’t throw herself into the media.
Gloria Steinem is a badass and deserves greater appreciation from our generation. More concretely, she is a feminist activist, organizer, writer and lecturer. She co-founded magazines like Ms. Magazine, which is still a great feminist read, and helped to found organizations such as the Ms. Foundation for Women, Choice USA, and the Women’s Media Center.
She’s written about everything from advertising to networking, but what she’s probably most known for is her expose on the Playboy organization, for which she worked undercover as a Playboy bunny. Seriously. And she really pissed off Hugh Hefner, which makes me appreciate her even more.
Even though she’s known for her groundbreaking work in the women’s movement of the 1970’s, she still continues to do great work that affects our generation.
I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Steinem last summer. There really are no words to describe how meaningful that experience was to me…but I did try to find some, and wrote a more formal article about the interview.
It’s a little long, but check it out! She’s an amazing woman, and I really think we have a lot to learn from her.
Gloria Steinem:The Iconic Feminist Speaks to our Generation
All I see are books. Books about religion, race, gender and more wallpaper every room I see. It almost appears as though books inhabit this home rather than a human being. I have always believed that a person can be accurately judged based on their home. If I find someone to be too eccentric, too strange or even too bland, I can always trace the feelings back to their homes. Whether there is an overwhelming abundance of porcelain figurines crafted in the likeness of Disney characters, a dull smell of cat despite the fact that not one cat had ever lived in the home, or even just empty, white rooms, perfectly formed to fit a non-personality; homes generally reflect who their inhabitants are.
Therefore, upon entering Ms. Gloria Steinem's Manhattan apartment, this feeling remained in the back of my mind, though, admittedly, it was put on the back burner, letting the spotlight shine on my inordinate feelings of both terror and excitement. Who was I, a Midwestern teenager, to interview the iconic feminist who led multiple women's rights organizations, founded and published Ms. Magazine, one of the first feminist magazines, in addition to being a groundbreaking journalist? But when I entered her apartment the overwhelming sight of books accosted me, and the tumultuous tornado of fear whipping around my stomach lost speed. I felt at ease, just one character, one plot line among many.
I let my eyes wander. The literary motif continued into a small room with perfect reading lighting, warm and comforting, not overpowering but illuminating, and back into a porch area with a two story window, New York City light spilling down onto a spiral staircase, the likes of which exist in a child's ideal playhouse. It turns out Ms. Steinem had bought two apartments in the building, one on the ground floor, one right above it, and had manipulated them to meet her will. For some reason, this fairly rational idea left me with wonder. It would never have occurred to me to alter an already existing structure to meet my needs, and ultimately, to become something even more beautiful in it's own right. But Gloria Steinem is used to that idea.
So, how did a fifteen-year old girl from Cleveland end up sitting across from Gloria Steinem, tape recorder in shaking hand? We'd have to travel back two years. Back to the period most sensible people try to erase from memory: middle school. Imagine me, an eighth-grade girl, thoroughly normal except for my sarcastic tendencies and impatience with blatant stupidity. I'm sitting in class, bored out of my mind. I've gotten up an hour early just to prod at my hair, which ends up replicating a bird's nest by the end of the day no matter what I do. I've squeezed myself into Abercrombie from head to toe, "hot" on the outside, inside wondering why a store clearly designed for anorexic supermodels is marketed to the fat American public. Of course if you had asked me I would have said casually that I had rolled out of bed and thrown on the nearest articles of clothing. Of course.
Suddenly, I hear mention of the phrase "chapel talk." I'm sure I'm in a state of cardiac arrest, as I can't seem to remember how to breathe and my head feels both like dead weight and a plucked feather at the same time. My thoughts shift from obsessing over my looks, and move on to horrific visions of how I'm going to make an idiot out of myself in front of the school.
At my school, a chapel talk is a form of torture devised to exploit a teen's greatest weakness at the most vulnerable point in their lives. Teachers like to describe it as a ten-minute speech delivered to the entire middle school faculty and student body, involving multiple drafts, hours of research, and light memorization. Same thing.
I try my best not to think about what topic I'll pick, sure that I'll just grow sick of whatever I choose after the third or fourth draft. Time starts to run out, my mom starts to yell at me to make a decision already, and starts pulling articles from magazines with post its attached saying, "Thought this would be interesting," or "Wouldn't you like to write about this?" The answer is always no (insert eye roll here), because while the inner workings of the Electoral College may be fascinating to my mother, it foreshadows a painful death by way of American law policy to me.
