Gloria Steinem

On Feminism, Part I

VTR Date: December 21, 1993

Gloria Steinem discusses the 20th century women's movement.


GUEST: Gloria Steinem
VTR: 12/21/1993

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’d like to think I do fairly well here at this table with guests who are lawyers, doctors, sociologists, politicians and editors. But I don’t think that I do that well with celebrities, so that I’ll have to try harder today, for my guest, whether she likes it or not, is a celebrity, as well, of course, as an editor, a politically very important person indeed, something of a sociologist.

Gloria Steinem, as a founder and editor of Ms. Magazine, has been a leading figure in the feminist movement in America for more years now than many young women today can remember. Her new book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, just published by Holt, Reinhardt & Winston, clearly targets much of her thinking about The Movement over the past 20 years. And it’d like to probe further today into those thoughts.

Ms. Steinem, thanks for joining me again here on The Open Mind. You said with some chagrin, “That review”, when you saw it here on the table. The review appeared in The Washington Post, of the book, I don’t think it’s that hostile, but I wondered what you thought about the comment, “Nothing could be less apt a title for her book than Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, which is a come-on and a nod and a wink to the idea that some people feel menaced by that appeal to good sense and natural justice which is what feminism is all about.” That’s what your book is all about, good sense and justice. It’s not a bad review.

Steinem: I don’t feel like I have a right to complain anyway, because it was the only negative one, or the only one with hurtful things in it, so I’m not complaining.

Heffner: What about the charge?

Steinem: And it is a nod and a wink in a sense, but unfortunately the world isn’t organized around lines of justice when it comes especially to sex and race. So to propose what seems to be sweet reason does turn out to be outrageous and does turn out to be rebellious, and hence the title.

Heffner: You mean, are you saying that it’s just a turn-on and a turnabout that the notion that one has to be outrageous to capture opinion, to capture attention, to get people thinking about that?

Steinem: No, no, it’s that, by acting out of what seems to me to be absolutely reasonable, one turns out to be radical because the system around us is radically wrong. And consequently to maintain for instance that marriage could be an equal partnership, even a simple thing like women having their own names and children having both, names of both parents instead of…I mean, that’s just reasonable since kids have two parents. But even that is regarded as a radical and odd act.

Heffner: Yes, but there are some people who say that those things, using two names for children, doing some of the things that you consider reasonable make you into something of an Uncle Tom, that in the final analysis, these aren’t fundamental changes that you’re asking for. They are acts not of rebellion, not of contrition, to be sure, but they’re not that significant. How do you respond to that charge?

Steinem: No, well, I think that no one said that except that review, and that was the hurtful part. You’ve identified the hurtful part.

Heffner and Steinem: (Laughter)

Steinem: But I think that she has an understandably masculine view of revolution, which is a top-down view. That is, what you’re supposed to do is seize control of the radio stations and the army. And it seems to me that that is in fact superficial, that that is the Uncle Tom view, because it is, I mean, that’s nothing, you know, the army and the radio station. I mean, we have to, what we have in mind is much deeper than that. And real revolutions seem to me to be built like houses, from the bottom up, not from the top down. So to have a nominal change between political parties or even between a socialist and a capitalist system proves in the everyday life of the average person in that country to be not a substantial change in many of the cases. And the revolutions have just been handing power from the father to the son and never affecting the lives of the women.

Heffner: But it strikes me strange, passing strange, that you use such a sexist term yourself

Steinem: As?

Heffner: “That’s a masculine approach”.

Steinem: No, a culturally masculine approach. I don’t think that’s sexist to say that, because I think that for the, though it is not to say in any sense that all men are subject to this. There are men who are feminists of course. Nonetheless, the predominant cultural style and the set of political definitions that we’ve been working with have not been formed by women, by and large, and have not affected the status of women, by and large.

Heffner: Do you think we have to be outrageous in the form, as you suggest, of being so reasonable?

Steinem: Yes.

