Gloria Steinem

On Feminism, Part II

VTR Date: December 21, 1983

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


GUEST: Gloria Steinem
VTR: 12/21/1983

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Last week, I introduced my guest, Gloria Steinem, a founder and editor of Ms. Magazine, as a leading figure in the feminist movement in America for more years now than many young women can remember. We talked about her new book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, published by Holt, Reinhardt, Winston, and the way she has targeted in it much of her thinking about The Movement over the past 20 years.

Ms. Steinem, I’d like to go back to that thinking, those thoughts over these years and now. And you know, in the break between this taping and the last one of our program, the program that appeared last week, I was talking to Janice Alcessor, who is the associate producer of this program. And I said I was going to refer to a piece here. And then, I must admit, I said, “By Peter Jennings’ wife”. And she said, “See, that’s it. That’s what I mean”.

STEINEM: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And I said it wasn’t because I couldn’t remember the lady’s name. And I like to think that’s true, and that I don’t suffer…

STEINEM: (Laughter) That’s funny, because I just couldn’t remember his name.

HEFFNER: I was just going to say, then we’re talking…

STEINEM: (Laughter) I remembered his first name, but not his last name. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Right. Now that shows something, not necessarily culturally derived. But in Kay Martin’s piece, she had just returned from spending years in England – She said, “It’s good to be home after nearly six years abroad. I’m struck, first of all, by what a good time it is to be a woman in America”. What do you think about that?

STEINEM: Oh, I agree. I’m very grateful that I am living through this time, as difficult as it is. It would have been very sad to have disappeared in the fifties and have missed the late sixties and the seventies and all that it’s meaning to us now, because there’s a whole contagion of – I don’t know how to put it exactly – a burst of talent, of self-respect, of understanding that we can be whole people and that, you know, biology and religion and all that stuff is, that that’s not a rationale for our inferiority. And you see it everywhere. You see this huge burst of creativity among women writers and poets, and you see women…I was just on a book tour, and you know, women come up to you at the autograph table and they say, two sisters will say, “This is my sister. She’s the first sheet metal worker in the whole area”. And the other one will say, “This is my sister. She’s, you know, a lawyer”. And somebody else is telling me about airline mechanics and how the union now has to have a pregnancy policy and how…I don’t know, it’s just a burst of talent and energy. And I think that men are experiencing it as well, because they are realizing that if women’s roles change, so can men’s. And they’re becoming somewhat closer to kids and feeling that they don’t have to be this total support financially all the time, that they can change their lives, too. It’s very exciting.

HEFFNER: You say that men realize that if women’s roles change, then theirs do, too. But this is what was feared, wasn’t, sometime back?

STEINEM: Well, it depends where we look. I’m not suggesting that we can generalize either about women or men. But I think that men are, some men are enjoying the change and have discovered that it is in their enlightened self-interest and that they may have closeness to their children to gain and a kind of flexibility and, you know, they don’t have to be violent or aggressive all the time and so on. And other men are very fearful of it, because they have been raised to believe that no matter how tough things get, they can be superior to women and frequently to black men or women as well. So they’re real threatened in their very most inner identity when they discover that this is not the case and that they’re going to have to compete equally.

HEFFNER: If there is such a change, such a seed change – and you identify it, she identifies it, and many women I know do – what political manifestations to you expect to see in the next couple of years of that change?

STEINEM: We’re already seeing identified by the press something called the “gender gap”. Now, it’s important to understand that there always has been a gender gap on issues, ever since we first had public opinion polls. But it was not taken seriously by political scientists or journalists because it wasn’t partisan, and they were mainly interested in that which could decide which man got elected. In fact, on issues, women have always been more likely to support domestic spending, measures against discrimination, to be against military spending, anything having to do with violence, and so on. This is a voting pattern that used to be called “conservative”, and now it’s called “radical”. But, I mean, we’ve been doing it all this time no matter what you call it. It has increased because women are voting in increasing numbers. Women are bringing their values into public life. And it has become partisan because Ronald Reagan has made it seem, wrongly I think, partisan, since he does not, in fact, represent most Republicans on most issues. But by opposing, you know, all the sort of issues that women care about even more than med do, he has made it seem, for the moment at least, partisan. And so it has emerged in the press and could, as we know, be a great, be the decisive influence in the 1984 races.