A few days before I absolutely have to come up with a topic, my mom drops an article torn from a magazine into my lap. The title: "A Generation of Women Wiped Out?" It sounds a little science fiction-y, but I'm not in what adults like to call a "teenager mood" so I start to read. I read the four-page article in about ten minutes I'm so drawn in. The article claims women in South-Asia, especially India, are killing their own baby girls, a practice called female feticide. Why? They're female. I'm disgusted, angered, disturbed, saddened. Beyond the grotesqueness of a mother killing her child, beyond the frustration of a place where hating women isn't part of the culture, it is the culture, and even beyond the shock that nobody is forced to do it in some genocidal war tactic, but rather it's a choice; I'm most disturbed that I, nor anybody I know, is aware of the thousands of baby girls that die every day for absolutely no reason. Not even a bad one, like war or ancient ritual sacrifices, but just because this culture hates women.
My basic opinion on the topic is this: thank God America is different! Wouldn't it be a nightmare to live in a society where women were hated this much? Then I realize as I'm researching, pouring through these disgusting incidents of sexism, that I find parallels between these cultures I've basically deemed uncivilized and our own. One of the biggest obstacles the Indian government has to overcome is the corruption of the police officers; how they are so easily bribed, how they will often help the practice by turning a blind eye to the illegal ultrasounds that, if they show a girl, lead to the continuance of feticide. I always hear on the news about corruption; if not from police officers, then certainly from our government. Isn't that worse? It turns out one of the main reasons people do kill their baby girls is because a daughter is expensive, what with the dowry being one of their most important and maintained customs. Plus, a son will carry on the family name. A son will help the family move up in the world. The more I open my eyes the more I see it in our culture; even today, most women plan more for their wedding or for having babies than they do their careers. Even if they are career oriented and make it through college, once they're married, that's often forgotten. Whereas when a boy grows up, his life becomes his work. He is supposed to help his family move up in the world. How different are our cultures, really?
Long after I give the speech, I continue to notice parallels between this supposedly god-awful, woman-hating society and our own, supposedly ideal one. But no one else, none of my friends, seem to have opened their eyes yet. Their thoughts are still consumed with hair straighteners and Abercrombie. But I've stopped thinking about myself so much. I crave a group of girls I can talk to about these issues. Not in some academic discussion, but just talking the way I talk with everyone else; just about something that's meaningful. I want to talk with girls who also see these situations every day, who also want to shout "But that's not fair!" And I want girls who don't see it to open their eyes.
I can't find that sanctuary. It doesn't exist. So I decide to make one. I'm loud, I'm opinionated, I don't fear judgment (much) and I like to write. It shouldn't be too hard. The word spreads from my parents to their friends, who spread it to their friends and so on. All while I'm still living in a world inside my head, fantasizing about rants I'll write and the feelings of support and relief that will come from knowing other girls feel the same way.
Finally the word spreads far enough. All the way to Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem, a pioneer in second wave feminism, who was one of the first women to stand up to our culture and say "But that's not fair!" Through friends of friends, through random connections and a fated mention of my idea in random conversations, Gloria Steinem has heard of me. I receive her e-mail address and I contact her. She agrees to meet with me. This is in the beginning of April. We plan to meet in the beginning of June, the day after my last final. I am in a state of shock for two months straight. That is, until I enter her apartment. That's when my stomach conducts a rebellion Gandhi himself would be proud of.
We sit down in her living room, on couches I sink halfway into. She makes small talk and I set up the tape recorders. My dad is shooed out of the room. It's time to get down to business. I mumble something about how I'm going to proceed, she smiles, and somehow I manage to get words out of my mouth. I ask her about feminism, about how girls just seem to hate that word. Ms. Steinem says that people don't understand it, and people are afraid of it. But when you know you are one, when you know you are proud enough of your gender to support yourself and fight for yourself and others, you have to stand up and say it, to encourage others. We talk about my generation, and she clearly thinks highly of it; she's both supportive and admiring. I start to feel more comfortable, and delve a little deeper.
What would an ideal society be like? What if this sexism that is so wrong, that exists everywhere, were to disappear? Is it even imaginable? "The future is organic," she says. "Suppose we want more equality in the future, which we want, and less violence and more humor and joy and love and poetry and whatnot. So put it in this present." And she's right. "If we reflect what we hope for in the future in what we do everyday," she continues, "Then we don't exactly know what's going to happen, but we can be more sure that it will look like what we're hoping for."
