Debbie Phillips and Gloria Steinem at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s eightieth anniversary gala, October, 2016.
For the last fifty years, we’ve known Gloria Steinem as the leader of the modern women’s movement. She has spent a lifetime organizing women to advocate for better pay, better working conditions, and better lives. She helped to create New York magazine, co-founded Ms. magazine, and is the author of eight best-selling books. In 2013 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Today, at age eighty-two, she calls herself an “entrepreneur for social change.” She sums up her work by saying, “I write. I talk. I tell stories. I want to do justice to the women I meet.”
Her latest book is My Life on the Road.
This interview is adapted from my live, question-and-answer session with Steinem during the eightieth anniversary gala for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin on October 14, 2016.
The interview was conducted only days before the 2016 presidential election. In response to the outcome, Ms. Steinem penned a piece for The Guardian, in which she commented:
“In my country, the white-lash and the man-lash have just created President Donald Trump, an unqualified candidate who came up not through politics, but through inheriting money, a gift for bullying, and being on television.”
Steinem minced no words, saying, “The next few years are going to be hell.” But she also reminded us, “Luckily, real change, like a tree, grows from the bottom up, not the top down. We have Hillary, Barack, and Michelle to guide us. We will not mourn, we will organize.”
Q: In My Life on the Road, you wrote perhaps the single most poignant dedication that I’ve ever read in a book. I’ve re-read it multiple times and talked to friends about it because it is so touching. Would you share the story behind it? I have it if you’d like to read it.
This book is dedicated to 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 the 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.
I want to pay tribute to all the people who are guarding clinics and all the physicians who risk their safety.
It’s all really about bodily integrity. It’s all about the fact that we, whether we’re female or male, have the right to decide what goes on inside our own bodies. The government doesn’t get to decide. Nobody else gets to decide.
Q: I first met you at the 1984 Democratic Convention, on the day that Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for vice president. Why haven’t we yet had a female President of the United States?
Steinem: In many countries, such as India, the family is so important that, in the absence of a brother, it’s OK if the sister inherits the power.
Because we have a somewhat more democratic system than that, and because we are—arguably, anyway—the most powerful nation in the world, and because most of us are still raised by women, we associate female power with childhood. It feels odd and inappropriate to see women in public life.
I think sometimes men—at least some of my friends in the media—feel regressed to childhood when they see a powerful woman, because the last time they saw one they were eight years old. Right?
Q: What should women and Planned Parenthood do to more fully engage men as supporters of and advocates for reproductive health care?
Steinem: I think you can go the logical, political way of saying, look, letting women’s bodies be controlled as the means of reproduction is the first step in every hierarchy. It’s the first anti-democratic step and, once that step is there, you can’t change it.
If you want to have a democratic society, you have to have democratic families. If you want to have an equal society at all, you have to support reproductive freedom for women as a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech. I think we are probably going toward some legal principle in the future. I don’t know what it will be called, but I think of it in my head as bodily integrity—that the power of the government stops at our skins, men and women, that we get to decide what goes on inside. It has to do with testing and organ transplants. There are all kinds of other issues that affect both women and men, but bodily integrity, I think, includes all of us, and it’s in our interest to support each other in establishing that principle.
Q: If you were to rewrite the script for the women’s movement, is there any aspect now, this many years later, that you would change?
Steinem: Oh, how long do we have here? I do think that, in a generalized way, we’ve been much too nice. Because we’ve been socialized to be nice. We spend too long asking Daddy, as I think of it, or getting approval or saying, “It’s probably only me but . . .” or whatever. Instead of just saying what we think in a way that we would want to be spoken to, not in a hostile way but just saying it. Maybe this is a more general way of putting it. I think that a smart guy wrote the Golden Rule, “You should treat other people the way you want to be treated.” But I think for smart women, we often have to reverse it. We have to remember to treat ourselves as well as we treat other people.
Q: I interviewed you recently for Women on Fire and you said something so powerful that has stayed with me every day: “We all need to do the best we can in the moment because the moment may turn out to matter.” What’s a moment that turned out to matter for you?
Steinem: There are so many. It’s hard, isn’t it? Just to remember the little things. Every time we, as women, go past a mirror and criticize how we look, a girl is watching. I think of that in my life because a long time ago, in New York, I was walking on 57th Street and I saw a woman across the street. I later discovered it was Niki de Saint Phalle, who was a wonderful artist, but I didn’t know it at the time. She was striding along with a cowboy hat and one of those Aussie black oilcloth raincoats, and cowboy boots, and she didn’t have a purse. Somehow, it was really crucial to me that she wasn’t burdened with a purse. Neither was Nancy Drew—did you ever notice? She was striding along the sidewalk, and I thought that I’d never seen anybody before who looked free. I’d never seen a woman look free before. I thought, “Oh, I so want to be like that.” If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We inspire each other in that way.