HEFFNER: I wouldn’t argue with you on that statement, that he doesn’t represent what most Republicans think, one can say as…

STEINEM: Well, it’s just factual. I mean, for instance, Republicans are more likely to be pro-choice on abortion than Democrats. Never know it from Ronald Reagan. There was a survey of the delegates at the Republican convention in 1980 taken by The Washington Post and CBS, jointly, that showed that they did not agree with Reagan on the basic points of his platform either. He is a right-wing extremist who has, along with others, Jesse Helms and Max Holden, and so on, taken over the decision-making posts of the Republican Party, but it doesn’t mean that he represents most Republicans.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I still come back to the original question: What will be the political consequences, the election consequences?

STEINEM: Uh hum.

HEFFNER: I mean, you’re right. We talked about the gender gap for a long, long time. Ronald Reagan was elected.

STEINEM: Well, it’s really just been discovered since Reagan has come to office. I wrote a piece on the gender gap eleven years ago in the first issue of Ms. Magazine. And nobody seemed to care. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yes, but isn’t that fair, that no one seemed to care? It didn’t impact upon our election politics.

STEINEM: No, but it could, you see. I mean, the problem was that the two major parties were close together; one might say equally blind, to the issues of special concern, or that concerned women even more than men. So it was lying about there to be appealed to, but they just didn’t do it.

HEFFNER: What do you think will happen in 1984?

STEINEM: I wish I knew. I hope with all my heart that women turn out in large numbers, because I fear very much that, having now discovered belatedly the gender gap, that the press, if women don’t turn out in large numbers, will now say, and eh experts and so on will now say, “Yes, they care about issues, but they don’t care enough to get out and vote”. Now, it’s true it’s harder for women to get out and vote. We don’t have the tradition of doing it. We don’t have much evidence that who’s in office really affects our day-to-day life, although Reagan has given us some evidence of that.

HEFFNER: Yes, you’ve been speaking about that.

STEINEM: But, you know, we don’t have the kind of tradition of public participation that men have. And we have kids; it’s harder for us to get to the polls.

HEFFNER: So it’s an ineffectual gender gap then?

STEINEM: No, it wasn’t ineffectual in 1982. It elected the Governor of New York, the Governor of Michigan, you know. It had a large impact on many, many races in 1982. And the question is – and I don’t know that answer; all I know is that I’m doing my best to help with voter registration campaigns in shopping centers and grocery stores and, you know, to encourage women to vote – but the question is, you know, will we have the faith to get out to vote, even though there may not be somebody we really want to vote for, will we have the self respect at least to vote against?

HEFFNER: Suppose the answer is “yes”. And suppose we look into the future five, ten, 15, 20 years. Your book covers 20 years of writing. All right? Let’s look 20 years to the future. What, how will the face of this nation be changed if the gender gap is manifested electorally? If women go to the polls in the numbers you want them to go in.

STEINEM: Uh hum. Well, we will, two things clearly will, the most simple things are that we will get more male feminists in office, and more female feminists in office. We’re not talking about electing women just because they’re women. I mean, that’s clear. But because they represent the majority issues of women. And when men do that too, then women, it’s clear, you know, support them as well. Now, that would mean, given the nature of the gender gap, that there would be more openness to domestic spending, to perhaps a national health system, which women want more than me do because women go to the doctor about 30 percent more than me do because we bear children and so on. It would mean more skepticism about military spending, except in cases of self-defense. But just as a general idea, there would certainly be more skepticism about violence as a means of solving any conflict, because women bring this – not all women, but most women – bring this value into public life.

HEFFNER: But you’re…

STEINEM: It might mean more job flexibility, for instance, because we need, I mean, there was not a star in the east. I mean, kids have more than one parent. So we need some basic things like parental leave instead of just maternity leave, so that fathers can be home when new babies arrive. They’re just now trying to institute this in Canada; we haven’t even looked at it. We haven’t since Nixon vetoed a federally funded child system or even looked at the issue of child care. We might well do that. So that, you know, there’s a whole variety of issues that could be affected.

HEFFNER: You said we will, you quickly say we’ll increase domestic spending. You say we’ll take another look at military spending. We’ll be more cautious, perhaps, about that.