Heffner: And so modest?

Steinem: Yes, absolutely. And I think that ironically even if we were to be given power from the top in some sweeping mandate – or womandate (laughter) – we would not have the strength to take command of our own lives unless we had gone through a number of the small seizures of power in our daily lives that give us strength and self-respect and some idea of what our lives could be. So I would say that revolution from the top only is impossible.

Heffner: “Seizures of power”. It doesn’t sound, it doesn’t ring like reason. It doesn’t ring like humanism. Is that an unfair…

Steinem: Why not? Because what we’re talking about when I say, “Seizure of power”, I’m talking for instance about the power over our own physical selves. Just our own bodies. Just the right to decide what happens to us physically, whether and when we have children, for instance, which is especially important for women. And that is sweet reason. But it is also, in fact, seizing control of the most basic means of production, the means of reproduction. So it becomes radical in the face of a patriarchal system of various kinds – agricultural, industrial, whatever it may be – that wish to control women’s decisions, to influence or forcibly control them, to decide how many children, how many workers, how many soldiers, what class, what race, who owns them and systems of legitimacy and so on.

Heffner: Is that your definition of feminism today? Control over one’s personal self, one’s body?

Steinem: Well, I think that is a kind of bottom line, because if your own body is colonized. I mean, if you’re, you know in effect, if you don’t have the control of your life from the skin in, then it’s extremely unlikely that we’re going to be able to control our time and our world in any sense from the skin out. But feminism, actually just means what the dictionary says it means, you know, which is the better in the full social, economic, political and so on, humanity of women.

Heffner: But that’s why I wondered about the notion of Uncle Tomism, the notion that somehow here Gloria Steinem is a representation in her magnificent stand for reason, for humanism, for decency, really an Uncle Tom instead of getting, really getting down there at the barricades and battling for something more than the power over our own lives.

Steinem: No, I don’t think that that’s what…this reviewer is an…English reviewer, and she is both to the right and the left. That is, I would say she’s a Marxist and a Freudian, probably. Which means that in conventional terms Marxism is left, in feminist terms it’s a very conservative, because it really doesn’t, you know, perceive women’s position or the means of reproduction as primary. It’s, but as the result of the ownership of some other means of production. And Freud, god knows, is a total reactionary when it comes to women.

Heffner: You mean it’s a conflict between the means of reproduction and the means of production, philosophically here, the difference.

Steinem: Well, I think that Marx just didn’t go far enough. I mean, he saw, he saw that which affected him, which is understandable. I mean, he saw class, but he did not understand women’s bodies as a fundamental means of production, nor did he understand racist structures or colonialism in its full implications. I mean, he simply dismissed a lot of colonial countries as not having a history and not even being countable as countries. So he was dealing with the class discrimination which he felt. But the fact that he himself was severely oppressing his wife and his children and living off the pawned jewelry and silverware of his middle-class wife that his daughter committed suicide because of the extreme oppression she felt as a woman; just passed him by.

Heffner: What’s happened…

Steinem: Engels was a nicer guy actually. (laughter)

Heffner: Marx gets the credit, and Engels was the nicer guy.

Steinem: Yeah.

Heffner: And Freud?

Steinem: Freud is just an all-around disaster, I’m afraid.

Heffner: Why?

Steinem: Because he attributed social phenomena to biological constructs, so…

Heffner: Aren’t you doing the same thing?

