Gloria Steinem: 'If Men Could Get Pregnant, Abortion Would Be a Sacrament'
The pope is in town the morning I visit Gloria Steinem, staying a few blocks from her on the east side of Manhattan, a fact that tickles the 81-year-old activist. She is, needless to say, unimpressed by the pontiff’s liberal window-dressing. “I’m very glad that he cares about the environment,” she says drily. “And poverty. And dogs.” He has also relaxed the language around abortion, urging “forgiveness”, as opposed to damnation. Steinem, who is the nearest thing we have to a grande dame of feminism – a mantle she abhors – laughs. “Excuse me? Are you kidding me? Forgiveness?”
It is not easy to be an old hand in a political movement the very nature of which is, to some extent, to interrogate and reject the assumptions of what came before. When Steinem came of political age, in the late 1960s and early 70s, Betty Friedanruled the roost, urging women to shuck off their domestic duties and grab the economic reins of power, something her feminist descendants praised even while deposing her for the reactionary scope of her interests. (As Bella Abzug said at the time, Friedan’s proposals were in danger of replacing “a white, male, middle-class elite with a white, female, middle-class elite”, a caution Steinem echoed: “We wanted to transform the system, not imitate it,” she says.)
Since then, we’ve lived through Camille Paglia, Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks andAlice Walker; HÃ©lÃ¨ne Cixous and the post-structuralists; intersectionality and political lesbianism; the trans rights movement and the burgeoning of identity politics. And Naomi Wolf. Steinem is still here, in her basement apartment, dressed all in black and Hepburn-slight, with a bandaged foot. The apartment is dimly lit and warren-like, a series of rooms leading to a conservatory at the back, full of rugs and treasures she has collected on the road, and a three-legged cat that belongs to her niece. She doesn’t look 81. Her face is pale and unlined and, going over the feminist stations of the cross yet again, she is as eager as if new to the cause. The only apparent change is in her fingernails, a much-mocked Steinem trademark, always highly manicured. Today they are unpainted.
Steinem’s appearance has been an unwelcome source of interest over the years, guaranteeing attention from the mainstream media and irritating other, less high-profile feminists, whose very obscurity relative to Steinem’s underscores the criteria women must meet to enter and stay in public life. Her good looks have also been used by idiots as the exception to the rule that women turn to feminism only because they can’t get a man.
She is a figurehead without a break-out book to her name, less scary to the mainstream than many of her peers, and for that reason one might expect her to be less impressive. She is nothing of the sort. Over the course of an hour, with good humour and anger undimmed, she demonstrates the importance to fourth-wave feminism of someone with institutional memory, someone who has spent the best part of a life on the road, lobbying, canvassing and interviewing a vast range of women, rather than extrapolating political points from the specifics of her own background.
Her new book, My Life On The Road, is an account of those travels, a loose collection of tales from the anti-Vietnam rallies of the 60s to the first National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, to more personal stories such as the memorial, in rural Oklahoma in 2010, of Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation and Steinem’s great friend. There are some outrageous moments along the way, such as when, as a young journalist, Steinem sat between the writers Gay Talese and Saul Bellow in a taxi, and told them how she planned to get Bobby Kennedy to give her good quotes in an interview. Talese leant across her, “as if I were neither talking nor present – and said to Bellow, you know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”
Much of the overtly political stuff Steinem talks about should at this point be ancient history, a fact underlined by her dedication of the book to an obscure London physician called Dr John Sharpe who, in 1957, performed her abortion at a time when it was still illegal. Sharpe told her: “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.” Steinem was 22 and credits Sharpe’s act of charity for having enabled her life. The fact that, almost 60 years later, congressional hearings are still focused on a woman’s right to access not only abortion but contraception would, one imagines, be deeply depressing to Steinem. No, she says. To think that it would ever have been otherwise is naive. Strides may be made in other areas – same-sex marriage, equal pay and opportunity – but abortion will be the last issue to fall.
She has a fantasy that “the pope and the head of every patriarchal, fundamentalist, orthodox religion” should be hauled into the dock for causing global warming. “Because they are forcing girls – through child marriage – to have children. Having children too young is the biggest cause of adolescent death in the world. It’s a health issue for us. So it is the fundamental political question. And it becomes even more political when there’s racism and caste or class, because the impulse to preserve [power] means you have to control who has children with whom, and how many. And this country right now is going bonkers because it’s about to become majority non-white. So the people whose identity depends on race are going crazy.”
Steinem sees racism at the heart of the evangelical attack on family planning, a political revolt posing as a spiritual one that has given rise to, among other things, the Quiverfull movement, popular among some fundamentalist Christians, “devoted to encouraging, forcing white women to have a lot of children”. The data on abortion, meanwhile, makes a mockery of the entire rightwing project. “The truth of the matter is one in three American women was having an abortion when it was illegal; and one in three is having an abortion now.” The difference being, of course, that women aren’t dying as a result of it now. Steinem says, as she must have said thousands of times over the last 40 years and with the amusement that permits her to go on, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
A life devoted to a single political movement gives rise to certain habits of thought. Steinem sees everything through the filter of what it means for women, minorities and society’s least empowered, categories that often overlap. On a recent visit to Google HQ, she noticed discrepancies in access to technology, as represented by the Google map that shows searches going up in real time. “You can see the geographical bias. Even in this country, how much more [access] there is on the coasts. Technology can be divisive; it depends who controls it.” The internet is great, she says, except that “women are the huge majority of illiterates in the world, and are way less likely to have electricity or any ability to use the internet in rural areas.”