STEINEM: Well, I don’t know if it would increase or be redistributed. I mean, you know, that’s something we need to consider very carefully. For instance, there’s an enormous amount of money being spent on prisons now, it’s greatly increased. There’s also an enormous amount of money being spent on the welfare system that never gets to the client. We might experiment with, we might cut the cost by giving direct grants and, you know. But I mean, you know, there’s…

HEFFNER: You’re not going to say what Ronald Reagan said, that we’re going to be more efficient and effective in the spending of money, therefore there will be huge savings. You’re not saying that, are you?

STEINEM: Well, did he ever say that?

HEFFNER: Oh, yes. One of the problems in this…

STEINEM: (Laughter) Certainly turned out to be wrong, didn’t it? I mean, he’s got this huge deficit.

HEFFNER: I wouldn’t argue that with you, but I…

STEINEM: He said he just wanted to cut off a lot of domestic programs.

HEFFNER: Well it always, the conservative plaint is that there is ineffectual administration.

STEINEM: Except in the military.

HEFFNER: Okay. I’m talking about domestic power, and I was interested in…

STEINEM: A lot of the military is domestic, too, but they don’t seem to look at that.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but look, I don’t want to banter with you on that. I’m really looking for information about what you think the future will mean. We’re in a period of presumably deficits that will go higher and higher and higher only. You posit the notion of larger domestic spending. Do you see all of that coming out of the military? And I ask you that not critically. I ask you because I’m looking for information.

STEINEM: I think a large portion of it. But a lot of the social programs that we have are aimed toward maintenance, not toward change. In other words, the Reagan Administration has made a determination that it is cheaper to pay a woman subsistence wages to raise four children on a welfare check than it is to pay for the childcare for those children so she can work, and the mob training that she needs and so on to turn her into a productive citizen. They’re looking at cost effectiveness in a very, what seems to me, cold way, because it doesn’t talk about the human cost to those four kids. I would think that if women had more control over the programs – and I’ve never, it’s hard for me to remember ever meeting a woman who wanted affirmatively to be on welfare, who looked forward to being on welfare – and the programs that have been run by women themselves, like the Lupe Angianos in Arizona and so on, have focused on getting mob training and getting childcare and so on so that women can get off welfare.

HEFFNER: But you know, I don’t think – forgive me, we’re dealing with what I would consider at least one of the real questions, and that is – if we become more feminine in our approach to national problems, will we find ourselves indeed being much less involved in military spending? Will we find ourselves indeed being much more concerned with the quest for social justice which presumably does mean childcare programs, which presumably does mean reform of many, many, many, good many different stripes that would be expensive? That’s what I’m…I asked you whether there would be a seed change.

STEINEM: They aren’t expensive if you…I mean, you make many more jobs by spending the same amount of dollars on childcare than you would on manufacturing a plane that’s going to, you know, go crash someplace abroad. I mean, you know, it’s a much better investment, and you make jobs where we need it, in semi-skilled or other areas, not in the high-tech areas.

HEFFNER: Would you be unwilling to embrace the notion that yes, it will cost us one hell of a great deal more money and that we as a nation must spend that much more money?

STEINEM: You know, I would not go along with that assumption. It might, in which case we might make the judgment to do that. But I think that there has been a false assumption that social programs are somehow some great unfair expense, and military ones are, you know, sacrosanct. And I, I mean, I think we really have to look at it.

HEFFNER: I never press my guests too far. I really wasn’t talking about something being sacrosanct. And I wasn’t talking about something, about anything other than whether, if, whether, if we succeed in bringing about what you would call, I’m sure, a more humanistic approach to human problems in this country, if the feminist movement helps us achieve that, whether we will find ourselves making national decisions that are far different from those we are making now. One perhaps in domestic expenditures, other perhaps in cutting back military expenditures.

STEINEM: Yeah. I think that they would, you know, now we’re talking about 15 years hence and you suggested, and that’s not a lot of time. But I think that we can demonstrate from the little we know about women in decision-making positions that there are measurable differences. For instance, if you look at the voting pattern of all of the women who have been in Congress versus the voting pattern of all the men who have been in Congress, never mind what party, I mean, oblivious of party, the women’s voting pattern is measurably different. I’m not saying this about all women, of course, or all men, but there is a cultural difference that goes very deep. There was a study done by the, I think, the California Institute of Gender Identity, a name I love because probably only in California could you have that name.

