America's most famous feminist: 'There is no such thing as post-feminism'

By Gaby Wood

Fifty years after she became America’s most famous feminist, Gloria Steinem tells Gaby Wood why the fight is far from over.
One of the founders of the modern feminist movement Gloria Steinem.
One of the founders of the modern feminist movement Gloria Steinem.

One evening last month, the Emmanuel Centre in central London was filling up with women of all ages. The man who'd organised the event hovered outside, cheerfully attempting to spot people of his own sex. There were only one or two. "This is not a football match," he said, grinning as a 1200-strong crowd swarmed past him.

The occasion: Emma Watson, the 25-year-old actress and UN goodwill ambassador for women, was due to interview the 82-year-old feminist, Gloria Steinem. When they came on stage, sleekly dressed, it was immediately clear who was the more nervous. "It only hit me 20 seconds ago that this was really happening," said Watson, in awe of her interlocutor.

She needn't have worried. Steinem's life has been spent asking other women about theirs. No sooner had Watson brushed past the notion that women can feel bad about themselves than Steinem brought her back to it, calmly turning the tables. "Well, would you like to address that?" she asked. Before long, Watson was confessing that she hated her bushy eyebrows and saying she felt pressurised to pretend she was nothing like Hermione in Harry Potter, when really she was just the same.

Steinem, who usually lives in New York, was in Britain to talk about her memoir, My Life On The Road. The tour involved speaking to a much younger generation of feminists: Watson, to begin with, then students in Oxford and Cambridge, in conversation with Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates. Steinem evaded the notion of passing a torch - "we all have a torch", she said - but it was heartening to see how many young admirers she has, because for years a backlash seemed to have sounded a death knell for feminism and, if there's a new wave, its members couldn't hope for a more generous or good-humoured role model.

Once, Steinem was the most famous feminist in America. Now it's often said that her contribution is hard to place, because she hasn't written a groundbreaking book, as Betty Friedan did with The Feminine Mystique or Germaine Greer did with The Female Eunuch. But it's also because she's not a screecher, nor an exhibitionist, and most of what she's achieved has been done with others. That's the whole point of a movement.

Even Steinem's most famous quip is only ever quoted in part. When a reporter told her, 42 years ago, that she didn't look 40, she said: "This is what 40 looks like." But she also said, "We've been lying so long, who would know?" By halving the quote, her point about women's collective pressure to pretend was turned into a proud response about her own good looks.

Those looks themselves came in for criticism, of course (the sisterhood has rarely been short on sibling rivalry). Her hair and nails received a level of attention that never came the way of her New York magazine colleague Tom Wolfe - though he must have spent more time choosing his outfits than Steinem ever did.

Yet she is always open to the possibility of a joke. Her seminal 1963 investigation into Hugh Hefner's domain had a wry tone that's absent from most undercover reportage. Her witty riff, "If Men Could Menstruate", rivals Woody Allen - and even turned Martin Amis into a self-described feminist.

Though she started out as a newspaper columnist - and, in 1972, co-founded a magazine, Ms. - she now describes herself as an organiser, or an activist. Much of her work has been on the ground all along, helping to set up history-shifting conferences like the one in Houston in 1977, encouraging workers to speak to their bosses, campaigning for equal rights and better pay.

Gloria Steinem wearing a Playboy bunny costume in 1960.
Gloria Steinem wearing a Playboy bunny costume in 1960.

She has been more like a union leader than a journalist, though her capacity for infiltration into the world of the oppressors is unusual. It's hard to imagine [British unionist] Arthur Scargill applying for a job as a Playboy bunny.

This is the woman who greets me the morning after the Watson event, signing books in her publisher's office. There is almost too much to talk about - if we're going to discuss issues that concern women, the frontiers are numerous. At one point, I ask Steinem why the women's movement was perceived as mostly white and middle-class if, as she has said, the reality was different.

"Books," she replies. "It was white, middle-class women writing books. I mean, I love books, but ... For instance, the first big group of women doing feminist activism that I remember meeting were welfare mothers. They had done the first analysis of welfare policy I'd ever seen - analysing the welfare system as a gigantic husband that looked under your bed for the shoes of other men, gave you just enough money to survive ... it was funny and wonderful and smart. They were pioneers. But they didn't write a book."

Though any political movement can become more about rhetoric than strategy, Steinem's grasp on specific issues is sharp, and her solutions clear. On the question of work, she says that of course access to employment is key - women shouldn't be confined to "what used to be called the pink-collar ghetto - service jobs, help jobs and so on". But it doesn't all have to be about boardrooms; we should also be valuing the work women already do.

"Caregiving, nurturing, taking care of elderly relatives and invalids - which is something like a third of the productive work in my country - is economically invisible," she says. "We couldn't get on without it, and it's often the case that caring for elderly relatives and invalids at home is better for them and better for the economy. We could reward that.

"You attribute an economic value to care-giving at replacement level, and make that tax-deductible if you pay taxes, and tax-refundable if you're too poor to pay taxes. So it replaces the idea of welfare to some extent. That allows you to value care-giving culturally and account for it in your economic planning."

Later, when I refer to second-wave feminism, Steinem points out that she never uses the phrase. She finds such terms "divisive and over-generalised. It doesn't honour the young woman from a Mormon family - she's practically a first-wave feminist because she's overcome such difficulty," she explains. "Nor does it recognise the woman who's come from three generations of feminists and had a whole different experience."

