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Gloria Steinem on the 'Crucial' Next Steps for Women, and What Gives Her Hope

02/01/2016 12:21 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2016

I've interviewed Gloria Steinem several times over the years, and she always provides powerful insights and inspiration. I recently caught up with Gloria to talk about her new memoir, My Life on the Road, which has become a New York Times bestseller. As a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer, Gloria has played a pivotal role in the women's equality movement for over 50 years. In this in-depth interview, she talks about the strides we've made toward gender equality (and how far we have yet to go), the hopeful "explosion of consciousness" she's been witnessing on the road, her views on electing a woman into the White House, how men and women can be allies, and her belief that "we are linked not ranked."

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Marianne Schnall: Congratulations on your fantastic new book, My Life on the Road, which I learned so much from. You hadn't written a book in 20 years. What inspired you to write this book, from this angle at this specific point in your life?

Gloria Steinem: I was writing this book for 20 years. It's just that I would work on it for a month or so each summer and then return to the road and not have time to continue, so it's been a process of almost 20 years. When I first wrote the proposal for this book, it was because I did finally realize that I was writing least about what I was doing most. I would write about issues and people I met along the way, but not about the process and the life of being on the road.

MS: Aside from greater insight into your personal story and history, what lessons do you hope readers will take away from your story? Are there any overarching themes or messages you're hoping to convey?

GS: Yes. I hope readers will consider, especially in this age of the World Wide Web, that as miraculous as it is, we still need to be in the same room with all five senses if we are to empathize with each other. So perhaps the highest use of the Web is getting the information and identifying the places and the possibility of being together physically. It turns out that we literally don't empathize unless we're physically present -- that the oxytocin, the famous "tend and befriend" hormone is not produced unless we're present with all five senses.

Also the road itself is informative, because it forces you to respond spontaneously and to encounter the unexpected. It forces you to reassess what you felt about people or issues or places, and it forces you to live in the present. It's a form of meditation, you might say, because you have no choice but to live in the present, if you're really being open to events and people as they come along.

MS: In the process of writing the book, did you learn anything new about yourself or acquire a deeper perspective of your own life's journey when writing it?

GS: I did. For instance, when I first proposed the book and wrote an outline for it, I did not include the first chapter about my father. I imagined that I had rebelled against both my parents to some extent, because my father never had a home, which I do, and my mother never had a journey of her own, which I do. So it took me a while to realize, in that way that we think we have completely changed a childhood pattern, that I was repeating it in a different way. And by the end of the book I did realize that the point was balance between home and the road, that even birds have nests.

MS: This book for me was a good refresher of all we've accomplished for women over the years, and you have such an expansive vantage point having been on the front lines over all these years. We've obviously come such a long way since you began all those years ago, but we're still so far from parity in terms of women in leadership positions in Washington and the corporate world and all sectors of influence, and we're still fighting to protect our basic rights, like reproductive choice. How do you feel overall about where we are today in the arc of progress for women? Is significant progress still being made?

GS: No, I think we've just begun. We've accomplished some very important tasks. First, we know we're not crazy, the system is crazy. And this is very important. Second, we've built a majority support in this country and women's movements in many other countries, so instead of being a novelty, we are now a majority. And we have achieved new laws, new phrases, new definitions, new consciousness in very important and life-saving ways; however, there is still so much violence against females in the world, whether it is son surplus and daughter deficit in Asia or sexualized violence in war zones or domestic violence here or child marriage in many other countries -- all added up it means there are fewer females on Earth than males. That hasn't happened before, as far as we know.

So violence against women is clearly not solved, not at all solved, and the reasons for it, which are controlling women's bodies in order to control reproduction, are definitely not solved. The belief that women should control our own bodies may be a majority belief, but the minority that believes otherwise is against not only safe and legal abortions but contraception and even sex education. Or in other countries the ability for women to even leave the house without male written permission or a male companion, those restrictions and dangers are still with us.

MS: What will it take to address all of these issues and problems that have been plaguing our country and the world for so many years? Do you feel like there's anything we can do to speed progress up?

GS: Well, of course. That's what movements are for. Progress is not automatic, it depends on what we do every day. So any statement of ownership of our own bodies, however that occurs in our individual lives or our community or our collective lives, is crucial. And any insistence on equal pay is crucial and any redefinition of work to include caregiving work so that it also has an economic value, at least at replacement level, that's crucial. So change does come from the bottom up, and it will come from girls and women and men who understand that for us all to be human beings instead of being grouped by gender is good for them, too.

MS: In terms of talking about breaking glass ceilings, there's a lot of conversation right now about the election, and you write a lot in your book about Hillary Clinton's first run in 2008. I remember when I interviewed you for my book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?, you reflected that you didn't think we were ready to elect a woman back in 2008. Do you think we're ready now?

