Exactly fifteen years ago, Gloria Steinem appeared on the cover of BUST magazine. Dressed in a black T-shirt emblazoned with “F Word,” she stood with her hands on her hips in a Wonder Woman pose.
We’ve covered Ms. Steinem in BUST magazine and on BUST.com regularly ever since, and in 2013 we awarded her a BUST Golden Bra award at our 20th annivesary party. In our Dec/Jan 2016 issue, we review her latest book, My Life On The Road, which well-deservedly earned a place on our Top 10 Books of 2015.
I was thrilled to get the chance to speak to Steinem about writing, travel and the “road book” genre in an interview last week. We also spoke about the ongoing fight for reproductive rights, the current presidential race, and “The F Word” today.
Most celebrity interviews begin with a call to a publicist on a conference line, but not this one. At exactly the time we’d planned, my phone rang and I answered.
“Hello,” she said. “It’s Gloria.”
My desk this week
In interviews about My Life On The Road, you’ve been pretty clear that it’s not a memoir, it’s more of a road journal.
It’s a road book, I would say, because it’s not exactly a journal. I wasn’t keeping a journal. A memoir is usually very personal, the scope of a life, while a road book is literally focused on the process of being on the road, as with Jack Kerouac. I tried to make clear that it was a road book because it’s quite personal, but it is personal in ways that are attached to the road, not random love affairs and health issues or other things that might be part of a memoir.
When you travel, what do you write down?
I don’t. It’s so intense being on the road that I’ve never once been able to keep a journal. And even when I start a journal, I later find that I’ve written down detail that isn’t helpful. I depend on my memory to curate what’s important, and then I go back and delve into it, talk to people who were there, and, you know, google facts. But I’ve never been able to successfully keep a journal on the road.
The dedication [to the doctor who performed your abortion] has gotten so much attention. Did you think it would get so much of a reaction?
I didn’t know, really. It just seemed important to thank him, personally. I’ve certainly, over time, talked about having an abortion and how important that was in allowing me to live my life. In one of the early issues of Ms. magazine, we published a petition of about 400 well-known women who said - this was before Roe V. Wade - that they had had an abortion and demanded the decriminalization of abortion, which I signed. It just felt natural to dedicate it to Dr. Sharpe. And also, I’m sure it was at the top of my mind because of all of the right-wing activities that were going on with state legislatures to try to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics.
That list of 400 women who said that they had an abortion, do you think something like that could happen today?
It is happening now. There was the Shout Your Abortion movement online, which was essentially an online version of the petition in the magazine.
In your book, you write about how the media classified feminism as a “whitemiddleclass” movement. Do you feel like feminism was an intersectional movement from the beginning?
Yes, more than other events. Nothing in this country is not affected by racism and sexism and class, it’s not as if one can be exempt from those influences. But in my experience, the women’s movement was less subject to them than any other large group that I’ve been part of. We all have different experiences and this probably wasn’t true from everyone, but I learned feminism disproportionately from black women.
You write about working with black feminists and queer feminists from the very beginning.
It was just always present. It might have been contentious. For instance, in the early days of the National Organization For Women, not anymore, but in the early days, there was a reluctance to include lesbians or to name discrimination against lesbians as a feminist issue. But by the late ‘70s, because of the national conference in Houston, that had changed and everyone was very clear that this was a feminist issue.
You write about the Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008. Do you think that this time around, the media is doing better covering Hillary?
I think the commentators in the media have become somewhat more accustomed to seeing women out in the world, but of course it’s still true that most of us were still raised by women, so a lot of us still associate female authority with childhood. I hope that the male commentators on television no longer feel regressed to childhood when they see a powerful woman. That isn’t completely gone, but I think it’s now possible that she could win. I didn’t think it was possible before.
When Hillary ran against Obama, you supported Hillary but also spoke favorably about Obama. Would you say you oppose Bernie Sanders?
I very much appreciate what Bernie says and puts out there in terms of economic analysis and often legislation, but Vermont doesn’t have a foreign policy. He just doesn’t have the experience or the effectiveness. He is helpful for consciousness, but not in practical ways. Or at least, that’s been the case in the past.
If you were saying your occupation to someone, would you say you’re a writer, an organizer, a feminist?
I find I do identify myself first as a writer, even though it’s true that I find myself spending less time physically writing than I do traveling and organizing. I think in my heart I still identify more as a writer, but I also identify as a feminist organizer.
Do you think you’ll write another book?
Oh yes, definitely. I have to stay alive for a while because I’m way behind!
Can you tell us what it will be about?
I hope and believe it will be a book I was working on with Wilma Mankiller before she died, which has to do with very practical, creative, inspirational ideas that come from original cultures and we could use now.
I also want to talk about your BUST cover from 15 years ago.
It was in a T-shirt, right?
Yes! It’s a black T-shirt and it says “the F word” on it, for feminism. Do you think feminism is still an “F word”?
I haven’t seen the most recent public opinion polls, but even then, 15 years ago, it was certainly approved of by the huge majority if you gave it with a dictionary definition. The problem may be that people still don’t know what it means, and we still have Rush Limbaugh saying “Feminazi.” But I do think it’s been helpful that Beyoncé and Emma Watson and many other public figures have said the word with pride.
A lot of the interview is about how different generations of feminism can relate to each other and work together. How would you say we can do that today?
I don’t see why we can’t. We just need to listen to each other. The impediment to working together is a lack of listening. Sometimes, older women think that their experience is still relevant - which it may be, but they will only know that if they listen to younger women. And younger women think that older women’s experience is not relevant - which maybe it isn’t, but they will only know that if they listen.
Who are some current younger feminists that you like?
There are so many that I hesitate to even begin. On this book tour, I spoke with Roxane Gay in Chicago. Ai-jen Poo and I have worked together for a long time. Salamishah Tillet, who’s a professor of Africana studies and a writer. There are so many, it’s so hard to pluck some out because they’re in every field, they’re in every issue. I’m sure that if I looked at what I do every day I’m probably way more working with people half my age and less.
I wanted to know if your definition of feminism has changed at all. When BUST asked you how you would define feminism in 2000, you said, “The dictionary is not so bad, you know: the belief in the full social, economic and political equality of women and men. I would just add 'and doing something about it.'”
I would still say that. The implications are deep because the source of male dominant systems is the desire to control reproduction and to control women’s lives and bodies. I think we’re more aware of how fundamental that control is and therefore how deeply male dominant systems cling to that control, whether it’s continuing to be anti-abortion or anti-sex education or contraception or whether it’s continuing to be against sex between two women or between two men because it’s not reproductive sex.
Looking at this interview, so many of the things you talked about then, you’re still talking about today. Do you ever get angry or tired when you think about how you’ve been fighting the same fights for so long?
No, because it’s basic. You can’t get angry or tired about striving for clean air and water.
Do you have anything you want to say to BUST readers that we haven’t asked about?
I’m sure there’s a lot, but I would just say that I hope that each person reading this can feel supported in what she loves to do, wants to do, and in finding a community of other people who support her.
Images via gloriasteinem.com
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