The Hot Seat: Gloria Steinem
The pioneering activist reflects on young feminists and on 40 years of Ms.
Thu Feb 16 2012
Photograph: Tom Marks
RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews
Ms., the feminist magazine that you helped found, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. What accomplishments from the publication's decades in print are you most proud of?
I just went to Stanford, where they have three months of programming celebrating the magazine. I was amazed at how much [of what was covered] hits themes that continued [through the years]. The good news is that we picked well, and the bad news is that some of the issues are still relevant.
Is there anything you've regretted doing?
Advertisements. We started to do better economically when we stopped taking ads. The problem was not the same as it was for other media or women's magazines, [in which] ads control the content. If you criticize a product category, you may lose the ad. But in women's magazines uniquely, you don't get the ad in the first place unless you praise the product. We didn't have to do that because we owned ourselves, so we just took the financial sacrifice. When I first started writing for women's magazines, there was fiction and poetry, and now that's gone. It isn't that advertisers call up the editors and say, "We don't want you to publish fiction." It's that they say, "We will not put an ad in unless it's next to copy that compliments our product."
Did you run into that when you were looking for advertisers?
We were just looking for ads that didn't control the message. So mostly, we ended up with products that sold to men as well as women.
Are there any feminist blogs that you read regularly?
I'm [a cofounder of] the Women's Media Center, so I'm part of that editorial process—noticing stories that aren't getting exposure elsewhere and assigning writers to do op-ed--length pieces. There's Feministing, Feminist.com...there are a lot of news sites, obviously, which I browse. And my friends send me every article that seems to be of interest. During the [Susan G.] Komen adventure, I must have gotten articles from 20 different sources.
That was quite a debacle.
I think the outcome is going to be good. They have always been a problem. I'm a breast cancer survivor, but have never walked an inch with Komen, because they maintain that breast cancer is not produced by the environment and they don't talk about prevention. In the end, they pinkwash corporate practices. And [the controversy] brought attention to that.
What do you think of websites like the Hairpin or Jezebel, which cover women's issues but aren't explicitly political in their mission statements?
Well, the personal is political. We honor each other's experiences, and it helps to know you're not alone. So they may cumulatively lead to action.
You've challenged the idea that younger women aren't as involved in feminist activism as their forebears. Why do you think that idea keeps being recycled?
It's a way of killing off the movement. Simple as that. I notice that the very same people who were saying to me 30 or so years ago, "This is against nature," and all kinds of negative reasons that the movement shouldn't exist, are the same people who will say, "Well, it used to be necessary, but not anymore." A second reason is that now there are so many feminists—and so many diverse feminists—that it's hard for the press to focus. The media does tend to individualize, and it has a harder time dealing with complexity. I suppose a third reason is that women's patterns of activism are usually—not always—the reverse of men's. We get more activist and rebellious as we get older.
There are also women who fight against sexism but choose to not identify as feminists. What's your take on that?
I think they should go to the dictionary! But everyone gets to choose their words. I think womanist is a great word, or mujerista, or women's liberationist. And certainly actions are more important than words. But it is a bit painful, because each time a woman says, "I'm not a feminist," it's denying their relationship to other women.
One critique is that some women feel that the movement has not been inclusive for them. Do you think that's changed?
I can't speak for those women's experiences, because I don't know what they were experiencing. But the people who were reported on were mainly white women. For instance, the first poll, which was the unfortunately titled Virginia Slims poll was the first poll of women's opinions on women's issues [in the early '70s]. And 60-some percent of black women supported women's liberation, and only 30-something percent of white women. It's always been somewhat the reverse of the way it's been presented.
What issues do you find yourself getting fired up over these days?
How long do we have? [Laughs] It depends on what's going on at the moment, because there's no shortage. Reporters will sometimes say to me, "Aren't you interested in something besides the women's movement?" And I'll say, "Tell me something—find me one thing." And they never can! Population is the single biggest element in environmental destruction, and the most important thing in humanizing population growth is reproductive freedom. Students on campuses will say, "Why are the same groups against lesbianism and contraception?" [Laughs] To those groups, the problem is the same: Any sexual expression that doesn't end in conception is wrong. So the women's movement and the gay and lesbian movement have always come together. And you cannot fight sexism without fighting racism—besides being wrong in a moral sense, it's also impossible in a practical sense. Finally, if we look at conflicts in the world, we can see there's a direct line between violence in the home and violence in the street or foreign policy. The cultures that teach inequity in the home are also the ones with the most violence in public life. All of these things are inextricably connected.
And the challenges facing women don't really change—the same ones come up over and over again.
I think now we're more likely to understand the movement as transforming. One of the great things about women is that there are too many of us to integrate into the system as it exists. We have to transform it.
What are some of your favorite things to do in NYC?
Just walk. It gives me such pleasure to walk around this town. I value that there are many different kinds of people here—in other cities, you have to get in the car and drive to see someone that looks different from you. Also, it's constantly changing, and it's adapted to pedestrians—I've never owned a car in my life. I saw a survey the other day that said New Yorkers are the happiest people in the United States. [Laughs] I think it's because we talk to each other, we can see each other, we have a community.
Gloria Steinem speaks at 92nd Street Y on Tue 28.