It must be exhausting, this focus, and one wonders what it is that, within a marginalised group, differentiates between someone sympathetic to the cause and someone who devotes their life to it. Steinem has always taken politics personally. Nora Ephron, in her 1972 piece for Esquire on the famous meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus, at which Steinem’s star rose and Friedan was pushed aside, looked on in amazement at one point as Steinem burst into tears of frustration. “They won’t take us seriously,” she wept, of the male political establishment. “We’re just talking wombs.” To which Ephron remarked, “I have never cried over anything remotely political in my life, and I honestly have no idea what to say.”
The most obvious differential is disadvantage, and Steinem had some of that: an itinerant childhood with a father whose get-rich-quick schemes always turned to dust, and a mother who, after giving up a promising career in journalism to be a wife and mother, was profoundly depressed. While her mother was political, Leo Steinem, as far as she knows, never once voted. Or paid taxes.
Nonetheless, it is her father with whom Steinem identified more, she says. He may have dragged her around the country chasing harebrained schemes, but he was also a charming showboater whose notepaper bore the legend: “It’s Steinemite!” He had a sense of freedom that defined her outlook and, ultimately, encouraged her activism. “There is that difference between people who look at the world as basically friendly and those who look at it as basically unfriendly,” she says. Her father was the former. “That struck home with me. You have to imagine that something could be, before you start to work for it.”
Beyond that, she says, who knows what it is that drives life-long campaigners? “We’d get a bunch of activists together and we’d either find a common strain, or not. But it’s addictive. You think, if we just did this and that, maybe that would change! Sometimes it’s not good; I think of it as my Ms Fix It complex.”
Steinem’s early campaign interests were also a function of the times. After graduating from Smith college, Massachusetts, in the mid-50s, she spent a couple of years studying in India, then kicked around in New York for a few years as a freelance journalist, before joining the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. Here, “even in those groups that they loved”, Steinem realised, women “were still in the same secondary position”.
Glancing at today’s sometimes conflict-ridden feminist landscape, it is useful to remember ’twas ever thus. When Steinem co-founded Ms magazine in 1972, faultlines along how much emphasis to put on abortion, how much to capitulate to the political establishment, and how to negotiate race and class were as pronounced as they are now. No issue was more divisive than the question of who got to speak for the movement. The way in which feminist leaders were and are selected, Steinem says, is like “a snake eating its own tail”: mainstream media bias towards white, middle-class women promotes them as “pioneers of feminism”, while the base is much more diverse.
“In the first issues of Ms, we commissioned a poll of women’s opinions on women’s issues. The result was about 60% of African American women supported the movement, and only about 30% of white women. It’s always been disproportionate.”
Her recent support of Sheryl Sandberg, whose feminist hit Lean In was to some extent legitimised by Steinem’s endorsement, has proved irritating to those commentators for whom Sandberg’s wealth and privilege sit awkwardly within any social justice movement. Steinem, who has always been a pragmatist, sees this as just another form of internalised misogyny. “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice,” she has said. Knocking Sandberg for her shallow knowledge of feminism fails to account for the fact that she is actively pitching to women, and men, who don’t already identify as feminists. “I think the book is good because she was discovering at the same time,” she says now.
If Steinem has a criticism of Sandberg, it is, rather surprisingly, that she has not been ambitious enough. “She has to cut this out, I think – making one powerful guy look good. Because she was working first for Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, the one who said girls don’t do science. He nurtured her in the classroom, realised how smart she was, then he went to Washington and she was his assistant. And in a way, with [Mark] Zuckerberg, it’s the same thing. I mean, she has to stop being number two to some asshole.”
Steinem has been around long enough to know that people on the same side can disagree without the world ending. Also that good people can be idiots. The week before we met, Susan Brownmiller, an old comrade from Ms, made some intemperate remarks about rape in a New York magazine interview (“There are predators out there, and all women have to take special precautions. They think they can drink as much as men, which is crazy because they can’t drink as much as men.… I find the position ‘Don’t blame us, we’re survivors’ to be appalling”) that caused a lot of upset. Steinem rolls her eyes. “Susan Brownmiller is really smart and good at being negative. But she doesn’t know how to be positive.”
Steinem once sent Brownmiller to cover a domestic violence case in which a man beat his wife and killed their baby. She filed a piece for Ms that blamed the mother. “Not even the legal system came to this conclusion! So she blames the victim, which I understand, because I think we have all done that in our lives, as a way of saying, if I just don’t do this one thing that this woman did, then it won’t happen to me.”