GS:
I think we're more ready, but it's going to be hell.

MS: In what way?

GS: There's going to be a demand for perfectionism on the part of Hillary Clinton, or any other pro-equality woman candidate, that would not be made of men. There are going to be attacks based on different standards of morality and different standards of dress and physical attractiveness. There are going to be men in the media, and perhaps some women too, who perhaps unconsciously associate female authority with childhood, because that's the last time they saw a powerful woman, and so they feel threatened and regressed to childhood by the sight of a powerful woman outside of the home.

MS: What do you think it would actually mean for women and politics in our culture to have a woman president? I know there were a lot of high hopes when Barack Obama was elected in terms of what that might do for African American communities. What do you think it would actually mean to break that glass ceiling?

GS:
It's not just the fact of a biological woman, it's a woman who stands for the majority issues of women. It would be a disaster to have Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina in the White House, so it's not just a woman, but a woman who stands for the majority needs of women. It's not just getting a job for one woman, it's making life better for all women.

MS:
There's a notion that's going around that young women may be more apathetic or complacent about women's rights, including the milestone of electing our first female president. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you see generational differences in how young women view these issues?

GS: Well, there's one logical generational difference and that is that young women will have more chances to support a female president than older women. Older women feel it's their last chance, so that's just a factual, obvious difference. But other than that it depends on experience, on individual experience.

MS: Do you think the notion of what feminism is today has changed since you began in the movement all those years ago?

GS: Yes and no. I think it's changed because we now better understand the links between equality for women and every other issue. For instance, now we understand that equal pay would be the best economic stimulus this country could have. We understand that violence against women is the biggest normalizer of all other violence, because it tends to be what people see first in their families or neighborhoods and it normalizes the idea that one group is born to dominate another. So I think we understand the connections much better, not well enough incidentally, because if we did, we would be screening our police for domestic violence, which is the biggest indicator of other violence and is a supremacy crime; both supremacy by sex and race is a parallel motivation. It's not getting you more money necessarily or benefiting you in any real way, it's just a question of having a superior identity. If [George] Zimmerman had been arrested for domestic violence, Trayvon Martin might still be alive. If we did something about the fact that cops have four times the rate of domestic violence that exists in the population at large, we would be screening out racist and sexist cops.

So we do understand the connections better, but I think the fundamental principles were clear -- the first big issue was legalizing and making abortions safe, so we were understanding that women's existence as the means for reproduction was the fundamental reason for our inferior status; the desire to control reproduction was the fundamental reason.

MS: You referred earlier to the ways in which men benefit from feminist work, and one of the hopeful trends I've been seeing is the notion that these aren't women's issues, these are human issues. As you know, Michael Kimmel and I are working on an initiative together called Women and Men as Allies. Do you see that as being important? What ways do you think men can be allies in the movement toward greater gender equality?

GS: Men who see their enlightened self-interests in getting rid of gender categories and race categories are allies in a very reliable way because they see it as beneficial to themselves, as well as females as a group. The racial parallel is true here: the white allies were only sometimes helpful if they saw themselves as helping African Americans or other people of color; they were way more reliable if they thought of themselves as "I don't want to live in a segregated society, it is depriving me, as well as them." And I think the same is true of men, men who really want to have a relationship with their children and raise their kids and have job patterns that allow them to do that. Men who don't want to die early of violence and tension-related causes understand that this cause is mutual.

MS: You recently wrote, "I'm glad we've begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters." What does that mean?

GS: It means raising sons to raise children. Whether or not those sons have children, they, like daughters, should be raised with the qualities you need to raise children. They're all qualities wrongly called feminine: attention to detail, patience, empathy. I don't have children, but I was raised as a female to have those qualities because they're perceived as feminine. Until men are raised with those qualities, too, they won't have the full circle of human qualities. Women, we tend to become whole people by venturing outside of the home, learning to aspire, to achieve, to deal with conflict -- all these qualities that are wrongly called masculine. Men tend to gain wholeness by acquiring the qualities that are wrongly called feminine.

MS: That's important. I remember even in my book, how many women leaders talked about how part of the challenge of women balancing work and family is also the need for men to share in these roles, but we don't really create a culture that allows them to feel like that's acceptable.

GS: Yeah. For a man to say, "I have to leave work now because I need to do something with my kids," it's sometimes viewed as a career killer. He doesn't have the right drive. So when they depart from their gender roles, they face some of the same restrictions. And more and more men are raising children or want to be close to their kids. They don't want to just lead work-obsessed lives and end up 50 years later with an engraved watch.