The idea of putting love into your life and spreading it around may sound like a lyric from a seventies folk song. But it's true. How often do we get so preoccupied with changing the future that we forget about the present? You have to start somewhere; you can't just dream of a better tomorrow. For me, it's how as a girl I'm constantly told I don't have power. Of course, it's never clearly stated like that. No one has ever come up to me and has said, "You, young girl, have no power." I have never known someone to lack the basic social skill of subtlety to such an extent. But, for example, I constantly hear that boys are better at math than girls. Of course that's not true, but somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that boys could solve math problems and girls could write papers. And now, even though statistics, not to mention reality, beg equality, the idea stays the same.
Or, how about when guys are congratulated for hooking up with girls, but the girls are perceived as sluts? It may be a tired example, but I honestly think it's the most prevalent. Even if it's just a rumor, even if it's just a joke we're all so quick to call "slut" and laugh it off. Hey, she's a freshman and you're a senior? Way to go! Now go get another-those girls are only as good as tally marks as it is. Obviously, she's the one who has the problem; she knew he slept with everything female that moves, but she went ahead and did it anyway. The guy, sleeping his way through the freshman class, disregarding anyone's feelings but his own, treating girls like an extracurricular activity rather than people, he doesn't have a problem. He has the power, not the problem. But was the power part obvious, or did it become unclear after you started insulting the freshman? Because it's not lit up in neon lights with arrows pointing at it screaming "sexist," well, it's not as easy to defend.
Believe me, I know how awkward and uncomfortable it is to have to be the one to point out among my friends why calling that poor girl a "slut," "whore," "bitch," just isn't right. Then of course, I'm the one who gets looked at weird. But I know if I don't that standard for guys will just continue. And now that I'm able to see how unfair and plain wrong it is I can't compromise that just to join in.
We continue to talk about this underlying power guys have, where they can get away with wrongdoings. Why is this? I know I've seen it a million times; men can make the same mistake as a woman. For a man it's a one-time thing; after all, everybody makes mistakes, no matter how intelligent and driven they are. But for women, it's a stupid blunder probably due to feminine silliness. She's made a mistake once, it will inevitably happen again. Is this because men really mess up less? Of course not.
"In a general way, anything that affects men is taken more seriously than anything that affects only women," Steinem explains. So, because men are taken more seriously, their problems are more serious, as are the causes. If a man messes something up, there must be some deep, underlying problem. But if a girl messes up, it's because she's silly. Or she just can't get anything right. People will become more exasperated with women, because it's easier to question them. It's easier to believe that there is nothing more than meets the surface.
I constantly run into this in my life. As a woman, I'm not taken as seriously. I've had teachers call me "love, hon, dear" in class when they never would dare to say that to a male student. In Gym class the guys think it's amusing when a girl is able to run as many laps as them. When I make a comment in class, guys will scoff at me if they disagree- something I've never seen a girl do. I'm sick of being treated as this entertaining figure instead of someone with ideas- even on the smallest of levels. I'm sick of being met with surprise when I do something well, instead of congratulations. I think the main difference I see being a girl is that all of my accomplishments are a bonus, an addition to just being "nice" and "cute" instead of being essential to my future or development, as they are for guys. While I've never been told I can't do something, thanks to the feminists who came before me, the surprise people have when I do it is enough to solidify that doubt.
While I am incredibly frustrated with the fact that I don't have the power to be taken seriously, I wonder if there are drawbacks to the power men do have. Their power is their masculinity, but does their masculinity limit them? I ask Gloria what she's found about masculinity. "When I'm talking to groups that are all men, we talk about how the masculine role limits them," she says. "They often want to talk about how they missed having real fathers, real loving, present fathers, because of the way that they tried to fit the picture of masculinity." It seems, that while we as women sorely miss having the power to be taken seriously, men miss the power of being able to have that less serious side, the side responsible for unconditional, unabashed love.
I think of fathers I know. Thankfully, my own father is pretty open in his love for his children, and many others are too. But there are plenty of fathers who are not. Think about how many times your father hugs you, tells you he loves you, talks to you about school and your friends. Chances are your father may brush over these things, especially as you become more entrenched in teenage years. Maybe he's scared to have to combat problems or is afraid he'll mess up. But more likely it's that he'll have to confront the emotions that we as girls generally aren't afraid to put out in the open. Moms are usually the ones constantly at us about our friends and our lives. I know I sometimes don't want to talk, because I'm trying to figure out the answers to her prodding questions myself. But at least she's asking. She's not afraid to hear an answer that will confirm I'm not six any more, that my emotional capacity no longer consists of "happy", "angry", or "hungry."