A more serious issue than whether Brownmiller or Sandberg espouse the right kind of feminism has been the recent flap over Amnesty International’s vote to decriminalise prostitution, which saw Hollywood actors sign a public letter calling on Amnesty to rethink its position; the charity’s supporters accused them of being “whorephobic”. The thing nobody pointed out in all this, Steinem says, is the fallibility of Amnesty itself. She’s referring to the charity’s reluctance to campaign against female genital mutilation until the mid-90s, on the grounds that it was focusing on abuses by governments, not individuals. “It doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t do wonderful work. But they really have behaved generally as if what happens to men is political, and what happens to women is cultural.”
Amnesty argues that “full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work” is the best way to protect sex workers from abuse, but Steinem takes issue with the word “consensual”. She sighs. “I mean, somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a happy call girl who’s financing her PhD. But it’s not the norm. In this country, the average age of entry into prostitution is 12. So when she reaches 18, it does not mean she suddenly has a choice.”
Steinem favours the “Nordic model”, wherein prostitutes aren’t prosecuted but their clients are, which Amnesty maintains still exposes them to unnecessary risk. Steinem says, “The Nordic model guarantees better treatment of men, women and children in prostitution. If you decriminalise everybody, that’s it. And, of course, you’ve decriminalised the pimps and traffickers. If you follow the Nordic model, you are obligated to offer services and alternatives to the people who are prostituted. You don’t arrest them.”
Discussions about prostitution boil down to this: why is it worse than any other crappy, exploitative job at the fag end of runaway capitalism? Because, Steinem says, “body invasion is a different level of trauma than even being beaten up. I get letters from guys in prison who have been raped and suddenly understand. To have your body invaded by strangers – the trauma is profound.”
Many years ago, Steinem went to Nevada, “the one county [in the US] where prostitution is legal. It’s utterly clear,” she says. “Legality makes it worse. If it’s legal, governments start to force you to do it. In Nevada, the state government decided they could have a win-win situation if they got women off welfare and into prostitution. That was in the 70s, and the National Welfare Rights Organisation, and me, and Flo Kennedy, marched through the streets outside brothels. We only made them stop it by massive national publicity.”
We are both silent for a moment. “If it’s a job like any other…” she says, and trails off. Well, quite.
Steinem also flew to Europe, to watch some of the education sessions that clients, under the Nordic model, are forced to attend to understand what it is they’re participating in: a global sex trade wherein they can’t be sure the person they’ve bought sex with is there willingly. “Those sessions are amazing. I remember saying to one guy, ‘Didn’t you wonder why she was crying?’ He said, ‘Well, yes. But I’d already paid.’”
Although she didn’t marry until the age of 66, Gloria Steinem has had some high-profile relationships over the years, with director Mike Nichols and publishing magnate Mort Zuckerman, among others. In 2000, she married David Bale, a businessman and environmentalist, and father of the actor Christian Bale. They loved each other and wanted to be together, she has said, but married only because his visa was about to run out. Still, she is glad that they did it. Wilma Mankiller offered them a Cherokee ceremony and they were together for three years, until Bale died of lymphoma. It was cruel, Steinem said, but for that short time, oh, how they enriched each other’s lives.
Steinem is someone who cannot sit still or stop planning. Over the years she has tried to join her friends in meditation groups, but it has never worked. Inevitably her mind races ahead to forthcoming deadlines. For her, being out on the road is a form of meditation; she has very little social life outside the movement.
It’s a wonder she still has the appetite for it. Prior to leaving, she says, she always hopes something will come up to prevent her travelling. But then she gets on her way, and is ignited again, not least by the prospect of a general election in the US. Steinem is a Hillary Clinton supporter and wonders if this might finally be her year. “Partly because of Hillary herself, as secretary of state, and her endurance, but also because of Maxine Waters and other women in Congress and in the public eye – we have gotten more used to seeing female authority in the world outside the home. It’s still tough, but it’s possible she could get elected.”
From a feminist perspective, the Republican field is so dire as to be almost comical. Steinem once cried about electoral politics. Now her tone is worn to a bone-dry amusement, not least on the subject of Carly Fiorina, the one woman candidate in the Republican race, who described Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health charity, as “pushing women into late-term abortions so they can more successfully harvest body parts”. (Women who have abortions in the US can choose to donate foetal tissue for research, although Planned Parenthood says this occurs at only 1% of its clinics.)
“The worst thing Donald Trump has done for us was create sympathy for Carly Fiorina by insulting her appearance,” Steinem says. “If we thought Sarah Palinwas the least able to represent the diversity and needs of the female half of this nation, they should look at what Carly Fiorina stands for. Even Margaret Thatcherwould’ve been better on these issues than she is. It’s the same as Ben Carson; they’re hollow shells, there for show.”
Still, Steinem’s an optimist. She can’t help it. And so, when she looks at the Republican line-up and sees Fiorina and Carson, she calls that progress. “When your enemy picks someone who looks like you and acts like them, at least you know they’re worried.” It’s not much, but it’s enough to run with.
My Life On The Road, by Gloria Steinem, is published by Oneworld, at £14.95. To buy it for £11.96, go to bookshop.theguardian.com