Gloria Steinem: ‘You can’t control the flesh of a person. That’s called slavery’
Interviews of the Year: It has taken Gloria Steinem a long time to make it to Ireland, but her debut does not disappoint
Gloria Steinem: “I know I’m not crazy. I know the system is crazy.” Photograph: Ilya S Savenok/Getty Images
Steinem in 1973. Photograph: Anthony Calvacca/NYP Holdings via Getty Images
Gloria Steinem was in a taxi in Boston in the 1970s, discussing abortion legislation with her friend Florynce Kennedy, when the Irish woman driving the cab turned to her and said: “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” The words became a battle cry for Steinem, who repeated them at speeches and rallies and saw them appear on T-shirts, badges and banners around the world.
Given the ever-present debate surrounding the topic of abortion in Ireland, it seems astonishing that it took so long to bring the prominent activist and feminist to our shores. When Steinem came to give a talk at the West Cork Literary Festival recently, the room crackled with the energy of women who were not just delighted to see her, but seemed to somehow need her.
“It’s because I’m a signal,” she told me afterwards. “I’m a recognisable part of something that matters to them – and it matters to me just as much.”
Steinem came to the forefront of feminist politics in the US in the 1970s as an activist for equal rights and reproductive freedom, as well as a celebrated journalist, cofounder of New York magazine and the feminist-themed Ms. Unlike other leading feminists such as Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer, Steinem never had a seminal text – instead, she was known for her political efficacy. She calls herself a “media worker and organiser”.
Now 82, she is a slight, youthful woman with a regal air. She tells the crowd in Bantry quite early on that this will be a group discussion. She believes in the Black Lives Matter mantra of “low ego, high impact”. After 15 minutes she opens the conversation to the floor. “I don’t learn when I’m talking – I learn when you’re talking.”
Women stand to tell Steinem personal experiences of abortion, domestic violence and sexual harassment. There are plenty of black and white Repeal sweatshirts in the room. Her book, My Life on the Road, opens with a dedication to the doctor who performed her abortion in 1957, when it was illegal to do so without health reasons. He asked her to promise that she would do what she wanted with her life. “I’ve done the best I could with my life,” she writes.
“We all have a right to control our own physical bodies. The government does not control from the skin in, I’m sorry,” she says today. “If the law has a direct relationship to a fertilised egg in [a woman’s] body, that means her body has been nationalised.”
Steinem is calm in the face of opposing views. “The principle of reproductive freedom protects your right to have children just as it protects other women’s right not to. I respect your power and I hope you respect mine.”
After the talk Steinem muses about the historical roles of religion and economics in abortion legislation. More people were needed in wartime; more farm hands were needed during slavery. “Reproduction is the whole ballgame, and who controls it is the most fundamental question,” she says.
She is optimistic about what she has heard here in relation to repealing the Eight Amendment. “There was concern that it would somehow dictate the individual decision, which is the opposite of the purpose. It’s to let the individual decide rather than the State. You can’t control the body and the flesh of a person. It’s called slavery.”
Divide and conquer
She is currently co-authoring a book called Black Women Who Invented Feminism because “disproportionately, African American women were twice as likely to support the women’s movement as white women, and that’s always been true, because if you’ve experienced one form of discrimination, you recognise it in another.”
Steinem has long believed in “talking circles”, after witnessing its efficacy among Gandhian organisers in India. If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them, she believes, and physical togetherness is key. “We are communal. We only empathise with each other when we are together. The internet is great and, much as I love books, you don’t create the oxytocin that is the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone unless you’re together with all five senses.”
Truth-telling is fundamental. All the things that women spoke about have been historically bound up with silence and shame: domestic violence, rape, abortion. “That’s designed to keep you from telling the truth, which is all the more reason you should tell the truth,” Steinem says. “Because then you say this unsayable thing and then 12 other women say, ‘That happened to me’. Every movement I know came out of that; the civil rights movement, the Chinese revolution – they called it ‘Speaking Bitterness’ groups – it’s telling the truth about your experience and discovering you are not by yourself.”
One woman in the audience tells Steinem her views would be different “if you had children yourself . . . Motherhood changes you”. The audience make their disapproval clear. “I certainly wasn’t hurt by it,” Steinem says, “and she has a perfect right to say that – but as someone who was trying to persuade the audience, she probably shouldn’t have.”
It took Steinem “an alarmingly long time” to realise that it was not the pre- determined fate of a woman of her generation to end up married with children. “It’s hard to look back and think why it took me so long, except that I was a child of the 1950s. I was always rebelling, assuming that I would conform later, just not right now. So if it hadn’t been for other women coming forward and talking about their lives and my discovering I was not crazy, I wouldn’t have known either.”
She did not have an easy childhood. She was the daughter of a travelling antique salesman and did not attend school in any consistent way until the age of 13. By the time she was born, her mother had already had one serious mental breakdown and would go on to be admitted to hospital several more times. Her parents separated when she was 10, and she lived alone with her mother, who by then was addicted to sodium pentothal. This period had a huge impact on her life.
“I did not want to end up living alone with a child, dependent, having given up everything I loved, which [for my mother] was a job as a journalist and all her friends. I’m not sure I related it to my mother at that point because I think I still had that ‘I’m not going to be anything like my mother’ idea, when you think that your mother’s life is an individual fault, not a communal fate. It took me a while to realise that before I could really truly identify with her.”
She believes her mother’s depression was a product of her attempts to conform to the patriarchal system of the time. Steinem asked the doctors, “Would you say her spirit was broken?” and they said “Yes”.
Masculinity crisis What about recent conversations about masculinity being in crisis? “That’s very nice to know,” Steinem says, “because there is no masculinity – it doesn’t exist – and there is no femininity. There’s humanity. We invented those roles. The original cultures that were there before us, they did not have those roles. The more polarised the roles, the more violent the society. The less polarised, the more peaceful the society. It’s a root question of the whole idea of dominance and passivity. It’s bullshit.”
Steinem is a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton. She is resolutely anti-Trump. “In real life, he should not be elected, he should be hospitalised.” Clinton’s gender is not the main draw. “I wouldn’t vote for Sarah Palin. I’m voting for Hillary Clinton because she is representing the majority issues of equality and she’s a woman and has that experience, but nobody is going to vote just on biology.”
What about the idea that we are living in a post-feminist era? Many of us live in an echo chamber of feminism among agreeable friends or on social media, but there is still a rejection of the word as no longer relevant, or a preference for words such as “humanist”.
“When the half of the population that has the ability to seize control of reproduction, and also is the biggest unpaid and underpaid labour force in the world, starts to rebel, there’s a lot more opposition because there’s a lot more at stake,” she says.
“So if you’ve been told that we’re in a post-feminist era, you don’t have to worry about this any more. You may believe that, until you get in the workforce and discover what’s happening. Or until you have kids.”
When asked how she is so calm, Steinem says to the crowd, “because I get to work at what I care about most every day and I get to see you. I know I’m not crazy, I know the system is crazy.”
She once famously said, in reply to a comment that she didn’t look 40, “This is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” Today, she continues to advocate the positives of ageing.
“One of the good things about being old, once you get over the idea that we’re only valuable for our wombs but also for our brains, is that you’ve seen progress and huge change, so you have faith.
“It’s like taking a [trundle wheel] from where we started to now, and turning it around into the future. You can see what’s possible.”