Tonight on HBO, a documentary about Gloria Steinem. And, so, an excuse to post my interview with her (such a cool gift!) for All About Women (For some reason the magazine took offline the first several years of issues.) From All About Women, 2/08:
In 1968 journalist Moses Znaimer conducted a lengthy, intimate interview with then 34-year-old Gloria Steinem in her New York City apartment, subsequently broadcast on the Canadian Broadcast Centre show entitled, The Way It Is. “New journalism” was the primary topic, Znaimer and Steinem discussing the new trend among an elite group of writers, including Steinem, who blended impeccable reporting with their own personal perspectives and connections with the story. Certainly it was interesting to learn about the origins of a journalistic style we now take for granted. But I found the interview’s equally overt sub-text even more fascinating.
Gloria Steinem was a “girl” and Moses Znaimer wove that fact into the interview with easy, casual frequency:
Do you distinguish in your work between the fact that you’re writing and you’re a lady writing?
I just want to get past one uncomfortable & fairly obvious fact … that you’re a pretty stunning woman. And I want to know whether you capitalize on that?
While Steinem inexplicably ironed a blouse during a portion of the interview, Znaimer asked, How many “ladies” things do you like doing? Do you cook? You iron … exceedingly well, too.
While discussing Steinem’s undercover expose as a Playboy bunny, Znaimer asked, “Forgive me, but I always thought you had to be stacked, absolutely stacked to be a bunny girl. How did you get the job?”
After the interview, the closing anchor, holding an iron in his hand, summarized with a smile, “[That was] Moses, ironing out a few things with a heck of a good writer, and not a hateful looker …”
Last night I shared those 40-year old quotes with my fifteen-year-old daughter and her two friends for their reactions. The two girls’ jaws dropped; the boy, equally shocked, assumed the interviewer was intentionally egging the woman on. They couldn’t believe it.
My daughter and her friends never heard of Gloria Steinem. Yet they struck me as living success of one of the revolutions Gloria Steinem helped create. These teenagers were stunned that people would seriously ask a professional woman such things. My daughter’s friends – girls and boys -- are so certain they can do anything they choose, and so comfortable engaging equally with each other that they don’t register an alternative. Constraints or biases based on their gender are just not part of their lives. I know it’s not universal, and horrendous inequalities persist. But I realized something fundamental was afoot when my exasperated daughter recently texted a boy, Ugh! Just grow some fallopian tubes!
For me, a generation older, Gloria Steinem is the icon of feminism. She’s its epicenter, the point from which I subsequently ventured into feminist writings, concepts, and understandings. Imagine women’s equality and she is my first vision.
It is wildly incomplete merely to say Gloria Steinem has been a well-known writer and activist throughout her career. Over the last 51 years she has written six books and been published or featured in virtually every major media in the U.S. and many more around the world. Her political reporting as staff writer for New York magazine shattered professional journalism glass walls. As founding visionary, editor, and writer for Ms. magazine she helped turn all things feminist, complete with its signature moniker, into household words. Still going strong at age 73, Steinem recently helped create the Women’s Media Center and GreenStone media programming to amplify the voice of equality even louder. Not content with mere words, Steinem has also marched, rallied, and advocated for equal rights for all people disempowered or oppressed, domestically and across the globe.
She remains present and vocal in uncountable ways, from her sound bytes in David Usher’s 2005 song “Love Will Save the Day,” to her quotes closing the final credits of the 2006 film “V for Vendetta,” to her January 8, 2008 editorial about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the New York Times. In 2007 alone, at least a dozen of her appearances have been added to YouTube. She has always – in word and in deed -- pushed conventional edges further than most thought they could ever stretch. As a result, those edges continue to widen. And we all, women and men alike, benefit.
Gloria Steinem will be speaking at Appalachian State University’s Farthing Auditorium on Monday February 4, 2008, at 8:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public. I interviewed Ms. Steinem by telephone two weeks before this appearance.
JS: You’ve been quite visible during this presidential campaign. What do you consider the most important issues relevant for the presidential election?
GS: There shouldn’t be a hierarchy of issues because they’re all important. The Iraq war feels most important but, of course, the money we’re spending on it is the reason we’re depriving our schools and our infrastructure from funds. Everything is connected. One really can’t isolate individual issues. But clearly the Iraq war and the economy are on the top of most people’s lists. The question of how this differentially affects women is something that should get more coverage. For example, there’s a recent article in the New York Times saying that the mortgage crisis is penalizing women homeowners even more than men. We need to look both at the overall issues and the ways they affect different groups in this society.
JS: You have said your first choice support is for Hillary Clinton, but that you also consider this an inspiring group of Democratic candidates. Talk about your support.
