January 23, 2012
Gloria Steinem: Still angry, still funny, still tireless
One of the most admired and loved leaders of second-wave feminism is coming to Stanford this week as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of Ms. magazine. Gloria Steinem reflects on the movement's history and future.
By Stanford Report staff
Gloria Steinem will address a Stanford audience at a sold out event on Jan. 26. The event will be broadcast and streamed live by KZSU. (Photo: Courtesy of Ms. magazine)
The first issue of Ms. – which actually was a pre-issue, an insert in New York magazine – sold out. It also drew 20,000 letters. That was in 1972. Today, 40 years later, Gloria Steinem is still selling out the house. Tickets for her upcoming talk at Stanford were gone in less than five minutes. Springsteen should be so lucky.
A year after that first issue, Ms. had 200,000 paid subscriptions, and more than 1,000 letters and hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts were arriving every week.
Steinem was a co-founder of Ms., remained one of its editors for 15 years and still serves as a consulting editor. She writes, speaks, receives honors, agitates, organizes, produces films and generally makes the rest of the feminist community look – and feel – like defeatist couch potatoes.
"We all owe her a debt," said Stanford history Professor Estelle Freedman, co-founder of the university's Feminist Studies Program.
The world and the feminist movement are not what they were back in July 1972. The first issue clocked in at a fat 138 pages, with something for everyone: the arts, motherhood, fatherhood, "populist mechanics," electoral politics (it was the year of McGovern), Wonder Woman, women's history (Stanford history Professor Carl Degler was an early contributor), black women, poetry, lesbianism, sports, marriage, fiction, psychology and stories for children.
The title of the new magazine was provocative and ended up ushering in a new word, a new way for women to think about themselves as individuals.
"We of course came up with many different titles," Steinem said in an interview with Stanford Report last week. "We thought of Sojourner, in honor of Sojourner Truth, but that sounded like it was a travel magazine. Then we thought of Sisters, but that sounded too Catholic.
"And then, I had seen, and others had too, secretarial handbooks from the 1950s that contained the word 'Ms.' for those disastrous circumstances when a secretary did not know if a woman was married or not. So someone suggested that, and we all thought it was perfect, because it's an exact equivalent of Mister.
"The connotation was equality."
(Some time after the magazine began, the editors realized the term actually had a very long history; it appears on a 1767 tombstone in Plymouth, Mass., and may have emerged centuries earlier as an abbreviation for the courtesy title of "mistress," a term not denoting marital status.)
Race, sex and class
The all-encompassing nature of Ms. magazine, all those pages, reflected the women's movement's early breadth, something that mysteriously has vanished from the history, Steinem said. The multiracial and economically diverse movement is today often depicted as white, middle-class and radical.
In a June 1973 article, "If We're So Smart, Why Aren't We Rich?" Steinem tackled the inextricable linkages of race, class and gender: "Racism and sexism are the twin problems of caste," she wrote then. "Both have an economic motive: the creation of a cheap labor force that is visibly marked for the job."
"I learned feminism from the National Welfare Rights Organization," Steinem remarked last week, thinking back to the early days. The NWRO, which existed from 1966 to 1975, largely comprised black women organizing around issues of democracy, income, dignity and justice. "I'd be traveling around the country, always lecturing with black women, and at the press conferences the reporters would ask me about the women's movement, and they'd ask my speaking partner about the civil rights movement." So the women would call the reporters on it and say, you can't have one without the other.
Steinem's frequent better half in those years was the remarkable Flo Kennedy, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School, a tireless activist for civil rights and the women's movement, and founder of the Feminist Party. They called themselves Topsy and Little Eva, after the young black slave and the young white woman in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
But that history largely has been lost. "What they've done is wipe out all the women of color who were there," Steinem said. "They have to remember Shirley Chisholm, of course," the first black woman elected to Congress and a candidate for the presidency in 1972, "but the rest just got wiped out."
Feminism in the age of blogs
In the wake of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, it might strike students today as remarkable that a new, ambitious and sweeping social movement chose to publish 138 pages of paper rather than a blog or a Tweet or a Facebook post.
"It's possible that the web has rescued feminist writings from academia," Steinem said, though Ms. was never really academic, despite felling many forests. "Not that there isn't wonderful writing in academia, but in general it's outside personal experience, and then there's that language. … I was always threatening to put a sign on the road to Yale reading, 'Beware, Deconstruction Ahead!' I have the sense that the web has balanced that. The blogs are so much more personal and direct and action-based. But all words are good words."
A panel discussion at Stanford this week about the history of Ms. will feature former editors from the land of paper and current young feminist bloggers. Websites that Steinem particularly likes include those of Occupy Patriarchy and the Women's Media Center, the latter co-founded by former Ms. editor and well-known feminist Robin Morgan.
Ms. reflected an urgency, commitment and excitement that Steinem retains today and which she often finds herself sharing with young women who could be her granddaughters.
"I'm on campuses a lot, very different kinds of schools," she said, having just returned from a girls high school in Virginia that day. "I still get asked, 'How can I [the student] combine motherhood and career?' and I tell them, 'Until men are asking that same question, you can't.'
"I say, 'By now we all know that women can do what men can do, but it's not the other way around. No, you can't do it all – so get mad.' Why are we the only modern country without proper child care or health care?
"They aren't angry enough."
Freedman remarked that her students at Stanford "don't think they have to choose" between motherhood and career, adding, as if she were channeling Steinem, "but I wish this was a question that male as well as female students were pondering!"
In some ways, 40 years ago seems light years away, so students' complacency is understandable. Those were the days, after all, when a married woman often could not apply for a credit card without her husband's permission. As Steinem said, in general, at least in theory, today we all know that women can do what men can do.
Until they can't. And often, they still can't. And yet, there are some who say we've moved beyond the need for feminism.
"Sometimes we all get pissed off and throw our shoes," Steinem admitted. "I do, especially by the backlash. I can attest that the same people who said then, 'this is against nature, this is impossible,'" referring to women's rights, "now are saying, 'well, it used to be necessary, but not now.'"
"It's obstructionism to declare the movement over," she said, just as it makes no sense to declare we are in a post-racial society now that we have a black president.
So should young women today be agitating in favor of better health care? Child care? Salary equity? Democratic candidates?
"I try to say there's no such thing as should," Steinem said. "I want, I love, I think, I care – but not I should.
"But there are basic things we should all do, like brush our teeth. Contribute 10 percent, vote and do one outrageous thing a day" for the cause of justice, which also happens to be the title of an initiative launched in honor of Steinem's 75th birthday. "After the basic teeth-brushing things, then comes: What is your passion? What do you know? What hurts you? That's where people can be the most effective."
Steinem does not lack for examples of effective mobilization. Others may be discouraged, but not her, even if she does get pissed off and throw her shoes now and again.
"In some ways, we were a dozen crazy people, but now there are thousands," she said. Take, for example, Ai-Jen Poo, who founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance, made up largely of poor immigrant women. She successfully fought for legislation protecting domestic workers and has received wide recognition and many honors, including the Woman of Vision Award from the Ms. Foundation for Women.
"She's a genius organizer," Steinem said, "and I can think of 100 stories like that. They're there. Part of the reason people think they aren't is because there are so many of them."
Steinem's keynote speech at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 26 is sold out, but it will be broadcast live on KZSU 90.1 FM and streamed at kzsulive.stanford.edu.
The "Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism" series, which includes film screenings, lectures, performances and exhibits, runs throughout winter quarter.