MEET THE MUSE: An Interview with Gloria Steinem
Amanda: Last March, you sent a video message to our Muse Conference. It was so wonderful to hear you wishing happy birthday to our keynote Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Gloria: Oh I miss her!
A: She went on to tell so many wonderful stories about working with you which leads me to my first question. You make note that academic feminists have taught and students now learn in women’s studies that second wave feminism was about white women only. What can we do to better convey the inclusiveness of feminism?
G: I don’t mean to speak for everyone because it’s a huge and diverse movement, and people have had many different experiences, but in my experience, it was African American women who were disproportionately inventing the movement. They always supported the issues and the movement itself more than white women did. I’ll give you an example. In a very early issue of Ms. Magazine we conducted the first national poll of women on the movement and on women’s issues. It was conducted by Lewis Harris and was a very respectable poll. I am sorry to say that he did not include other women of color, so he didn’t include Latinas, or Asian-American women. The poll did include both white and black women though, and it turned out that white women supported the issues and the movement by about 30% and black women supported the issues and the movement by over 60%.
A: Wow, that is a big difference.
G: Right, but it just makes sense that if you’ve experienced discrimination in one area, you are more likely to recognize it when it comes at you again. Also, black women were more likely to be in the paid labor force and, therefore, experiencing wage and sexual discrimination. It was also black women who brought the first sexual harassment lawsuits. So if you want my honest opinion…
A: Of course, please.
G: In my experience, it was an effort mainly be the media to characterize the movement as mostly white middle class women to diminish the movement.
A: This past year, we made a short film asking men, from teens on up, to share their thoughts on feminism. Some of their answers felt like they could have been from a bygone era. How does that feel to have come so far and still have the movement characterized as a bunch of angry, man-hating white women.
G: It does follow a certain deeply political truth. Race is certainly not taken seriously enough, but it is taken somewhat more seriously than sex. Discrimination against males is seen as more serious than discrimination is seen as women in the same way that discrimination against white people is seen as more serious than discrimination against black people. There is a hierarchy of seriousness, of what counts. We have weakened the hierarchy but we still have a long way to go. I find it especially frustrating because sexism requires racism and vice versa. If you are going to perpetuate racial separation, or caste separation in India, you have to control reproduction, and that necessitates controlling women.
A: You dedicated “My Life on the Road,” to the doctor who performed your abortion.
Excerpt from My Life on the Road:
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of a woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death:
I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you.
G: I must say that he was quite old at the time, so part of what made me feel released from my promise not to tell his name is that he could not possibly still be alive. The other part is that I do believe that he would have celebrated the change of the law.
A: And I am sure he would also celebrate the fact that you have gone on to become such a powerful voice for so many women, including many who are still suffering under unjust reproductive laws. As such a powerful voice, I think a lot of people will be surprised to hear that you had a strong fear of public speaking when you started out as an activist.
G: We all think that other people don’t have the same fears that we have. I think the fear of public speaking is quite common, but I did have a very bad case of it, and I still do sometimes.
A: Me too, and so do many of the women and girls I work with. And yet, I think it so very important that we encourage women and girls to speak up and be heard, to move beyond the fear. So how did you move beyond it?
G: Necessity. I couldn’t publish what I wanted to publish about this explosion of consciousness called the women’s movement. The editors I had been writing for were very, very, very uninterested, to put it mildly. I had published a couple of things on the women’s movement in New York Magazine and so I started getting invitations to speak, mostly from college campuses. Since I couldn’t write what I wanted to say, in desperation, I considered speaking for the first time. Since, I didn’t think I could speak by myself, I asked a friend who was fearless to do it with me, Dorothy Pitman Hughes. She had children and was an expert in early childhood care. She was also African American. I was unmarried and had no children. We were certainly conscious of the racial difference, but I think, at the time, we were more worried that people thought being a feminist meant you were anti-child somehow. In any case, we did it together. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do it without her. Then, she had another baby and for a while we traveled with the baby. I am pretty sure some people thought we had the baby together. Dorothy decided to spend more time at home, and so Florynce Kennedy, a civil rights lawyer and charismatic speaker, started coming with me to speaking engagements. I always had to go before Flo because I was such an anti-climactic speaker after her. I still quote her at least once a week. She was so smart and funny, and alive, and fierce, and a great companion. She had the perfect answer to all of our challengers. If somebody in the south would stand up in the back of the room – I mean it was still fairly unusual for a white and a black woman to be traveling around together in the south – and ask if we were lesbians, Flo would answer, “are you my alternative?” After Flo went on to do her own organizing work, I spoke with Margaret Sloane and Jane Galvin Lewis. In a way, now, I consider myself lucky to have been afraid of public speaking because I had the experience of speaking with those partners.
with Flo Kennedy
A: I am certainly grateful that you faced that fear with the help of your colleagues. In your book, you talk a lot about listening as well as speaking. I loved your story of experiencing talking circles for the first time in India.