GS: [My February 7, 2007 New York Times] op-ed piece was devoted to the hope that we could see this as a coalition. First of all they are the best group of candidates we’ve seen in quite awhile. And secondly, Obama & Clinton should be a coalition of the “out’s” that can [best] win if they have the support of each other’s constituency. For as long as possible when people asked me, “Are you supporting Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama,” I just said “yes.” Of course, the primaries force one into a choice, but [while Clinton is my first choice] I have never opposed Obama or said a critical word about him. I would be happy to work for him.
It seems to me Hillary Clinton has the chance to arrive in Washington with a deep understanding of how Washington works. I remember when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton arrived; it took them two years to figure out the, sometimes arcane, way Washington works. I don’t think we can afford that now. I would like Hillary Clinton to be president for eight years and then Barack Obama to be president for eight years. And then perhaps we have a chance to repair some of the damage Bush has done.
JS: Where do you see the U.S. internationally right now and what will be the new president’s first task?
GS: We’re at the low point of popularity in the polls in pretty much every country. We are regarded in many instances as dangerous, or more dangerous, as terrorism itself because our foreign policy is perceived as encouraging, or inspiring, or justifying terrorism. That’s a pretty low point, the lowest I’ve ever seen. So the first task probably would be for the new president to make contact with all of the crucial chiefs of state [to rebuild relationships.] Hillary Clinton already is familiar with, already has a level of credibility with [many of these heads of state], one of the reason I think she’d be a first choice [as president] and Obama a chronologically next choice.
JS: Tell me about the inspiration and mission of the Women’s Media Center and GreenStone Media.
GS: We founded [The Women’s Media Center] on the philosophy of Lily Tomlin [who] once said, “I thought somebody should do something and then I realized I am somebody.” While we were mourning the narrow coverage in the media, we thought, well, there are now a large number of women with experience in the media, so why not bring them together to create a force that might be able to get more accuracy and diversity and reality into the media. Less frivolity and more real issues, especially that affect the female half of the population, the female half of the world. And also to offer better employment opportunities in the media. Only about 3% of so-called “clout positions” in the media are occupied by women of any race. It’s our hope we can increase coverage, improve coverage, and also increase the presence of women employed in the media. We have a website www.womensmediacenter.com, where we provide hot links to progressive women columnists and direct people to stories of interest. When coverage is lacking we try to assign that subject and provide stories, original editorial on the website itself.
GreenStone was an outgrowth of that. [GreenStone Media, founded in 2005, offered radio programming to radio stations across the country, with streaming online. It ceased operations in 2007.] There were a number of women who had worked in radio & understood the opportunity that should have presented itself. The mainstream media, that is the drive-time AM and some FM media radio to which more than 90% of people still listen, is “underperforming” because it so over-represents the ultra right-wing and is so full of confrontation, conflict, and yelling. It turns off many listeners, not only women, but especially women. There seemed to be an opportunity for a new kind of programming. Our programming did very well on small stations, but we could not find larger stations open to it. I have faith that it will happen, but we were premature.
JS: What do you consider the current burning women’s & human rights issues in the U.S. and across the world?
GS: Internationally we’ve seen the growth of sex and labor trafficking, becoming almost as profitable as the drug trade and the arms trade. Indeed some studies show it is more profitable. The number of enslaved people in the world compared to the world population is actually higher now than it was in the 1800’s. 85% of [those enslaved] are women and kids. It is a very crucial issue. And it’s not one that just takes place outside this country; on the contrary, many sex traffic women and children come in across the Mexican border or are trafficked within this country.
The customers also sometimes come from this country. For instance, I was just in India where they estimate that 25% of the [sex trade] customers are men from the U.S. So the women’s groups in this country try to stop the solicitation here. For instance, Equality Now, a women’s rights / human rights organization, spent three to four years trying to get a judgment against Big Apple Sex Tours in Queens, which offers sex tours with photographs and a catalogue. [Initially] the judge said the criminal act took place out of the country so it wasn’t subject to U.S. law, but the lawyers for Equality Now argued the solicitation took place inside this country. Eventually they were successful in closing that agency down. Many women’s and citizens groups are now looking at want ads, classified ads, Craig’s List, where sex trafficking and sex tours are offered.
My most recent trip, with [Blowing Rock resident and Westglow Spa owner Bonnie Schaeffer] was to attend a meeting in Katmandu, Nepal of grassroots women’s groups working against sex trafficking from a variety of countries … Peru, Kenya, Nepal, Iceland, and more … who met for the first time so they could learn from each other. They’re very embattled [in their own countries] so it’s important for them to be able to share lessons and to be able to raise money together. Bonnie has been very supportive of that group.