Steinem: No, no. I am saying, I’m talking about culture, not biology, in other words, I am saying to you that men, many men are feminists, many women are not. That men, when, you know, in more equal societies where men also raise and nurture and love children, men also become, you know, take on many aspects of a less violent culture. And so I’m saying it has to do with culture, he was saying it has to do with biology. “Biology is destiny”, as he so famously quoted. And for a long time I had a kind of sympathy with him because I thought, well, poor man, he was born in this European setting in which men were superior, and so he was just trying to rationalize it through all kinds of crazy theories like penis envy and so on, not realizing that the inferior group always envies whatever it is that makes the superior group superior. It may be white skin, it may be penises, whatever it is becomes enviable. But it’s a social construct, not a biological inevitability. However, the recent disclosure of letters in which he admits that he knew for instance that the women who came to him in large numbers saying that they had been raped and, you know, sexually assaulted in, you know, sometimes over a very long term, by their own fathers or men within their own family structures, he knew that they were telling the truth, and yet he falsified that evidence, and, because the society wouldn’t accept it. And he presented it as a seduction, as desire to seduce. A wish on the part of the victim. I don’t forgive him for that.

Heffner: You’re not sympathetic?

Steinem: No, of course not. He lied. I mean, I can be sympathetic…

Heffner: But you explained his lie.

Steinem: I can be…well, but that’s unacceptable, I mean to…would one condone giving in to an anti Semitic society by saying the Jews were inferior? No. I mean, there’s a difference between somebody who really sincerely believes a wrong fact and someone who knows the truth and lies anyway. And Freud, I’m afraid, lied anyway.

Heffner: We’ve done away with Marx then, and now we’ve done away with Freud.

Steinem: We haven’t done away with them. I mean, at least not with Marx, because I think that class, his class analysis was very important. He just didn’t proceed deeper to the caste systems of sex and race.

Heffner: What do you think will happen when – and let’s assume it will be when – you’ve won the battles, or begun to make, or made further progress in making inroads where you want to make inroads, what will happen to the complaints, the areas of complaints of the Marxists? What impact do you think a victorious feminism will have, or humanism will have upon the complaints of the Marxists?

Steinem: Well, a very enormous impact, because sex and race are the patterns which class imitates. Class is an attempt to artificially create, through education or the lack of it, speech you know, all kinds of changeable things, the physical mark of sex or race. So we see that, for instance, just setting aside the question of what economic systems they have, that any society that is a one-race society tends to have a less strong class system as well. I mean, look at the Scandinavian countries and so on. Just in an anthropological sense and a very broad sense because it doesn’t have that rootedness. Now, one can see it, I think, best personally in our families because it is that training in our families that allows us to believe that a son is worth more than a daughter and should get more education money, that the wife’s career aspirations or life in general is somehow subordinate or secondary to her husband’s life, it is that deepest patterning from our infancy that allows us to believe that some people are born more superior than others. And it is into those grooves that we then fit, race discrimination and race patterns and class patterns. I mean…

Heffner: Now, what inroads upon those notions do you feel have been made by the feminism of the last 10, 15, 20 years?

Steinem: Well, I think that there is…first of all, I never know quite what measure to use for culture wide change except perhaps public opinion polls which, even though the questions may be phrased in more or less helpful ways, that they are somewhat free of the interpretation of any particular person. So over the last dozen or 15 years, we’ve seen that now the majority of women and men support the equality of women, whether it takes the form of equal pay or high political office or professional advancement for women, or whatever it may be. That that is a huge change because most of those issues weren’t even in the polls before, and some of them, like equal pay, did definitely not get majority support. We’ve shifted from a feeling of a supposition of a biological inferiority of women or a religiously dictated inferiority, or both, to an understanding that it is cultural and unjust and now can be changed. That’s a huge…I mean, that kind of consciousness change and bigger dream and hope has to precede practical change.

Heffner: do you think that will result sometime soon in an Equal Rights Amendment?

Steinem: Well, I think so, yes. But nowhere is it written, you know, that the majority wins. I mean, now we have the majority, but…(laughter)

Heffner: Why do you say that?

Steinem: Well, because it takes…

Heffner: I thought it was writ large in our history.