An Evening with Gloria Steinem and Emma Watson in London, Britain.
An Evening with Gloria Steinem and Emma Watson in London, Britain.

I wonder if Steinem is ever disappointed by the decisions she sees women making now. She looks a little uncomfortable. "Yeah," she replies, "but it's not for me to ... " What about a woman who takes her husband's name, I ask - does she consider that to be backsliding? (The December 1973 issue of Ms. carried a feature instructing women how to get their maiden names back. It was entitled "Give Yourself Your Own Name For Christmas".) With effortless irony, Steinem says: "I mean, I would just want to make sure she's thought of the fact that there may be three or four women with her name, eventually." After divorce? I ask, dimly. "Yeah," she says, laughing.

So when she sees post-feminists, or post-post-feminists ... I begin. Steinem gently interrupts me.

"There is no such thing as post-feminism," she says.

Because we're still in it? I ask.

"Yeah."

This, to her, is obvious. After all, she says, if it took women a century to get a legal identity as human beings, legal equality may take another century. "And after that, there's equality of daily life and parenting and so on," she adds.

Okay, I say, attempting to rephrase my question. Can we talk about young women who've enjoyed the benefits from what your generation did but don't realise what kind of fight got them there?

Women get more radical with age. And men get more conservative. People look at younger women and think if they're not radical there's something wrong with them. No, they just haven't experienced the problems yet.
Gloria Steinem

Steinem shrugs. "Listen," she says amiably, "I did not walk around saying: 'Thank you for the vote'. No. I got mad about what was happening to me."

What if they're not mad?

"They're 20," she replies. "Chances are [by that age] you haven't been discriminated against that much in the labour force. Maybe you don't yet have children and you haven't experienced how unequal and difficult that is. It's why, in a general way, women get more radical with age. And men get more conservative. People look at younger women and think if they're not radical there's something wrong with them. No, they just haven't experienced the problems yet."

Steinem herself was once in this position. As a single young woman with exactly the job she wanted, she thought "everything had been solved decades earlier by boring, asexual suffragists". Then she realised the fight was far from over.

So does she say to young women, "Just you wait"? Steinem shakes her head.

Condescension is not her style. "I would try to identify things they're really experiencing. Do you feel as safe in the street as a man would? Probably not. Do you feel your body is okay in the same way a man would without alteration? Probably not. We can raise each other's consciousness by addressing what is going on, without expecting someone to have the same knowledge they will have later on."

Steinem's mother, Ruth, suffered her first nervous breakdown four years before Steinem was born. After that, she was never free of depression and became addicted to a liquid tranquilliser. Steinem always thought of Ruth as someone "to be worried about and cared for". Steinem's father was a travelling salesman with a cartoonish sense of adventure and quixotic plans for making a fast buck. Although she remembers him with great love, there was a point at which he could no longer look after his wife.

Later, as she put it in an essay called Ruth's Song, Steinem understood that no one had tried to solve her mother's problem because "her functioning was not that necessary to the world ... she was not an important worker".

Steinem's sister was 9 years older, and left home before Steinem was 10. That's when her father chose to leave too, and Steinem spent seven years with her mostly bedridden mother, taking care of her alone.

Did she fear she would inherit her mother's depression? I ask.

Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, journalist and activist who was recognised as a spokeswoman for the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, journalist and activist who was recognised as a spokeswoman for the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"To me she was not crazy, she had just had her spirit broken. I don't think mental illness was part of her life. I think patriarchy did her in."

It was only years after she'd made her escape that Steinem heard about her mother's former life - how she'd been a journalist and had had to give up her career; how she'd fallen in love with another man but couldn't leave Steinem's father. Steinem asked her why she hadn't broken free. "Then you wouldn't have been born," her mother replied. And Steinem thought: "But you would have been born instead."

Cod psychology might suggest this was why Steinem - who in her 60s was married to the English businessman, David Bale, for three years, until his death in 2003 - never had children of her own. She had, in a sense, already been a mother since the family roles had been reversed. "I think if you early on become the parent rather than the child, the downside is obvious but the up-side is that you feel like your own self earlier," she says.

In any case, feminism fought for a woman's right to do what she wants with her body, and not to have to use it for reproduction - so it seems wrong to ask Steinem if there was a reason why she didn't have children. But I ask anyway.

"I just discovered I didn't have to," she says, laughing. "In my generation you were crazy if you did not marry and have children. And I happened to have one elderly cousin who did not marry and did not have children, and was crazy. So I believed I had to. And only later I realised: not everyone has to live the same way. For a while I still imagined I would adopt a child. In my mind, the child was always a 7 or 8-year-old little girl. And finally, un-introspective as I am, I had to realise that was me: I was trying to save myself at that age."

And what about her sister? I ask. What was her relationship to the women's movement?
"Her time of basic decision-making - getting married and having children - preceded the movement," Steinem explains. "I think she was trying to create a secure family that we did not have, in a different way. So she had six children," she pauses. "And after that she went to law school. That, I think, she would not have been able to do if it hadn't been for the movement."

Gloria Steinem is at the Auckland Writers Festival, Friday, May 13, 5.30pm; The State of the Nation; Saturday, May 14, 7.30pm; An Evening With Gloria Steinem. For details see writersfestival.co.nz.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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