Steinem at the 2012 Sackler Center First Awards. (Getty)
Gloria Steinem has been on the front lines fighting for women’s equality since the 1960s, and though she’s drummed up a fair share of controversy, she’s earned her status as a feminist legend. On Thursday night, she’ll be at the Brooklyn Museum to speak with famed feminist scholar, activist, and writer Angela Davis at the 2016 Sackler Center First Awards, an annual event that celebrates women who have managed to break gender barriers while making remarkable contributions in their fields. We caught up with Steinem before the event to get her perspective on the perils of a Trump presidency, what young women should be fighting for, and why Beyoncé is a feminist icon.
I’m a millennial, and my generation is having some trouble. There’s been a lot of talk about how women’s rights has been moving backwards, with the Oklahoma abortion law, and states defunding Planned Parenthood, and it seems like the outlook for women’s equality is actually worse than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Well yeah, there is a backlash. But that has to do with past successes. So you’re not responsible for that.
So what do you think the future looks like for us? It depends what we do every day. It’s really up to us. There’s nothing automatic about it. I mean we do now have the majority support in public opinion polls, which is a good thing and very different from how it was in the beginning [of the feminist movement]. But also part of the reason we have a backlash is because now the minority of people who are on the other side are getting worried about many things.
Not only are women as a group rebelling but also, in very short order, the country is not going to be a majority white country anymore, which is of course tied up with women rebelling. They just feel there’s what they assume to be a natural hierarchy shifting under their feet. So it is a time of danger. But it’s not something that is so unexpected. In the beginning [of a movement], you get resistance because this is a whole new idea. It seems to be going against God or Freud or somebody, nature itself. And then there is this second stage of resistance that comes along because you’re winning because you’re the majority.
What are some issues that today’s young women need to fight for? I’m here to support the issues you want to fight for. I think you know them. It’s quite possible that you know them better than I do. For instance, graduating in debt from college and university is something that didn’t happen to my generation or happened much less and is a big problem, a huge problem.
To be indentured at the exact same time that you should be able to adventure is not a good thing. It requires figuring out why it’s happening. It’s mainly happening because state legislatures are building prisons with the money instead of giving the money to universities. So that says that we need to focus on the state legislature much more than we have. We’ve tended to look at Washington more than state legislatures, which is why we’re losing and also why the abortion battle has shifted to state legislatures because the majority are controlled by the right wing.
How do you see the future of the country emerging when we’re making positive steps in certain states, like plastic bag taxes, creating the Belmont-Paul National Monument, and marriage equality, but there are also states creating these TRAP laws like in Texas and Mississippi, and with the transgender bathroom bill? How do we strike that balance? We look at where the leverage of power is and go there. Like state legislature, most Americans don’t know who their state legislators are. As a movement, we haven’t really focused on state legislatures since the equal rights amendment. So now we need to do that.
We can make it fun. If you have 200 people in a group in Texas, each of you can choose a state legislator to focus on, because it seems overwhelming to focus on them all. If one, 12 or 20 people focus on each one, and monitor that person, then inform and/or harass or dis-elect, it’s quite doable.
What do you think the future will look like for women if Donald Trump becomes president? It would be as bad as he could possibly make it. The only possible good news about Donald Trump is that he doesn’t believe in anything. Unlike some of the other right wing presidential candidates who really believe it, he doesn’t believe in anything. It would be hard to find a better symbol of crazed masculinity gone mad than Donald Trump. Even people who don’t usually comment on the gendered nation of politics are commenting on his insane kind of testosterone poisoning.
There’s been an apparent divide between older women who support Hillary Clinton and younger women who support, or supported, Bernie Sanders. I’ve seen it with my friends and with my family members. Some people have argued that since younger women have always lived in a world where they had access to birth control and abortion, that women who haven’t had children or haven’t had to make certain choices with careers, don’t have that experience. Do you think that that’s true, that we haven’t quite struggled enough yet? It was certainly true for me. We get educated by what happens in our lives. I didn’t realize how tough it was to make change until later on. We get educated by our experience.
I think because Bernie is talking about free universal education, and young women are not only experiencing the same debt as young men, but also realizing that that they’re going to get paid a million dollars less over their lifetime to pay the debt back, I think that has great appeal. I think it also may be true that young women don’t realize that the president doesn’t affect that. I have faith that we’ll all come together in the end. I think it will all work out.