Sexism limits men, just like it limits women. Fathers should be able to talk to their daughters like mothers do! Maybe it can get awkward to get into the nitty gritty (I know if I even mention the three letters PMS my Dad basically runs screaming out of the room) but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a verbal connection. (And besides, it's pretty sexist for Dads to assume that every conversation we'd have is bound to end up in the realm of the dreaded menstrual cycle in the first place). Bottom line is until we get rid of sexism, fathers will always be limited. And it's not just affecting daughters; it's affecting sons too. They grow up living by the example their fathers have set for them.
So how do we reverse this curse? Ms. Steinem has the simple, but far from easy answer. She suggests, "When men start to become the fathers they wished they had, it's a real change."
It would seem that one of the main road blocks to discussion between men and women is pretty essential; the fact that we are two different genders. It's because men are concerned with "masculine" things (football, girls, mud) and women with "feminine" things (make up, tight jeans, gossip) that the two just cannot find anything to talk about. It would seem that this idea of gender, of girl-things and guy-things, is more responsible for sexism than the physical aspects of being a man or a woman. I'm fairly positive that certain physical attributes of my body, solely on their own, are responsible for the sexism aimed at me. Though, that is what makes me a woman, right? So why are we so caught up on gender?
Gloria Steinem, for one, is pretty frustrated with the whole idea. "If I had my wish, or a wish, not the only wish," she clarifies, "I would just declare a moratorium for 50 years or so on the words masculine and feminine and talk about humans." I tend to agree with Ms. Steinem. The world wasn't always this way; thousands of years ago gender probably didn't exist. Men and women were physically different, the end. This idea of gender has made the world go crazy. It's even entrenched in languages, she mentions. I tell her that in Spanish the word for table (la mesa) is feminine, as is chair (la silla). But that desk over there- in Spanish it's masculine (el escritorio). "The invention of gender, how we got so crazy as to give gender to table and chairs...what is that about? It's heartening to remember that most of human history was different," she says.
I think its part of the reason why I'm so sure feminism is right and why I'm so proud to be a feminist. I have this sense of history. I know the world must have been different at some point, that this state of sexism we live in now is so unnatural it had to have been man-made, invented at some point for some corrupt reason. Maybe it dates back thousands of years ago, but there was a time when things were as they should be. Before everything went crazy. Gender has sort of messed everything up.
I remember in elementary school how everything was easier. We knew that there were boys and girls and boys played with boys more often than they played with girls, and vice versa, but there was no sense of inequality. We played with our own gender, we played with the other, we all made jokes, we coexisted. I think it was in middle school when girls discovered make up, clothes and flirting and boys discovered girls. We had this power that we started to exploit a little. We liked it when the boys took notice of us. That's when things started to change. Not when we realized we were physically different, we'd always known that. But when we realized that gender was the difference.
Luckily for us, there are advantages to gender. Our gender defines our oppression, it's true, but that aspect of our oppression is what makes us stronger. "I think the advantages are that we are not nationalistic, we feel loyalty to groups of women in other countries that may be greater than we feel to our own government because their lives have more in common with our lives than Bush, to put it mildly," Ms. Steinem points out. "So, that's an advantage, to be able to organize internationally and to support each other internationally."
The thing about sexism is that it's global. Even in the best of societies, sexism exists. Women everywhere can relate to each other on this level- we can all feel how each individual society favors men over women, whether it's how here in America women have legal and political rights, but barely a voice in the matter, or how in some countries women aren't even allowed to drive.
"Most countries had a huge women's movement, and are now having another one. It's evidence that we make these international connections, I think," Ms. Steinem says. "The women in Saudi Arabia are demonstrating to try to be able to drive cars, and to increase their power to some extent," she adds.
We can learn from the women who have prevailed in other countries, and we can help those who have not. It's the common belief in America that despite all this nonsense in the media and the fact that women still aren't paid as much as men, we are the only "enlightened" country as far as women's rights go. In fact, we are one of the last. Take maternity leave. The United States does not have a system of pay for new mothers, let alone new fathers, while in Sweden both parents can split sixteen months of parental leave at 80% pay. Clearly, we have a lot to learn from our Nordic friends. Instead of convincing ourselves that we enlighten other countries, Americans should take a look at reality.
But how will we ever connect to other women, how will our generation of girls ever realize this reality when the culture we live in is so destructive? Our culture destroys our self-esteem, destroys our integrity, and destroys the opportunities we deserve through the media and the continuance of sexist beliefs. What's the big picture? Why are girls, who are smart and capable and caring, so influenced by this culture that is so obviously wrong? "We're social creatures," Ms. Steinem explains. "We pick up cues so easily because that's how we survive. It's very easy for us to get molded by the culture."