HEFFNER: For Gender Identity?

STEINEM: (Laughter) And they determined that, they were studying adolescent males and females who had been wrongly raised as members of the opposite gender, who were chromosomally, you know, one gender and raised as the other, which sometimes happens for a variety of reasons. They came to the conclusion that it would be easier to surgically change the gender of the child than to change the conditioning, that’s how deep it goes.

HEFFNER: Then Freud wasn’t so wrong.

STEINEM: So…No, no, no. Yes, he was wrong, because he was talking about…

HEFFNER: The way they were brought up rather than…

STEINEM: Yeah…No. He was talking about anatomy. I mean, he was saying that, you know, penis envy was inevitable. Clearly, it’s not inevitable. But the cultural differences in the way that boys and girls are raised, even, you know, even boys and girls in the same family, are still quite deep. And consequently, they, in the main, not in every particular, not in every individual, but in the kind of national sense, reflect differences when you get a critical mass of women making decisions. So we can assume that 15 years from now there would be measurable differences on a number of basic issues.

HEFFNER: To foster those differences, to push then along a little so that maybe it would only be ten years rather than 15. Who are the women on the political scene today who might participate as President and Vice President of this country?

STEINEM: Well, I think we have a large number who are infinitely better qualified than either the president or the vice president we now have. I should…I think one thing that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and others have done for us is to remove our sense of humility about high office. (Laughter) So, we might look at Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, for instance, who is very well qualified. And Barbara McCulsky and Geraldine Ferraro from New York, at Yvonne Braithwaite Burke from California, at Barbara Jordan, at Bella Abzug, at Carol Bellamy. I mean, you know, we can run down the list. All of whom seem to me to be better qualified for the top jobs than the folks we’ve now got.

HEFFNER: How likely is it that in 1984, in your estimation, we’ll have a woman on one of the major party tickets?

STEINEM: I don’t think we will. Because, first of all, the important thing is that we have a woman who represents her constituency. So that already eliminates the Republican Party as long as they’ve got Reagan at their helm. In other words, even if we had a woman, it would be not somebody who represented women, and it might even be worse; we’d have somebody who looked like us and behaved like them. But…

HEFFNER: But you said…

STEINEM: …the Democrats…

HEFFNER: I’m sorry. Let me just interrupt a moment. You said a little while ago that the President, President Reagan, does not represent the feelings and attitudes of the Republican Party in certain major ways.

STEINEM: Yes, but we could have a different Republican. I mean, for instance, Senator Bob Packwood from Oregon is someone who benefits from the gender gap, supports the issues of equality, and would be a very, very different president, even though he is a Republican.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it might be that Secretary Dole will be on the ticket?

STEINEM: You mean would he be Vice President?

HEFFNER: No, no, no, no. I mean if one, if a Senator can be, can his wife perhaps be on the ticket? I don’t mean at the same time, but you talk about one Dole, how about the other?

STEINEM: Well, if she were Vice President to Reagan, you mean?

HEFFNER: Uh hum.

STEINEM: It would be meaningless, because we’d still be stuck with his policies. I mean, you know, there’s no point in having window dressing; it’s the policies that matter. So…

HEFFNER: And you don’t think we’re going to have that window dressing?

STEINEM: No, I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Okay. And then you turn to the Democratic Party?

STEINEM: And on the Democratic Party I think the problem there is that the popular perception of a victorious strategy is to become like your adversary. You see, the Democratics look at women and see that…they’re captive of, you know, where are they going to go? Now, that’s more true of the party than the candidates who are out there hustling, you know…keeps them more honest. But there is this strategic notion that you should imitate the enemy in order to defeat him, which I don’t understand. Doesn’t make sense. But I think that would mitigate against having a woman vice president. I think, in other words, I think the average voter is much more ready for a woman vice president, and it would cause the candidacy of somebody like Mondale to sort of catch fire and get a whole kind of enthusiasm and idealism that it doesn’t have. But I don’t think the party sees it that way, nor do they want to take that risk.

HEFFNER: As far as you’re concerned…

STEINEM: They’re more likely to move to the right with the vice president, not to, you know, do something daring.

HEFFNER: Does this give us a tremendous amount of hope for your point of view in terms of a woman as one of the major candidates?

