Feminism

Gloria Steinem’s still got it

Feminist icon underlines role of Indigenous women and women of colour in building the feminist movement
Photo: Greg Chow

This past Tuesday night at Montreal’s Rialto Theatre, 81-year-old Gloria Steinem took the stage before a sold-out crowd of 800 people for an intimate and moving Q & A as part of the launch of her new book, My Life on the Road.

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It’s a little surreal sitting down to write about whether the writer, activist, leader and feminist icon is still relevant today, when only a few days ago a man, fueled by hateful anti-abortion rhetoric, entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and murdered three people in cold blood. The backlash against the struggle for self-determination and equality remains relentless.

Hosted by the CBC’s Jeanette Kelly, the 90-minute conversation and exchange with Steinem was a powerful affirmation and explanation of this trailblazer’s lifetime commitment to and involvement in feminism, as well as the need for activism from “the ground up.” For the many of us who see Steinem as an incredible role model, it was also an opportunity to be motivated and inspired by her graciousness, her wisdom, her sense of humanity — and yes, her incredible sense of humour.

On her abortion at the age of 22: “I feel that if I had been forced to give birth to another human being, I would have never given birth to myself.”

On reproductive freedom: “It is at the very least as fundamental a right as the freedom of speech. What goes on inside women’s bodies belongs to us. The power of the state stops at our skin.”

On violence perpetuated on women: “The single biggest indicator of whether a country is violent inside itself or will use military violence against another country is not poverty, not access to natural resources, not religion or even degree of democracy. It’s violence against females. Not because females are any more important than males, but because the idea of controlling women in order to control reproduction has developed all these systems that make us think that one group is born to dominate another.”

On her father, growing up poor, and her vagabond childhood: “My father was irresponsible with money, but he was responsible with people. Given the option, I prefer the latter. And ultimately, the mix of uncertainty and freedom my childhood allowed prepared me for a lifetime on the road organizing and campaigning.”

On intersectional feminism: “It’s important to highlight and fight against everything that imprisons you. You can’t separate race and gender and ask which one is affecting you more. They both affect you if you are a visible minority. It’s not hierarchal. It’s like asking if water or if air are more important to you.”

On the contributions of women of colour and Indigenous women: “African-American women supported feminism before white women. I realize that things being what they are, the white middle-class part of the movement got reported more, but if you can say one learns feminism or learns about equality, I learned mainly from women in India, from African-American women disproportionately. And it's very depressing to me that it's not presented this way. When we say it's a white movement, it's rendering invisible the women of colour who disproportionately helped lead the way and continue to lead.”

On feminism and men: “Of course feminism includes men. The prisons of gender include them too. Their prisons may have wall-to-wall carpeting and someone serving them coffee, but it’s still a prison, it’s still limiting who they can be, and anyone actively working to blow up those gender binaries is doing us all a favour.”

On getting older: “The word ‘still’ enters the conversation more. ‘Oh, you’re still so active….’ ‘You still look so good....’ But if you want the truth, growing old is fun-fucking-tastic!”

On role models: “I didn’t have any role models when I started on my journey in the 1950s. I knew what I didn’t want, not what I wanted yet. I was still saying ‘no’, because I still had nothing to say ‘yes’ to. But saying ‘no’ is good preparation for saying ‘yes.’”

On listening and learning from marginalized groups: “It sounds simpleminded, but I find this to be very helpful. If you have been in a position of power or you are in that group which is more powerful, to listen as much as you talk, and if you have been less powerful, to talk as much as you listen, which is sometimes even more difficult. And if we do that simple thing, we’re usually okay.”

Perhaps there was no better proof of her efforts to have marginalized voices heard over the years than the many women of colour and Indigenous women who stood up last night to publicly thank her. At one point, an Indigenous woman sang a traditional Native song in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The room went silent, then broke into a spontaneous standing ovation. It was a deeply moving moment.

Fifty years after she co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and the ground-breaking Ms. magazine, Steinem remains as outspoken and motivated as ever. My Life on the Road, her first book in 20 years, is a personal, compelling, and moving account of her more than five decades as a relentless grassroots organizer and feminist activist.

In her book, Steinem makes very clear that feminism’s goal is to “transform the system, not imitate it.” With her customary in-your-face bravery, she dedicated the book to the doctor who performed her abortion for allowing her to live her life on her own terms.

Steinem is still deeply immersed in the struggle for gender and racial equality, and just as connected to today’s thinkers and imparters of wisdom. Recently on Twitter she shared the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of today’s quintessential U.S. writers on race relations: “Find the labour that you love then angle it towards justice.”

It was an apt message to share — Steinem has spent her entire life doing just that.

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