Steinem: Yeah, well we thought so too until we tried to look at the practicalities of the…it is somewhat more true when it comes to the House and the Senate in Washington that the majority wins because it is somewhat more true that the majority votes and knows who their representative is. It’s still the case though that it took us, what, maybe four years after 70 percent of Americans wanted to get out of Vietnam to get out of Vietnam. I mean it, you know, there’s still a great lag time. But the state legislatures, which are the problem for the Equal Rights Amendment are not elected by the majority because the average American doesn’t know who their state legislator is. So they have been traditionally in many states elected by special interest groups. And those are precisely the special interest groups who have something to lose frequently by the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. So we have to go through a longer process of reforming the state legislatures in order to get this measure through.

Heffner: I guess the question that I’m asking is: how long?

Steinem: Well, just procedurally, I should think it would take another 10 years. I mean, you know, setting aside the political questions, but just because of the ratification procedure of going through 38 states. Plus the necessity of the political change a lot more. Actually I think in the end, ironically, it will be better for the country perhaps that it took longer, because the state legislatures will be more representative bodies when this is over. The Women’s Movement has been, for the past nine years, the only national movement that’s been focusing on state legislatures. Now, you know, given Reagan’s policies of putting more power into them because of, because they[re more in political agreement with him, there are more groups focusing on those legislatures, and perhaps together we can sort of let the air and the sunshine in and make them a bit more responsive.

Heffner: I usually ask my guests about downsides, but I’ve asked you about the upside. Does it make that much difference? Now, I know what your wish is, I know what you…

Steinem: If the Equal Rights Amendment passes, you mean?

Heffner: Yeah, right.

Steinem: Yes, I think it really does make a difference, because even though the law is not the total answer, we understand that, if there is not a sense, if there is not a remedy, if when you turn to the law the law also discriminates against you, which is now what happens in many cases, it makes for a very great deal of apathy and bitterness and disillusionment and so on. I mean, if you know, if you’ve got 8,000 federal laws now that discriminate based on nothing but sex, and I guess nobody knows how many state laws there are. So if you turn to the law that is supposed to be just, and the law discriminates against you, then I think that that’s really much, much more difficult. It doesn’t mean, you know, that this is the panacea that we’re you know, we don’t have much further to go, but at least we will have a fighting chance.

Heffner: Well, I think my question really, I didn’t phrase it well. It focused in another direction. In the 10 years or so – you anticipate that it may take another decade before there is an ERA – the question that I ask is: does that mean that in the next decade feminism will take a back seat? Won’t you continue to make considerable progress? Where will we be by the time the ERA, in your estimate, is passed?

Steinem: Oh, well, the ERA is just one – I mean, it’s a basic issue – but it’s one of many.

Heffner: And where are you making these quantum jumps and progress?

Steinem: Well, I think as we, you know, indicated before, that reproductive freedom, that establishing reproductive freedom as a basic right, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, is underway. And that…

Heffner: And without that?

Steinem: …that that is fundamental.

Heffner: And without it?

Steinem: Well, without it, as I say you know, if you can’t make that basic decision about what happens to your own physical self, it brings with it all kinds of other problems. I mean, whether a woman has children or not is the single biggest indicator of whether she’s in poverty or not, for instance. It dictates the children’s state of mind. I mean, to be the child of a woman or a man who doesn’t want to have children is a, is not a good experience. And it, you know, it has all kinds of multitudinous impact on the children as well.

Heffner: Well, in terms of reproductive freedom, you estimate 10 years for the ERA. What do you anticipate will happen in the area of reproductive freedom?

Steinem: Well, I think that we have established the right because, you know of the interpretation of the constitutional right of privacy, the principle that safe and legal abortion should be available up to the point of viability. But the fact is that it is not available for many millions of women in this country because, first of all, Medicaid funding has not been, you know, said by the federal government but be a necessity, and abortion has become the one medical service that can be exempted from medical funding for the poor. That, you know, takes it away from a lot of women right there. And secondly, their hospitals don’t have to provide this service. I’m not suggesting that an individual nurse or a physician who doesn’t agree with this should have to do it. I mean, they certainly have the right to disagree in conscience from this or any other procedure if they don’t agree with it. But there is an obligation to provide this service somewhere, to provide, you know, full medical services somewhere within reasonable distance from citizens. And you know, many women now have to go to another state or travel very long distances to get this service.