Excerpt from My Life on the Road:
Thus began a week like no other. We walked between villages in the heat of day, stopping to cool off in shallow streams…at night, I watched as villagers slowly came out of their small earthen houses and compounds to sit around a kerosene lamp in circles of six or twenty or fifty. I listened as villagers told stories of burnings and murders, thefts and rapes, with fear and trauma that needed no translation. It was hard to imagine that anything could slow this cycle of violence, yet villagers took comfort from neighbors who had ventured out of their compounds too. People seemed relieved to see one another, talk, be heard, separate truth from rumor, and discover that any outsiders knew or cared.
To my surprise, these long nights often ended with pledges to keep meeting, to sort out what was true and what was not, and to refuse to be part of vengeful cycles…
It was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time. I had no idea that such circles had been a common form of governance for most of human history, from the Kwei and San in southern Africa, the ancestors of us all, to the First Nations on my own continent, where layers of such circles turned into the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy in the world. Talking circles once existed in Europe, too, before floods, famines, and patriarchal rules replaced them with hierarchy, priests, and kings. I didn’t even know, as we sat in Ramnad, that a wave of talking circles and “testifying” was going on in black churches of my own country and igniting the civil rights movement. I certainly didn’t guess that, a decade later, I would see consciousness-raising groups, women’s talking circles, giving birth to the feminist movement. All I knew was that some deep part of me was being nourished and transformed right along with the villagers. I could see that, because the Gandhians listened, they were listened to. Because they depended on generosity, they created generosity. Because they walked the nonviolent path, they made one seem possible. This was the practical organizing wisdom they taught me:
If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them.
If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live.
If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye to eye.
A: We are starting a series of Women’s Talking Circles through World Muse. I am curious if you think we are seeing a resurgence of this sort of grassroots activism.
G: I think talking circles are organically necessary. I think really it is very difficult to be an activist without some mutual support and hard to advance your consciousness without listening to other people’s stories and being able to tell your own story. During the civil rights movement in the south, testifying in churches was that same kind of experience.
A: With social media, we are inundated with information, but I sometimes worry we are losing the art of conversation, especially when it comes to important issues. We seem to want only sound bites. Is social media harming or helping our ability to communicate with each other or deeply listen?
G: I don’t think it’s an ‘either/or.’ I certainly value the web because it allows us to share information without traditional media and advertising, without that kind of screen, so it is very, very valuable. But it is also true that we cannot empathize with each other unless we are present with all five senses. I asked a neurologist friend of mine if we produce oxytocin if we are looking at a printed page or a screen, and she said, “no, you really need to be present with all five senses” So I think, rather than ‘either/or’, we have to see it as ‘and.’
A: I only have a few moments left, so I want tell you that I loved the purple motorcycle story you share at the beginning of your book. How would you describe your own purple motorcycle?
G: I love that story too. You know, that’s interesting. I think symbolically my purple motorcycle is the energy of the road. I have come to have faith that if I get on that energy, so to speak, and ride, I’ll learn and understand things I can’t question or even know to ask right now.
Excerpt from My Life on the Road:
As we drive toward the Badlands, we see an acre of motorcycles around each isolated diner and motel…When we stop for coffee, our waitress can’t believe we don’t know. Every August since 1938, bikers from all over the world have come here for a rally names after Sturgis, a town that’s just a wide place in the road…
On our last morning, I enter the lodge alone for an early breakfast, trying to remain both inconspicuous and open-minded. Still, I am hyperconscious of a room full of knife sheaths, jackboots, and very few women. In the booth next to me, a man with chains around his muscles and a woman in leather pants and an improbable hairdo are taking note of my presence. Finally, the woman comes over to talk.
“I just want to tell you,” she says cheerfully, “how much Ms Magazine has meant to me over the years – and my husband too. He reads some now that he’s retired. But what I wanted to ask – isn’t one of the women you’re traveling with Alice Walker? I love her poetry.”
It turns out that she and her husband have been coming to this motorcycle rally every year since they first married. She loves the freedom of the road and also the mysterious moonscape of the badlands. She urges me to walk there, but to follow the paths marked by ropes. During the war over the Sacred Black Hills, she explains, Lakota warriors found refuge there because the cavalry got lost every time.
Her husband stops by on his way to the cashier and suggests I see the huge statue of Crazy Horse that being dynamited out of the Black Hills. “Crazy Horse riding his pony, “he says, “is going to make all those Indian-killing presidents on Mount Rushmore look like nothing.” He walks away, a gentle, lumbering man, tattoos, chains, and all.
Before she leaves, my new friend tells me to look out the big picture window at the parking lot. “See that purple Harley out there – the big gorgeous one? That’s mine. I used to ride behind my husband, and never took the road on my own. Then after the kids were grown, I put my foot down. It was hard, but we finally got to be partners. Now he says he likes it better this way…I even put ‘Ms.’ On my license plate – and you should see my grandkids’ faces when Grandma rides up on her purple Harley!”
On my own again, I look out at the barren sand and tortured rocks of the Badlands, stretching for miles. I’ve walked there, and I know that, close up, the barren sand reveals layers of pale rose and beige and cream, and the rocks turn out to have intricate womblike openings. Even in the distant cliffs, caves of rescue appear.
What seems to be one thing from a distance is very different close up.
I tell you this story because it’s the kind of lesson that can be learned only on the road. And also because I’ve come to believe that, inside, each of us has a purple motorcycle.
We have only to discover it – and ride.
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