JS: What messages do you offer young women?
GS: Sometimes I think young women are more likely to advocate for women in other countries than for themselves because they see it as a greater need. I have great faith in their activism. But I hope they also understand they have a right to equality. For instance, I still hear young woman say “How can I combine work and family?” yet rarely hear young men say that. And women will continue to have two jobs – one inside the home and one outside the home – until men are caring for children as much as women are. And until that work of nurturing has an attributed economic value. Many young women feel there’s no choice, they have to do both. But, of course, there is a choice.
They’re taking on the burden instead of saying “We can change the system for all of us.” For instance, this is the only developed democracy in the world without a national system of health care. And this penalizes women even more than men because women’s childbearing capacity means we need the healthcare system about 30% more than men do. Another example is childcare. Every other developed democracy has some national system of childcare, and we don’t.
JS: We’re also the only developed democracy in which individuals pay for their own college education.
GS: Yes, and the cost of college has gone up in the eight years under Bush, I believe 30% on average, while student loans have gone down because lending agencies are allowed to take greater percentages. If we ask a room of students how many will graduate in debt a lot of hands go up. That means they’re indentured, they have to repay that debt in the early days of their careers. They find themselves taking jobs they would otherwise not take, or lowering their living standards in ways that are painful. And we need to understand that that’s connected to the political structure.
[Overall] I’m encouraged to see many are getting activated on their own behalf.
JS: What are the overall messages – about anything at all -- you most want to convey to audiences like the one at ASU on February 4th?
GS: We’ve been made to feel disempowered and that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would like to provide as much encouragement and examples as I can to show that individual actions, actions of small groups matter.
I also would like to support the unique value that lies inside each person – female, male, all of us. We come into the world with a unique combination of heredity and environment over millennia, a combination that could never have happened before and will never happen again. There’s a person inside every baby, as everyone who’s ever met a baby knows! So [we must] support each other in expressing that uniqueness. No one can contribute exactly the same thing. We need to support each other in that [unique] contribution. We’re communal creatures. If we’re with people who think we’re smart we’re smarter. If we’re with people who think we’re not smart, we’re less smart. We need each other’s support in order to express the uniqueness, the unique values and talents in each person.
JS: I would love to hear your vision, the vision that has inspired you through all your work. What does that ideal gender-free, race-free, hate-free, oppression-free world look, sound and feel like to you?
GS: I have faith in organic growth, trying to make each step we take embody the ideas we want. And then see what happens. Being open to spontaneity and new things we never could have imagined. But that said, [in general] there would be less ranking, more linking. Less hierarchy and more circles, in every way. Less zero-sum- games and more empathy. Our bodies – men and women -- would be at least as respected as private property is currently. Families would come together by choice and embody the democracy we want to see in the larger world. If we don’t learn democratic habits when we’re young it’s harder to acquire them when we’re older. And we would understand that violence is never an acceptable way to solve conflict. It just begets more violence. The ends don’t justify the means. The means become or shape the ends. [There would be] more sense of connection, of being part of nature. Neither conquering nor saving it, but being part of it.
If we want a future in which there is humor and dancing and poetry and sex and empathy …, we have to do our best to have humor and dancing and poetry and sex and empathy along the way.
Gloria Steinem: Biographical Summary
- Born March 25, 1934, Toledo, Ohio
- Graduated Smith College, Phi Beta Kappa, 1956
- Published The Thousand Indias, 1957
- Published 124 articles in national magazines, 1957 – 1972
- Published The Beach Book, 1963
- Cofounded National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Action Alliance, 1971
- Jointly founded Ms. Magazine and served as editor and writer, 1972-1987; Ms. was sold in 1987, but repurchased in 1998 by Liberty Media, partly owned by Steinem. The Feminist Majority Foundation now publishes the magazine quarterly.
- Cofounded Coalition of Labor Union Women, 1974
- Participated in the first National Conference of Women, 1977
- Published Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983
- Published Marilyn: Norma Jean, 1986
- Diagnosed with breast cancer, 1986
- Founded Choice USA, 1991
- Published Revolution From Within, 1992
- Published Moving Beyond Words, 1993
- Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1993
- Diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, 1994
- The Education of A Woman: The Life and Times of Gloria Steinem by Carolyn Heilbrun, published 1995
- Married activist David Bale, 2000; Bale died from brain lymphoma in 2003
- Jointly founded Women’s Media Center, 2004
- Appeared in the documentary, “I Had An Abortion,” 2005
- Cofounded GreenStone Media, 2005; GreenStone discontinued broadcasting 2007
- Continues to be published and featured in national and international media and continues national and international activism