What is feminism? Gloria Steinem still knows
Student Life’s Kat Zhao sat down with renowned feminist Gloria Steinem to discuss the female experience in modern-day America.
Student Life: What are some of the biggest challenges facing women today?
Gloria Steinem: You can call it, in general, a sexual caste system. Or you can be more specific and say we’ve demonstrated—at least in this country—that women can do what men can do, but we haven’t demonstrated that men can do what women can do. Probably the largest number of women are afflicted by having two jobs, and that has many solutions. We have to stop being the only democracy in the world without nationalized child care. Men are as loving and as nurturing as women and can be equal parents. We need job patterns that allow parents to have adjustable work time. Even though we should understand that everything is connected—sex, race, class and sexuality—there is still not enough a deep enough understanding.
SL: What do you think about our current U.S. administration and its relationship to equality for women?
GS: Not allowing women to have reproductive freedom … means far more money spent to support unwanted kids. Just like it makes no sense to have abstinence-only education, with the rate of abortions, unwanted pregnancies and sexual diseases. But nonetheless, the heritage of that from the Bush administration is still with us. It hasn’t been completely defunded by the Obama administration, though I believe they’re trying. I would say we’re infinitely better off than we were during the last two administrations, but it’s still not a priority.
SL: As someone who has been highly active since the 1960s, how far do you think we have come?
GS: We’ve been through enough consciousness-raising, people telling the truth about their lives, work through legislation. We now have legal tools and ways of organizing we didn’t have before. If it took a century to get legal identity as human beings for women of all races and men of color in the abolitionist suffragist era, and now we’re striving for legal equality, I would say we are 30 or 40 years into a century.
SL: Some critics associate today’s high divorce rates with the feminist movement and the rise in women who pursue careers. What do you make of this?
GS: People have always said feminism is the cause of divorce, but actually marriage is the cause of divorce. People are often made to think they have to get married and don’t necessarily get married out of true feelings of shared values and partnership. Another factor is age. Margaret Mead always said marriage worked better in the 19th century, because people only lived to be 50. To expect marriage to last to 85 is quite different from expecting it to last to 50. And there are just more choices for people. If those folks are so into marriage, let them support marriage equality for two men and two women.
SL: What would you say to young women who feel like they have to make the choice between a career and marriage or children?
GS: They have a right to ask why young men are not being asked to make the same choice. Men are wonderful parents too, so why aren’t they expected to make the same choice? And why are we the only democracy in the world with no national system of child care, no real national policy on adjustable work patterns for the parents of young children. We’re way, way, way behind other countries. I would say to those young women: You have the right to get angry. You’re not given the choice of doing both, which both parents deserve—male or female.
SL: What is the role of men in that democracy?
GS: Being a human being. We’ve had millennia upon millennia of heredity and environment combined in each of us in a unique way that could never have happened before and could never happen again. Our differences are to be respected; they are a part of us. But it’s just one of the billion things that make us who we are.
SL: What are some of the most pivotal moments in your life so far that influenced your career and advocacy work?
GS: It was probably helpful in retrospect that I didn’t go to school very much until I was about 12, because I probably missed a kind of Dick and Jane brainwashing. However, the teenage years came and they came with all kinds of ideas about gender, so it happened to me, too.
My mother was a very talented woman and a pioneering journalist who had given up her profession before I was born, but I think I saw that as wasted talent. Also, my father was very loving and nurturing, so I grew up knowing men can be loving and nurturing. I was lucky.
After college at Smith, I went to live in India for a few years. I had no idea we were such an exception in the world economically. There had been a big women’s movement as part of the independence movement, subsumed by Gandhi.
SL: What does feminism mean for you?
GS: It’s what it says in the dictionary. It’s the belief in the full economic, social and political equality of females and males. Because [sex] is the most pervasive form of caste across class and across race, it becomes the model for class and race. If you grew up in a household where you were taught it’s OK to treat people differently based on birth, it makes racism more OK and it makes classism more OK. If we’re ever going to make a real democracy, we need democratic families.