Why do you think it’s important that we elect Hillary Clinton? Well, setting gender aside, because obviously I wouldn’t vote for Sarah Palin, she may be the most experienced and effective candidate we’ve ever had. I can’t think of another presidential candidate who has had the kind of experience she has. Also from her Wellesley graduation speech, to her struggle for health care, she’s always been out there. Neither she, nor you, nor I, agrees with everything that emerges from a democratic process. She knows how to go in there and make it better than it would have been without her.
What’s the most important women’s issue not being discussed during this campaign? I think they’re all being discussed, but i’m not sure that the connections are being made. That is, I think by now we understand that sex and race are totally connected. You can’t maintain a racist division without controlling reproduction, which means controlling women. I’m not sure that so far anybody but Hillary Clinton has understood that. When we’re assessing our foreign policy, trying to make foreign policy decisions, if we look at the degree of violence against women, we’ll make much better decisions.
For instance, we supported in Afghanistan in the past, the Mujahideen, who were the generation before the Taliban. If we had looked at their position on women, we never would have supported them. We made a huge mistake to do so, as it turns out because they turned out to be the Taliban. That decision was made because the more secular regime, which we should have been supporting in Afghanistan, seemed too friendly to the then-Soviet Union. Nobody that I am aware of was looking at the reason [the Mujahideen rebels] went to war against the more secular regime. Three things were in the headlines: one, that the government in Afghanistan was allowing girls to go to school, two, that they were saying women had consent to marriage, and three that women could go to political meetings. If we listened to that, we would have not armed them, which we did.
Is there a possibility in the future that the United States will be taken back by the religious right? I hope not. There’s a wonderful book called Fighting Words, which is something Robin Morgan did a few years ago. It’s the accumulation of all the founding fathers talking about religion. They were so hostile to religion that they didn’t even want to have chaplains in the army or in congress because they had seen what happened with the combination of religion and monarchy in Europe. They were way more hostile to religion than we have become. The right wing doesn’t seem to understand that. They keep supposing the founding fathers were religious, which they definitely were not. Jefferson rewrote the bible by hand. So no, I think religion is very often politics in the sky. If God looks like the ruling class, the ruling class is god. It’s very dangerous for us to forget that division.
A major fight for equality right now involves transgender rights. I know that some transgender women feel that feminism excludes them. There are some feminists that think the battle for transgender rights is overshadowing women’s rights or is at odds with women’s rights. Do you think that they’re at odds? I don’t think they’re at odds. Because anything that challenges the gender bifurcation and the polarization into masculine and feminine is a good thing. Certainly transgender people by and large are challenging it.
I think what feels disrespectful [to some feminists] is the idea that you could just change your clothes and become a woman without the experience of being a female human being walking around for 30 or 40 years. But who are we to say that the transgender person who has probably all the time identified as a woman hasn’t had that experience? We have to accept people’s self definition.
A lot of young women are idolizing celebrities like Kim Kardashian and people who’ve become famous not based on any sort of talent or anything like that, but just because they’re famous for being famous, as opposed to celebrating women who used their education to tackle more instead of, say, their looks or reality show stardom. Is this problematic? Well it depends who it is. Doesn’t it? I would say Beyonce is someone who, within her sphere and her experience, is a serious human being who puts content into her work. I saw her a couple of years ago in England. There was this massive concert with lots of different performers and she was the last one. It was a benefit for funds for violence against women around the world.
At the end she came out and said to this huge number of women, thousands mostly women, she said, “I know it’s hard, but we’re together for the next hour and you’re safe.” I was very moved by that. She puts feminism on the stage and she uses the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism, and her latest, Lemonade, is very, very daring. So that has content. Kim Kardashian has no content that I’m aware of. I don’t know. Do you know of any?
Well, she’s very good at marketing herself. Yeah but that’s not content. So it isn’t whether or not the person is a celebrity, it’s who the character is inside the celebrity.
The 2016 Sackler Center First Awards will be held tomorrow at 6 p.m. the Brooklyn Museum, with honoree Angela Davis in conversation with Gloria Steinem, and remarks by First Lady Chirlane McCray. You can purchase tickets here.
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