Heffner: But let me ask…I mentioned a moment ago that I usually ask about the downside of things. Is there a downside to what you’ve called “reproductive freedom”?

Steinem: Yes, there is a downside. It weakens nationalism. It weakens racial divisions.

Heffner: No, I mean a downside in terms of your own…

Steinem: (Laughter) that’s an upside to me but, I mean it’s…

Heffner: Right. I know that. But tell me about the possibility…

Steinem: No, I don’t…

Heffner: …that in your own terms there might be a downside.

Steinem: I…

Heffner: None whatsoever?

Steinem: No, I don’t think so. You see, I mean, I think that – and there’s a downside to reproductive freedom because, I suppose you know, if conditions are very poor and women have the means not to have children, then the downside might be just the declining of a population or a particular population and so on. Bu tit seems to me that that’s a fair cost. I mean, we have to at least produce the conditions that make it possible for women to have children in safety.

Heffner: You say, “That’s a fair cost”, a fair price to pay. What other prices, in your terms, are fair and that you feel we may have to pay for reproductive freedom? You may say, “None at all”.

Steinem: Uh hum. Well, you see, I can only see the costs in other people’s idea of cost.

Heffner: I know.

Steinem: I don’t see it myself as a cost. For instance, the Right to Life groups are very, very worried about what they refer to as the white race committing suicide through contraception and abortion. But I, that doesn’t…people are people to me. You know? So I mean I, you know, if it happens that white Americans have fewer children and black and Hispanic Americans have more, we’re all Americans, so what’s the difference?

Heffner: Look, I understand what they feel, and I know what you’re an honest person and you do believe in reason and you do believe, I’m certain, I know that, in facing issues squarely. So when I ask you, it’s not to bait you…

Steinem: Uh hum.

Heffner: …as to whether there is a downside. It’s because, I guess, I’ve known never any situation that didn’t have a downside or any solution that didn’t have a downside.

Steinem: Well, I do think that, I suppose, as with freedom of speech or freedom of the press, you may endanger particular groups or individuals by having this freedom. You may use it wrongly. And I’m sure that that’s true of reproductive freedom as well. But it’s still, I mean, I would still assume that the basic power to make that decision is more important.

Heffner: I understand that. I wondered whether you accept that notion that reproductive freedom may, in a general way, perhaps in a way that can be handled and reversed, diminishes a sense of responsibility, diminishes values that were valuable, in your terms, from the past. But you see none of that?

Steinem: No. how would it? Because it seems to me it increases the sense of responsibility, because when you can make the decision to have a child, and you have made the decision, you have a sense of responsibility for that child more than if it just happened to you and you said, “Well, I hate it. It’s not my fault that I’m stuck with it.”

Heffner: Yes, but these little things don’t just pop out. Assume presumably one takes responsibility in becoming involved in the act of procreation in the first place, if I may be stuffy.

Steinem: Well, it is stuffy actually, because…(Laughter)

Heffner: Thank you. Thank you.

Steinem: Because, well, it’s not so much stuffy as it is sort of limited, because the truth is that the human animal seems to be the only animal who can experience sexual pleasure, who can experience orgasm at times when we can’t conceive. Other animals seem to concentrate their sexual desire in periods when they’re most likely to conceive, that is periods of heat, of estrus as it’s called. So it seems that human sexuality is a mark of our humanity, like our cerebral cortex or our ability to reason, and that sexuality has always been, for human beings, not only a way that we have children, but also a way that we communicate with each other, that we express love and caring and closeness.

Heffner: And I have to communicate to you that we’re at the very end of the program.. but since you’ve agreed to do a second program, if you’ll stay there we’ll do another one for next week. Thank you for joining me today.

Steinem: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”