It's so easy to fall into this trap society made for girls. It's fun to get dressed up and look "girly." It just feels good when you know you look pretty. Especially when you see other people noticing it too. It's fun to be this "mysterious creature" that guys just can't figure out. That's how our culture has allowed us to feel accomplishment and self- confidence: through the way other people see us. We should recognize our own accomplishments the way the guys do: through the way we see ourselves.
I know girls worry, because they're so used to feeling good through the approval of others. They worry that if they give that up and try to actually accomplish things in the way guys do (academically, athletically, etc.) that they will lose that feeling, that they will never feel good about themselves in the way they've become comfortable with. They worry that this new way won't be as satisfying. It's a scary thought, to think you will never feel good about yourself again. But it's not true, and plenty of girls have already realized this. I have. I know getting an A on a paper really does make me feel better than when a guy compliments me. I think it's because I know the grade is more meaningful. It says more about me than one guy's opinion ever could.
In the end feminism isn't about angry girls burning their bras, or about getting back at men; it's about redefining the way we see ourselves and the way we treat ourselves, so that we can learn to love ourselves enough to feel we deserve rights, and to feel empowered enough to continue to fight for them.
I asked Gloria about the election, and how my generation watched as gender issues were thrown to the forefront. Hillary Clinton was symbolic of this, even if her role in the election turned out to be short-lived. The media practically salivated at their opportunity to prove that women with ambitious careers are up-tight bitches. That's right, women of America, get back in the kitchen, or else you'll turn into a pant-suit wearing, shrill-voiced political banshee.
That always made me angry; that because she wasn't pandering to America's idea of a perfect woman she was overly ambitious. What, does America want a presidential candidate to flaunt about in some Betty-Crocker getup, simultaneously baking brownies from scratch as she solves the economic crisis? Even if she managed that they'd find some way to dig at her, too. Ms. Steinem agreed. "A woman who is not playing a traditional role is seen as ambitious," she said. She made her support of Clinton very clear.
And just when we thought we were through with rampant political sexism in the media, at least temporarily, along came Sarah Palin. It was as if the media thought to themselves, "Well, we've covered the angry, masculine stereotype of women, I guess our only other option is to portray her as a sex object." Whenever you turned on the news, you could expect women to be portrayed as two-dimensional, to say the least.
In the end, it all comes down to one point. Feminism makes sense. From wanting to put our own ideas of equality into our every day lives, to appreciating Clinton for pushing women in further, to recognizing the disgusting display of the media in response; feminism is all around us. As girls, we're all part of it whether we like it or not. We live as we do because of feminists who came before us. And it's real.
So when people ask, do we still need feminism, we have to point to these examples. Look how my teacher talks to me in class. Look at the relationships between senior boys and freshmen girls, and how everybody else reacts. Look at how the media treated Hillary! Of course we need feminism. As Gloria said, "They try to declare it over, but it's actually just begun."
As the interview draws to a close and it becomes apparent that it's time to leave, I ask Ms. Steinem one more question. Though I've read through all her essays and watched a good number of her interviews, I'm not about to leave without hearing something a little more personal. I ask her what advice she has for us, young feminists and feminists-to-be of the world today.
"If I have any advice it's just to listen to your own unique self and make sure you have support for it," she says. "Because we are communal creatures, if you're with people who think you're smart, you're smart and if they think you're dumb, you're dumb. At least spend as much time as possible with people who make you feel smart, who make you feel good, who support you in that role, and help you become who you already are." She pauses for a moment. "This culture in general is much too much saying that we have to do what's out there rather than what's in here. It needs to be a balance. It isn't that we're more important than anybody else as an individual, but we're not less important either."
I leave Gloria Steinem's apartment with a certain sense of relief. Admittedly, it's partially because she didn't have anything inordinately strange, like a large collection of discarded license plates lying around her house. I mean, you never know what you'll find in the house of someone so famous, and I really didn't want to be disappointed. And I wasn't. In fact, my biggest sense of relief came from knowing that there are people out there who have gone through their own battles with sexism, in time different than ours, but still understand our generation's own battle.
In the end, it's nice to know we're not fighting this alone. It's nice to know that the crazy, hurtful things you encounter every day are not left unnoticed. It will take a ridiculously long time to rid our own culture of them, let alone the world. But conversations like this one; between generations, between people of different backgrounds, struggles and ideas, they help. Because as any feminist knows: women are more than capable of solving difficult problems like these. We just need a little help from our friends.
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