What do you get when you cross Gloria Steinem with a call for aspirin between the knees? You get inspired.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending a Feminist.com salon hosted by Gloria Steinem, which also featured the sea-changing psychologist and author of In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan; media powerhouse, President and CEO of The Paley Center for Media,Pat Mitchell and the activist and actress Kathy Najimy.
There were about forty feminists of different ages there, each representing her own passion. Organized by the founder of Feminist.com, Marianne Schnall, the timing of the salon coalesced around upsetting trends away from the health and well-being of women and girls.
Over appetizers (which included really good Deviled Eggs -- I had three), Steinem opened by setting the tone for the evening, describing herself as an eternal optimist. She said that she sees this moment in history as an exciting one for women, because in the face of our fundamental human rights being challenged, women are coming together with tremendous force to protect them.
It was inspiring and it was impressive. At 78, after four decades of advocating for equal rights, there was nothing in her countenance that seemed weary or battle worn. She was warm and funny, and the deep friendships between many of the women in the room, forged by years of shared purpose, created a vibe that was embracing. This heartened me, because I guess I'd imagined her soldiering would have hardened her, a condition I imagine all people who continuously soldier for racial or sexual equality could quite easily come to feel.
I wondered how she hadn't ended up cynical and bitter in evaluating how many improvements have been made vs. how many remain undermined. I wondered what must it be like to have devoted your entire adult life to a cause continually under fire. And I wondered how she, and others who've been at it that long, are even able to consider being optimistic when there are mornings the news is so inhumane I want to throw my TV out the window, or light The New York Times on fire just to relieve my rage. How could forty years not have exacted its toll on Steinem's outlook?
As 2012's Women's History Month comes to a close, it turns out that this March has been quite a history making month in and of itself in terms of the national dialogue on women's rights. First we had the mobilizing fallout of Komen's decisions to defund, then refund, Planned Parenthood. Outrage continued over Santorum's Super PAC funder's call to revive the old aspirin between the knees method of birth control. Following the convening of an all-male panel at a Congressional hearing on birth control, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress in support of women's health care coverage and was called a slut by Rush Limbaugh. Even as I write, health care reform remains vulnerable to conservative Justices, who, as The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin just reported, are trying "to change the underlying constitutional law" for healthcare just as they already have for abortion -- a hard hit for women, who, according to research published in The New York Times, pay far more for healthcare than men.
Although it must at times be hard to sustain, Steinem's optimism is necessary, because she's right: The benefit of witnessing injustice is that it forces us to transform our rage into the power to create change. The contributions of the salon's other speakers echoed this position, and were also invigorating to hear. Carole Gilligan's research and teaching at Harvard forever changed the landscape of how we view gender by including the voices of girls and women as they stand on their own, not just as a footnote to the study of males. In her speech, she said she's often asked how she defines feminism, and she says her response is that feminism is the means by which democracy can be liberated from patriarchy. The eloquence of that statement made me tear up.
Pat Mitchell, a pioneer who broke through the glass ceiling of media and who is respected for her longstanding humanitarian work, shared a recent experience at a meeting of international women. On the subject of human rights, she said women from other countries in dire need of support expressed their longing for American women to become more galvanized so they could reach out and help them. It was a call to action.
A former Ms. Magazine'sWoman of the Year, Kathy Najimy read a list of her wishes for how we could step further toward equal rights, with each wish beginning with the phrase "What if?" Some were hysterically funny, others cut like a knife to the heart and they all represented each of the many causes she participates in from the grassroots level on up.
Even with current events echoing battles she'd already fought, Steinem ended the evening the way she began it: With hopefulness. As she wrapped up after the speakers were finished, she asked us to put aside any allegiances to factions or differences of opinion within our own personal feminist leanings. And she told us to spend the rest of the evening connecting with each other, learning about and from one another and becoming even more rooted in our common objective.
At the end of the night, biting, for the third time, into the comforting powers of the humble Deviled Egg, a quirky connection struck me. There we were, bound together as humans who, for much of our lives, each month, bring to bear an altogether different egg -- which even in the new millennium, remains bedeviled by patriarchy.