Gloria Steinem speaks to On the Rag about what she has learned from over 50 years of feminist activism.
In this very special episode of On the Rag, we are joined by journalist, author, activist and feminist hero Gloria Steinem ahead of the launch of her new book The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off. Rising to prominence as a spokeswoman for the feminist movement in the late 1960s, she has devoted her entire life to defending women’s rights. For 20 whole minutes, we were able to pick her glorious brain about everything we can think of. Listen below or read on for a lightly edited transcript.
You have managed to maintain a tremendous sense of humour – is that important to you?
I think I only recently began to realise that laughter is itself a proof of freedom, because laughter is the one emotion that you can’t compel. As I have written about, you can compel fear and, if you are dependent on someone for a long period of time, you can make someone feel as if they are in love. But laughter is the one thing that can’t be forced. Our oldest Native American cultures have a spirit of laughter that it is neither male nor female and tells us that if you can’t laugh you can’t pray – because laughter breaks into the unknown. It’s a pretty good guide if you just say to yourself ‘I’m not going anywhere that doesn’t make me laugh – including church.’
You’ve always brought women of colour and indigenous women up alongside you – how do you have those difficult conversations with white feminists that maybe aren’t sure how to bring those women with them?
Speaking personally, I think it was not that I was bringing someone along with me – I felt that I was learning. It was an immense gift to realise that the patriarchy didn’t always exist. It is never an obligation at all, it is a pleasure. Once you realise it is not human nature to divide ourselves by gender and by race, and that we don’t have to have more hierarchal government over a circular one, it’s an enormous relief and pleasure.
How did you seek out those communities in order to learn from them?
It was probably luck in large part, our national women’s conference in Houston at the end of the 1970s set out to be representative of everyone. I think almost 200 Native American women were there who might not have previously been able to meet across such large distances. I could see that they knew what we didn’t know. We were operating on hope, they were operating on memory. It was just so mind-blowing and heartening that I just didn’t get over it. Now I try to think about history as vertical, not just horizontal. Wherever I am, I try to think about who was there first and who is probably still there.
There’s a growing global movement of transphobia among the feminist community, what’s your response to that?
I can certainly understand that not to have lived as a female human being from birth means that you have had a different experience, but that person has probably felt estranged from a world that divides everything into two and shouldn’t. I just feel that we have to let each of us self-identify. I don’t see that there is any possible humane, kind or even practical alternative to that.
Recently we’ve seen many prominent men have a tantrum about the growing climate movement led by young women – why is that happening?
I think it goes against the hierarchy of what they see as natural – men over women, older people over younger people. Also, they see that it has inspired a whole movement. This isn’t just one or two people, it’s a huge movement and it makes total sense because they are going to be the ones left with this environment that we are destroying. Both from a rational point of view and a numerical point of view, it’s probably quite threatening to them – and I am glad that it is.
There has always been a bias against youth to an extent, do you think people take you more seriously the older you become?
There is always a seriousness deficit for women, but we are different to men in this regard because we are valued for our ability to reproduce, so the central years of life are more likely to be years of valuing women. Older women are way less valued than older men precisely because it is the state of our wombs they are looking at, not the state of our brain.
One of our favourite quotes in the book is about not getting a bigger slice of the pie but baking a new pie – how are we doing with that?
We’ve started baking a new pie in that we have made changes around whether or not to marry, whether or not to have children, and beginning to do away with gender and race as the prisons they once were. I suspect we won’t really be there until not only are women equal outside the home, but when men are equal inside the home. Until men are raising children as much as women do, they won’t have the opportunity to develop those qualities which are wrongly called feminine – patience, flexibility, attention to detail, all those qualities that are wrongly called feminine but are really human. We’ve made more strides in getting women into public life than we have in terms of men being equal in private life and child-rearing.
A question from one of our listeners – in times of hardship, what do you do to remain focussed and hopeful?
Friends and people who are in the same struggle or celebration as me. I think we are definitely communal animals and if we are isolated, well, there’s a reason why solitary confinement is a form of torture. We are communal. If we can both listen and talk in a group of people, or to at least a few other people, and we can empathise and have people empathise with us, that can only happen with all five senses. So that’s crucial, and I worry about that, don’t you? Because we are all on our screens so much now.
Is your writing practice still strong? Are you still writing every day?
I wish I could say yes. Writing is the one thing that, when I’m doing it, I don’t think I should be doing something else. It’s kind of my identity. If someone told me I never have to speak in public again I would be quite relieved, but if they told me I never have to write again I would be mad as hell. So I guess that is proof that this is the most important thing to me. But it is precisely because it is important that I put it off. This might be familiar to you – I spend time moving semi-colons around. The reward is that every once in a whil,e I read something that I wrote and think ‘that’s pretty good’.
Another question from one of our listeners – which of your achievements are you the proudest of and what, if anything, is your greatest regret?
I am the most proud of having survived my childhood, my high school years and the 1950s. None of you know how bad the 50s were. That’s a constant source of amazement for me. In terms of regret, it would probably be around time. Because in a deep sense, time is all that there is. I know that I have wasted time repeating things I already knew what to do, or doing what I was told instead of what I hoped for or what I wanted. Since time is all there is, I would say wasting it is the biggest loss.
Gloria Steinem’s read club:
There’s a book called Know My Name by Chanel Miller who you might remember from the rape case in which the young woman who was unconscious and raped outdoors when two Swedish men came over and drove off the rapist. For a long time, she didn’t want her name to be known and now she does. She has become a wonderful kind, deep spokeswoman, and I think the lesson there is that using what happened to us to help other people is the final stage of healing – you know your experience was not wasted if it can be helpful in the world.
political & climate reportersFind Out More
Gloria Steinem’s mansplain moment:
One of the gifts of my life is that I work almost entirely with women, so it happens to me way less often. But now that you say that, I think it was in an airport, where I often am, where one of the uniformed men was explaining to me in great detail where the escalators were and where the baggage claim was. Especially since I travel all the time, I thought that was odd. It may have been a combination of gender and age, but he was trying to be super helpful.
Gloria Steinem’s Kia ora Kuini:
The wonderful opera star Jessie Norman died recently and I became a little obsessed with putting words online that would lead people to her books and recordings. She was a great global persona as an opera singer and a human being and an American and an African American and a friend. I was hoping that people would listen to her and her music, she’s really in my head right now. If we ever had a goddess, it would have been Jessie Norman in her Aida suit. She was incredible.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.