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Gloria Steinem: Women's work not over

Women have come a long way - almost to the White House - but Gloria Steinem says feminism's battles aren't over.

By Colette Bancroft, Times Staff Writer
Published March 4, 2008


When feminism found its voice in the 1960s and '70s, Gloria Steinem led the chorus. Now that a woman is making a serious run at the White House, is Steinem's work done?

"Oh no," she says with a laugh.

When she takes part in a discussion at Eckerd College Wednesday night, Steinem will be talking about politics, feminism, diversity and more. At 73, she is in her fifth decade of working for feminist causes, including reproductive rights, child care and equal pay, and a range of other political issues.

"I've tried to cut back," she says. "I'm only on the road one week of the month."

Steinem began her working life as a journalist before moving into activism. She helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971 and was the founding editor of Ms. magazine in 1972. She is still a contributing editor, she says, but "not involved in the day to day."

Joining Steinem at Eckerd College will be a longtime colleague and friend, Jacksonville community activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Hughes and Steinem were two of the co-founders of the Women's Action Alliance in 1971, and the pair made hundreds of appearances together as speakers in the 1970s. Also on the panel are Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, the 30-something co-authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism.

We spoke to Steinem last week by phone from her home in New York City.

In an opinion column published in the New York Times in January, you wrote that you support Hillary Clinton and that the contest between Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination is an example of "the sex barrier not (being) taken as seriously as the racial one." Is gender that much more of an issue than race?

We have two such good (Democratic) candidates. They're both breaking boundaries. As I say in the column, if Obama is the candidate, I'll volunteer.

But if a woman with the same qualifications as Obama ran for president, she would never have gotten this far.

 

You wrote of Clinton and Obama that "what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex." Why do you think that is?

There's a different degree of consciousness about them. Females are half of everything, so they're more threatening. African-American men are 6 percent of the population.

Not discounting the significant minority of people who are still very racist, I think that the majority of the country wants redemption about racism.

They don't want redemption about misogyny. Not yet.

 

Does that set up a conflict, splitting voters into factions: the feminist vote versus the anti-racism vote?

No. The two things go together in any case. They always have.

If you have a racist society, racial purity becomes important. So women's bodies have to be controlled. That's what led to the imprisonment (in the home) of white women and the use of black women for manual labor.

It's not possible to be a feminist without being anti-racist. It doesn't work. And vice versa: You can't be anti-racist without being a feminist. Moral considerations aside, it just doesn't work logically.

That's what Dorothy (Pitman Hughes) and I were saying back in the '70s and are still saying. It was so important to me to have a black woman as a speaking partner, so people wouldn't forget how closely related these issues are.

If either Democrat becomes president, it will be a historic first. How much impact will it have on the rest of us?

Well, we'll have to wait and see. India had both a female prime minister and a so-called untouchable prime minister, and it didn't help much.

It's about how we all live.

 

As a feminist, do you ever wish that the first woman to make a serious run for the presidency had come with a little less baggage?

No. I think that's the reason she's gotten as far as she has. (Anthropologist) Margaret Mead said that in traditional societies only widows were honored with authority. So it's kind of a step forward that Bill is alive.

I don't believe that any female could get that far without those added connections. It's a double standard. If Indira Gandhi had had a brother, she never would have been prime minister.

There are feminists inside all the Democratic campaigns. The candidates this time were all good enough on the issues. That's the first time in my lifetime that has happened, and that is exciting.

 

Much has been written about young women shying away from identifying as feminists and believing that they don't have to be concerned about feminist issues - that those battles have been won. Do you encounter that?

All the time.

Their biggest problem is that they don't know yet that there's a problem.

If they're paying their college tuition, they don't know yet that they'll only get 60 cents back on their dollar. If they haven't had children, they don't realize yet how outrageous it is that we're the only major nation without a national child care policy.

The amazing thing to me is that so many young women are feminists.

 

What question are you most tired of?

Young women asking, "How can I combine career and family?" Men aren't asking that question. Until they are, it can't be answered.

It reveals how low their standards are, as if only women need to ask it. Everybody needs to ask it.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

 

IF YOU GO

The look of feminism

Writer and activist Gloria Steinem, along with Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, will discuss "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like: The True Diversity of Feminism" as part of Women's History Month at 7 p.m. Wednesday in McArthur Gymnasium at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

The talk will be moderated by Gretchen Letterman, director of the St. Petersburg Times' Newspaper in Education program.

Doors open at 5:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $10; $5 for Eckerd alumni; free to Eckerd students, faculty and staff. Call (727) 864-7979 for reservations.