MS: For the beautiful Imagine bracelets that you designed with Maiden Nation that benefit the organization I run, Feminist.com, you selected this phrase, "We are Linked Not Ranked." I've heard you use that phrase many times, and in your book you write, "When humans are ranked, instead of linked, everyone loses." What does that phrase mean to you, and how do we make that principle operational in the world?

GS:
It was the shortest way I could think of saying what our goal is. Nothing else seemed short enough to put on a bracelet [laughs]. It's the paradigm that was the paradigm of societies for most of human history, and still is of some, and that is the circle not the pyramid. That we are literally linked in a circle, including with nature, as well as with other human beings. Old societies didn't have and still don't have "he" and "she." They don't have gendered pronouns. They don't have a word for nature, because we're not separate from nature. Viewing the world as linked, not ranked, is profoundly different from viewing it in a hierarchical way, which causes you to label everyone with their place in the hierarchy.

MS: I was struck in your book when you wrote that when you first started speaking on the road, you discovered "an intense interest in the simple idea "that our shared humanity and individual uniqueness far outweighs any label by group of birth whether sex, race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, religious heritage or anything else." So if there is such interest in this concept, why all these years later is it still so hard for the human race to see our common humanity, beyond all these divides?

GS: We've lived with the labels for somewhere between 500 and 5,000 years, depending on what part of the world we're in. And what we experience in our childhoods that comes to seem normal, or even inevitable, is that if you are placed in a hierarchy, you probably are immediately anxious about going further down and you're striving to go further up, so your energies get placed into becoming "more than," or at least not becoming "less than," instead of becoming "part of." But there is a longing, as we see in our communal lives, to be in a group, to sit around a campfire, to talk to each other, to tell our stories and listen to other people's stories. If you say to a group, two things are true: one, we've grown up with the idea of gender and race and so we think it's real, and the other truth is that it's an invention, people are relieved.

MS: Do you think that's part of what we need? There's been a lot of conversation, not just about getting women in leadership, but about what types of paradigms of leadership and power we most need now. Do you think that part of it is redefining how power is used?

GS: Yes, and that's been true from the beginning. In the late '60s, people were saying we need power to, not power over. Power to do, accomplish, create, not power over other people.

MS: Speaking of power and individual citizens, it's so easy to feel frustrated and powerless after all that's happening in the world today, even in our country, whether it's shootings or police brutality or gridlock in Washington, all the partisanship. What advice would you give to people who feel disillusioned or cynical or powerless about what they can do?

GS: The forces they want to rebel against have put a lot of effort into making them feel powerless. But the fact is that every single issue that we care about is now a majority issue. In most cases where we have lost or are losing, it's because we haven't paid attention. For instance, state legislatures. Most Americans don't know who their state legislators are, so most state legislators are run by the interests they regulate. The Right to Life, the so-called anti-abortion movement, did not get what it wanted fully in Washington, so now it has moved to the state legislatures. It's up to us to know who our state legislators are, pay attention, at least as much attention in states as we do in Washington.

MS: Gloria, you're still writing and speaking and traveling. What personally drives you after all these years? What is the source of your energy that keeps you going?

GS: You and everybody we know who shares the same hopes. Excitement, because it's endlessly interesting to be organizing and hearing possible solutions or thinking of possible solutions and how to put efforts together. It makes everything else boring, actually [laughs].

MS: We talk a lot about all the challenges we face and all that's wrong in the world, but what right now gives you hope?

GS: Well, because I've just been traveling much more than usual, because my usual travel was already there and then the book tour got put on top of it, I've had an intense dose of just listening to the general public, so I got an explosion of consciousness. It comes out of both anger and despair and hope and accomplishment, but it's there. It's consciousness. It's incredible. I'm quite stunned by it. The consciousness is incredibly high because of Black Lives Matter and the cops and anger about election financing and global warming -- and none of these problems can be solved without the female half of the population, and obviously seeing it that way creates new solutions.

MS: I detect that, too. The shift that's happening.

GS: It's interesting because I don't exactly know how to explain it. It is partly the Web, because people can discover supportive information out of time, so people who are 16 who might not know about me or you, know about me and you. I think there's more ability to realize there are shared concerns and shared values without the traditional media.

MS: Exactly. So there's more access to information and ways to use our voices.

GS: And at the same time, people want to be together, physically.

MS: Is there one last message that you want to get out right now that you think is important for people to internalize today, in terms of how they can be a part of this shift?

GS:
I would say don't worry about what you should do, do whatever you can. And seek companions with shared values. If we're isolated, we come to feel powerless when we're not.

***

You can visit Gloria's website at www.gloriasteinem.com

* A portion of this interview appeared at Mogul.

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, the Women's Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.

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