Gloria Steinem | Interview
Just before hanging up, Gloria Steinem reflected on some of the things she’d just said during our phone interview. “I hope it makes sense,” she said. “I can see that some of the questions—not your questions, but I mean, the interpretations of [my] old quotes are not necessarily what I mean, so I hope this makes sense.” Some of those old quotes we discussed involved Steinem’s views on pornography and transsexualism, but we also touched on more recent concerns: the supposed death of feminism, and Obama’s presidency.
In advance of the 77-year-old activist’s talk at Columbia College on February 7, Steinem called a few minutes late—“14 minutes late,” she said. “Sorry about that.” Well, I replied, she does have an event-filled life. “Yeah,” she said, but today’s event was “trying to write while they’re painting my bedroom.”
You speak at a lot of campuses every year; what do students ask you most frequently these days?
It’s always surprising and varied, but there are clusters of concerns. One, of course, is just how much it costs to get a degree, ending up in debt. I’m pretty sure this is the only advanced country in which that happens. The collective debt of all students is bigger even than credit-card debt. It’s a special concern for women because women earn less to pay back.
The word revolution has long been associated with you and your work. You once said, “What we are talking about is a revolution and not a reform.” Where is the revolution today? What’s become of it?
It’s obviously bigger than ever, and also more opposed. If you look at the support for all the issues of fairness and equality, the public-opinion polls are excellent, but if you look at the opposition, it’s much stronger. Consciousness is high, caring is high, but at the same time we’re more economically polarized between rich and middle class or poor than we have been in a hundred years.
A feminist colleague of mine told me she feels feminists have lost momentum since the ’70s. She said if she suggested holding a consciousness-raising group, her friends would laugh. Do you find that view generally held?
Things change. What was once called a consciousness-raising group then was called a networking group and now might be called a book club, but it serves the same purpose.
Or a blog?
Or a blog—well, really there are some things that have to happen with all five senses in person in a room. The name changes, but the function continues. If you just look at the public-opinion polls as a measure, there’s more support than there ever has been for all the issues, whether it’s obvious ones like equal pay or whether it’s the humanization of the roles. People no longer think that men can’t raise children or that women can’t do so-called men’s jobs. But people who were very adversarial toward the movement, say, 30, 40 years ago, and were saying, “Well, it’s against biology or nature or God or Freud or something,” now the very same people—as I can vouch because at my age I can see they’re the same people [Laughs]—are saying, “Well, it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore.” And that’s the current form of resistance.
“It” being feminism.
The women’s movement, yeah—that it’s lost steam or it’s over. But actually, statistically, it’s bigger and more diverse than ever before. The three Nobel prizes this year went to three peacemaking revolutionary women, and I heard things in those Nobel prize speeches I never thought I would hear outside of a consciousness-raising group.
Is there a distinction between sharing feminist values and resisting identification as feminist, given the vilification of the term?
Yeah, obviously words like liberal and feminist have been demonized. Also, there are other words: womanist, woman’s liberationist, girrl with two r’s. But they all mean the same thing. But feminist has been taken over to some extent by the Rush Limbaughs of the world who call us “feminazis,” and as with liberal, people then come to think it means something it doesn’t mean. But if they just go to the dictionary and look at the definition, then more than 60 percent say they are feminists and support it. More women say they’re feminists than say they’re Republicans, even with all the demonization of the word.
One key difference between your generation of feminism and third-wave feminism concerns views on pornography. You’re known as a longtime critic of pornography. Have your views on porn changed at all over the years? Do you still believe it subjugates women always?
Well, it isn’t a question of belief. It just objectively does. But I think part of the problem is that people used pornography as a word as if it included erotica. Porne, in its root, means female slave, and eros obviously means love and has some idea of free choice and mutual pleasure.
And when you say porn, you mean—
I mean what the word means. It’s the sexualization of violence and dominance.
So that includes a website showing a man and a woman having sex?
It depends whether the woman wants to be there or not, or if they both want to be there. And you can kind of tell. [Laughs] People tend to understand that rape is about violence, not sex, but we haven’t made the distinction between pornography and erotica in the popular culture strongly enough.
So porn for you means unwilling participants.
That’s definitely pornography. And if there’s violence and pain instead of pleasure.
What about S&M, then? Some people get pleasure out of pain.
Yes, that’s true, but obviously the statistics for child abuse as a reason for S&M are huge. Nature tells us that something is good for us by making it pleasurable, and bad for us by making it painful. To get those two things mixed up generally involves very early and severe child abuse.
You might upset the S&M community with that statement.
Well, I’m not saying it’s true of everybody, but our bodies do give us pain as a sign of danger.
In a ’70s essay that’s often been quoted, you say feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for transsexualism. There’s your famous quote: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?”
No, I don’t think we feel uncomfortable. Actually I think quite the contrary. Transsexuals are often gender-role revolutionaries because they show that gender is a fiction. Here’s an example of the shoe and the foot that is troublesome: In Iran, apparently the homophobia is so severe that to have a lesbian child or a gay child is a disgrace and so they have sex-change operations because to have a son or a daughter then seems more normal. The point is free will over one’s own body.
So that’s a change in your views?
No, it’s the same point. It’s the same point because I think I said, “Must we change the foot?” So if you want to change the foot, okay. [Laughs]
In last year’s HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, you spoke of the connection between caring for your husband at the end of his life and caring for your mother during her experience with mental illness when you were a child. How did those experiences illuminate one another for you?
The first one of course was when I was a child, so to be a small person taking care of a big person is a very different experience, a very scary experience. And to be able to care for someone you love is a good experience. So in a way I had a chance to do over an experience that had been painful when I was little and was transforming as a grown-up, and transforming in a good way, being with someone through thick and thin.
In that doc, you wonder if your devotion to the women’s movement was a way to avoid the suffering your mother experienced.
I wish that she had had a women’s movement, my mother, ’cause I think she would’ve been able to continue her career in journalism, which she loved. She gave it up. She had what was in those days called a nervous breakdown, and she couldn’t continue.
How old were you when your parents divorced?
I think I was ten when they separated, maybe 11 when they divorced.
So you were quite young to be caring for a mother in need of care.
Yeah, although you’re pretty grown up at ten in some ways.
Really? I don’t think most ten-year-olds are.
But if you think about novelists, think about Jane Eyre and think about The Bluest Eye—I noticed that especially women tend to use nine- and ten-year-old little girls as narrators because I think you’re as smart as you’re ever gonna get and you haven’t yet been messed up by adolescence. [Laughs]
During the previous election, you wrote favorably of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but you endorsed Clinton. Like others on the left, have you felt disillusioned with Obama in the past three years?
Not really, ’cause I think maybe I wasn’t as illusioned going in. [Laughs] I think he’s a good person with a good mind and a good heart. He’s not a fighter—which could be good news in many circumstances because it makes him a peacemaker, but in this circumstance, when we’re facing such an ultra-right wing, it’s difficult.
So you think we could’ve used a fighter like Hillary in the White House?
Yes, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not that I know so much [Laughs], but it just seemed to me that it was too soon, that it was clear that Hillary couldn’t win.
Too soon for a woman to be President.
But you’ll vote for Obama again.
Oh, yes, and I’ll be out there working.
Gloria Steinem will speak at Film Row Cinema at Columbia College Chicago, 1104 S Wabash Ave, eighth floor, February 7 at 7pm.