Q: Who’s a change-maker that we might not have heard of yet who deserves some recognition?
Steinem: I think about Ai-jen Poo. She is a great, gifted organizer of domestic workers. Her group [National Domestic Workers Alliance] has been getting the laws extended that affect all other work, in terms of minimum wage and so on, to farmworkers and household workers. She’s magnetic and brings people together. She’s totally great.
Also I usually try to mention the three young feminist women who started Black Lives Matter, because I don’t think they get enough credit. You should know their names: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. It’s a big, decentralized movement now, but this was the beginning of it. Their early organizing rules, I think, have kept the spirit and the inclusiveness against a lot of odds for Black Lives Matter. Their first guidelines were this: Lead with love, low ego, high impact, and move at the speed of trust. I sure love that. That’s so smart.
There are so many great young activists, feminists, both young women and young men, that I never could exactly figure out how to explain how I felt [about them] . . . I figured out how to explain it: I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born.
Q: How does it feel to be where you are in your life?
Steinem: It’s shocking! I tell people on the street how old I am because I’m trying to make myself believe it.
In Indian country here, and in native cultures in other parts of the world, too, they say that the very young and the very old understand each other the best. Because we are the closest to the unknown. Everything one does gets more precious, because you know that. I plan to live to be 100, which I would have to do anyway just to meet my deadlines. You have to realize that the time is shorter. I think you’re more likely with age to realize this big, deep secret, which is that you’re always the same person.
Q: What makes you happy?
Steinem: What makes me happy is connecting. It’s when we are talking to each other and we not only understand each other but together we’re having an idea or seeing something that we didn’t see before. That is so exciting. It has to do with laughter. I would go from happiness to laughter. It turns out that laughter is really, in fact, the only free emotion. You can compel fear, obviously, but you also can compel love if people are isolated and dependent for long enough. You enmesh in order to survive. But you cannot compel laughter. It happens when two things come together and suddenly make a third. It happens when you have an idea. Laughter is free. In Indian country, in our own native cultures here, laughter is personified by a spirit that is neither male nor female. The idea is that laughter breaks a path into the unknown, and you cannot pray unless you can laugh. I would just say if you’re someplace where they won’t let you laugh, get out.
Q: Do you have any plans for the future once you get off the road?
Steinem: This is like Guilty Writer 101, but I hope that I stay home more because I have a couple of books I dearly want to write. One of them I was writing with Wilma Mankiller, the [first female] chief of the Cherokee Nation who’s no longer with us, I’m sorry to say. It’s about original cultures around the world because I think we have so much to learn.
If only we started history when people started, it would be very different. Instead of when Columbus showed up. What a bad guy he was. Oy. He said, “Oh, these people are so helpful and wonderful and they’re giving us food and helping us,” and then he killed them. He couldn’t understand why women fought back when he was taking sex slaves for his crew.
In New York, there’s Columbus Circle. You’ve probably seen it, right? Every Columbus Day I think, “I should’ve gone and put a big sign there that says ‘murderer.’ ” And a lousy navigator! He continued to think he was in India. What Wilma and I were going to try to do is to look at those cultures who are still with us—decimated but there—to look at original cultures and see what we can learn.
For instance, in one of the oldest cultures in Ghana, if somebody does a destructive thing, they punish that person with isolation. It’s not like our punishment in cells by yourself for years, but at some degree of isolation because we’re communal creatures, so maybe that’s a universal punishment. When that person comes back into society, everybody who knows that person tells them every good thing they ever did.
Steinem: We could do that, and we do the reverse. We continue to punish people in this crazed prison industrial complex we have. They frequently can’t get a job. They can’t even vote. Just to take things like that, which are just common sense, and put them all in a book.
Q: Finally, there are so many young people here who will be carrying on your vision and your work for years to come. What is your greatest wish for them?
Steinem: Well, they’re not carrying on my vision. They’re carrying on everybody’s and their own vision. People at my age, among the things we hear besides the word “still,” —“Oh, you’re still . . . ” “You’re still wearing blue jeans . . . ” —I think that one of the most frequent things is, “Who are you passing your torch to?” I have evolved an answer, which is: (A) I’m not giving up my torch, thank you very much, and (B) I’m using it to light other people’s torches because everybody has a torch. If there’s only one torch, no wonder we don’t know where we’re going.
Debbie Phillips is the founder of Women on Fire, an international organization dedicated to inspiring women to live their dreams and make a difference in the world