STEINEM: No, I don’t think that there’s going to be a woman in ’84. No.

HEFFNER: And in the near future? Write it off for some reason?

STEINEM: No, no. I think it’s more likely. I think that the simple talking about raising the level, raising the question of a woman in the top or second spot, as Shirley Chisholm’s candidacy did, makes a difference. And now all of the major candidates are talking at least – I think it’s only talk, but that’s important – about a woman vice president. I think Jesse Jackson’s candidacy changes our perceptions, and at a minimum, after 1984, at least “white male” won’t be an implicit part of the job description for top office.

HEFFNER: Let me, in the time we have remaining, go back, at least try to go back, to a question that I put to you at the beginning of our first program. And that had to do, in a roundabout way, with this question of being radical, being conservative, the new wave, the old wave, the phase one, phase two of the feminist movement. You’re so wonderfully rational in your approach to feminism. Do you feel there is no great need for – I know you’re going to say you’re a radical in your rationalism – but do you feel there’s no great need any longer – or perhaps you feel there never was a great need – for those who are much more strident in their approach to male/female than you are?

STEINEM: I think there’s a need for every style. If we’re talking about style…Are you talking about style or content?

HEFFNER: Now I’m talking about both. I’m talking about leadership, really.

STEINEM: Well, the truth is that the leadership of the women’s movement, whether you look at me or anybody else, has become much more radical than it ever was before. But the difference is that it doesn’t feel as radical, because the general culture has absorbed a great many of the assumptions of feminism. It’s though the distance between – not the leadership; set that aside – but the average person and what feminists are saying is not as great. In fact, feminists have become, me included, much more radical than we used to be in the sense of, true sense of radical. I mean, going to the root of the problem and seeing its true depth.

As far as style is concerned, I think we’ve got to have women from lots of different styles. You know, I learned a lot about this by going on a tour with this book, because I noticed that people were amazed by the chapter on my mother, because it disclosed that my childhood was rather poor. Now, it never occurred to me that people thought of me as a rich person. But when I…And I’ve got nothing against, I mean I’m not trying to separate myself from women who happened to grow up in that circumstance. But it’s, I realized that the only acceptable style in which women are encouraged to come to the public eye is as a lady. And that is an upper-class style. So in some sense I and a lot of us have betrayed our origins by adopting an acceptable public style. And we, you know, we need women in every style. We need, you know, funny, outrageous, non-smiling, all sizes, shapes, colors, races. We need every style. Because there should be no idea of how a woman has to be in order to be acceptable.

HEFFNER: You know, I haven’t sufficiently enough in these two programs referred to Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. And I think that’s because in the book, the essays are so taking, and I’ve built them into my sense of view to such an extent that perhaps it hasn’t been fair to the book. Reading the book, I’m so enormously impressed by one question – and we just have a couple of minutes left – that I wanted to ask you. And it has to do with whether you really feel that, if fear is the spur, do you really think that men have not been and do not remain as fearful, as beset by all the anxieties and the concerns as women are or have been historically? Have you no sympathy?

STEINEM: Of course I have sympathy. Right.

HEFFNER: Why do you think there is that enormous difference? Why do you emphasize those fears, women, and you catalog them?

STEINEM: Because I’m speaking out of, you know, a woman’s experience. And the people, it is the group with the most to gain that’s likely to be in the forefront. I mean, blacks, you know, are in the front lines of the black movement and the civil rights struggle because they have the most to gain. But it doesn’t mean that I as a white person don’t have a lot to gain too, and that I my own enlightened self-interest it is up to me to be part of that struggle. So similarly, women are on the forefront and the cutting edge, but men now are seeing it as, some men and some white folks are seeing it as enlightened self-interest too.

HEFFNER: We should be doing many more programs, because I get the signal that we have about a half minute left. Question of Black and White: Is there this same sense of conflict that there had been a few years ago between Feminism, White, and the Black Movement?

STEINEM: No, actually there was always – I don’t mean to minimize that, because this society is so racist you can’t escape it – but the women’s movement in the first wave, the suffragist and abolitionist wave, and now in the feminists and civil rights and so on, has always been the most integrated movement the country has ever seen. Not integrated enough, but the only one that is integrated at all, really.

HEFFNER: Gloria Steinem, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join me here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.