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Gloria Steinem on the ERA, #MeToo and hope

Gloria Steinem
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Gloria Steinem: "It’s a third of the country that’s mad, because they are being deprived of the old hierarchical divisions – race, gender, class – they depended on."

By 4 p.m. Wednesday, people were already lining up at the doors to the Carlson Family Stage at Northrop for a program that wouldn’t start until 6 p.m. They were there to hear Gloria Steinem, this year’s Distinguished Carlson Lecturer, in conversation with MPR’s Kerri Miller.

Arguably the world’s most famous feminist – she has also been called the “mother of feminism,” which must tickle or annoy her, since she has no children and never wanted any – Steinem has spent most of her life fighting for women’s rights. Now 85, she’s still traveling, speaking, listening, keeping up with politics and news, making waves.

At the lecture, the University of Minnesota’s new president, Joan T.A. Gabel, began her opening remarks with, “How great is this? Can we just say that?” The U’s first woman president confessed to sneaking her mother’s Ms. magazines. After calling Steinem “one of the foremost advocates of our time, a leader and a trailblazer,” Gabel noted that “a life of purpose and service to others makes the world better and fairer and more just, but it also changes trajectories for generations of people … and women like me.”

Earlier, we met with Steinem in her dressing room at Northrop, trying not to think about the fact that this elegant woman in a red blazer and leather pants was the Gloria Steinem. This interview has been edited and condensed.


MinnPost: You’ve been fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment for almost 50 years. What do you think the chances are that it will pass?

Gloria Steinem: When we first took it up – of course, it was left over from the first wave [of feminism, the suffragists] – we thought, “How hard can this be?” The public opinion polls showed that the vast majority of people supported it. And then it got up to the last three states and it became very, very difficult.

It took us a long time to figure out that the problem was the insurance companies. They would have to revise the actuarial tables, which would cost them a lot of money. I’m not sure myself the degree to which that is still the problem.

Today there are so many questions, political questions, that I don’t know if we can come out with a clear path to what may happen.

MP: You’ve said that when you were a young journalist in New York, there was no language for sexual harassment. How did we get to the #MeToo movement?

Ms. magazine, November 1977 issue
Ms. magazine, November 1977 issue
GS: It’s the logical development of what has been growing since the 1970s. Students at Cornell University invented the term “sexual harassment.” They were trying to describe what happened to them on summer jobs. Then we – MS Magazine – did a cover story. We used a puppet on the cover because we didn’t want to be too shocking. But even so, supermarkets wouldn’t carry the magazine.

Then Catharine MacKinnon – our legal theoretician bar none, born in this state – included sexual harassment under sex discrimination law. Then there were three cases, all brought by black women, two against the government and one against a bank, and all were won. It’s been a progression since the early 1970s.

It wasn’t such a problem for me because I was always a freelancer. I never had a job, so I couldn’t be fired. When a new woman freelancer arrived in New York, I would share with her the names of editors she could work with.


MP: Imagine you’re 28 – the age when you infiltrated the Playboy Club and wrote about it – only it’s 2020. What are you doing now?

GS: Trying to get rid of Donald Trump. Nothing is more important, right? We all have to do that. Who is the sexual harasser? The number of complaints against him has risen to 100. But the press seems to think the story has already been told.

We’re the majority and he’s not. He never won the popular vote. He won largely because of the Electoral College, and also because after eight years of one party, people vote for change for the sake of change.

I’m worried – I think we’re all worried – about the legality of the vote, and what happens when people go to the polls. We’re worried about Russia and a lot of things. But I’m not worried about the majority of Americans. I think they clearly are not going to vote for Donald Trump.

MP: You call yourself a hopeaholic. Are you feeling hopeful?

GS: Yes. Not unrealistic, because there are all these dangers. But I think just from traveling and listening to people, I hear the evidence that the majority was never for him. It’s a third of the country that’s mad, because they are being deprived of the old hierarchical divisions – race, gender, class – they depended on.

MP: Is the patriarchy crumbling?

Yes. It’s crumbling partly because the strain of being superior is causing all kinds of health problems. And mostly because the democratic movement of saying “Hello, human beings are all human, we’re each unique individuals, gender is made up, race is made up” – that understanding is growing. But it’s not going to be easy.

***

Earlier that day, we were texting a dear friend in Atlanta, an African-American former civil rights worker around Steinem’s age. We mentioned that we were on our way to interview Steinem. She texted back, “Give her a great big THANKS from an 86-yr-wise Greatgranny that she helped to set free!”


During the Carlson Lecture, Miller asked Steinem a question submitted by a member of the audience: “It’s been 100 years since women gained the right to vote, yet we’re still legislating women’s bodies. How do we ensure women are at the center of making choices about their rights?” Steinem had a one-word answer: “Vote.”

Soon after, she said, “I’m going to work my heart out for any of the Democratic candidates.”

Julie Taymor’s new movie, “The Glorias,” is based on Steinem’s New York Times best-selling memoir “My Life on the Road.” It will be released in the fall, ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The Distinguished Carlson Lecture series is presented by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs with support from Carlson and the Carlson Family Foundation.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Sue Martin on 02/20/2020 - 11:52 am.

    Would you have written of the Father of Invention: “which must tickle or annoy him, since he has no children and never wanted any”?

    • Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 02/20/2020 - 11:31 pm.

      Good question. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. And no, I probably wouldn’t have written that of the Father of Invention … especially not if you mean Edison, who had 11 children! But, in all seriousness, Steinem’s decision to not have children has been one of the things people define her by for most of her life. (Google Gloria Steinem and childless.) I believe that women are defined by this way more than men. I wish I’d had the chance to ask her about this.

      • Submitted by Sue Martin on 02/21/2020 - 12:36 pm.

        Thanks for your reply. She had a lot to say about this that night on stage. That “Steinem’s decision to not have children has been one of the things people define her by”, and that journalists continue to do so, shows how much work needs to be done.

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