Vassar Today

40 Years Since Ms. A Conversation with Gloria Steinem

By Interview by Molly Shanley & Faren Tang ’13
 Gloria Steinem, seated on floor, in a meeting with early Ms. staffers, June 1972.
Gloria Steinem, seated on floor, in a meeting with early Ms. staffers, June 1972.

In September, as part of a nationwide tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of Ms. magazine in 1972, Ms. cofounder Gloria Steinem presented a lecture in the Vassar Chapel. Before her talk, the writer, editor, and feminist activist sat down with Molly Shanley, professor of political science at Vassar, and women’s studies major Faren Tang ’13, president of Vassar’s Feminist Alliance, for an informal, intergenerational conversation about the trajectory of feminist thought and activism following the publication of Ms.—and what’s left for the movement to accomplish.

Molly Shanley: I am old enough to remember the first appearance of Ms. magazine on the newsstand. I was able to get a copy before it sold out and it, therefore, was passed amongst my circle of friends. So my first question to you is: Why Ms. at that historical moment? What made you think that the founding of a print magazine was the place to put your energies?

Gloria Steinem: There were two reasons. One was that I wanted to work for a magazine I would read, and there were a lot of other writers and editors who felt the same way. Not that we didn’t read other women’s magazines. But mostly they were trade magazines of how to be a homemaker or how to snag a man, and so on. But the preface to [starting Ms.] for me was also that I had been going around the country beginning to speak. Indeed, I first spoke at Vassar in 1970 and it was the first formal, by-myself speech I ever gave, and I was terrified. But I had been going around speaking with [feminist, African-American activists] Margaret Sloan, Flo Kennedy, and Dorothy Pitman Hughes because I was afraid to speak by myself. It turned out to be a good thing because for white women and black women to come together meant that the audience was much more complete than either one of us would have inspired. And, because of that lecturing, I came to understand that there was an audience for this magazine. Otherwise, I would not have known that.

Faren Tang: Most of my peers and I now rely primarily on Internet sources—blogs and other social media—for most of our day-to-day feminist news, as well as a lot of the discourse that we read. How do you see the changing landscape of the communications media affecting the communication of feminist discourse and knowledge?

Interviewers Molly Shanley, professor of political science, and women’s studies major Faren Tang ’13.
Interviewers Molly Shanley, professor of political science, and women’s studies major Faren Tang ’13.

GS: The difficult part, I would say, is that there is no fact checking. That’s huge. It’s very difficult to know if what you’re reading is accurate or not. I’m also concerned about the economic division where technology is concerned. Google has quite an amazing map in which every live search for information is represented by a tiny string of light, and you see a map of the world. So you can see that in this country there are differentials in where the searches are coming from and, continentally speaking, you can see the poverty and the difference. And obviously technology enshrines differences in power that already exist. So I have to say that my dream right now would be our own satellite with radio stations in multiple languages, lots of radios that you crank up—you wouldn’t even need electricity. Something that’s democratic.

It’s not to replace the Internet, but I worry that most African countries, for instance, still require school fees and uniforms that most kids don’t have. It’s not so easy to get to the point of literacy when you can’t use one of these new technologies. And radio doesn’t require literacy. We tell stories. That’s what we’ve been doing for a hundred thousand years. My friend Robin Morgan, who has a new radio show, did a commentary on the media in which she noted that in the Congo right now, because the government can interfere with technological signals, they use drums when they really want to be secret. So I just think we have to look at all media and not feel that we have jettisoned any. We have to use what’s appropriate.

MS: I was going to ask: If you had emerged as a journalist at this moment in time, would you think the thing to do would be to become a blogger? But what I’m hearing you say, is that you think that we need to have a multipronged approach, that there should be no single mode of communication.

GS: Actually, blogging has the same advantage, and in a funny way, more of the same advantage, that we had with Ms. magazine. We did [print] because that was economically available to us. We couldn’t do a television show. We couldn’t do a radio show. We couldn’t do the big things. And we almost couldn’t do a print magazine, but nonetheless it was possible. Now blogging is even more possible because it doesn’t require any kind of investment. It has other problems, however—who you want to reach and how you do that, and so on.

FT: I certainly don’t see our historical moment or myself as remotely post-feminist, but I do feel post-wave. How do you see my generation of feminists and the way we fit in the history of feminist activism?

GS: Any way you want to be seen. It’s not for me to define. I’m here to support you. [At the beginning,] I couldn’t even know my own actions. What disturbs me about age mostly is that people think it’s smarter than youth, which it isn’t. We know different things. So I really enjoy going around to campuses and high schools and so on because I learn at least as much [as I share]. The important thing is that we view it in that way. I don’t think relationships work unless they’re equal, whatever they are, and if we see it that way I think it will help us to mix up our activities a little more.

We older folks are going to meetings where everybody’s over 40 or 50, and young people have no access to this. We should take at least one young person with us. And when young people are going to a meeting or concert or a slam or something that we’re not going to, take one of us. I just think that we have to have more of a mix and, in a funny way, when we talk about diversity, we talk about age least. We don’t do too well on [other types of diversity] sometimes, but at least we are aware of the idea. I’m not so sure about age.

MS: We wanted to make this an intergenerational conversation because my experiences are very much as yours are. The great joy of teaching for me is that I come with a particular set of lenses that are generational that I keep trying to get beyond, but there’s only so much of that that I can do by myself. It’s the challenge and cooperation of younger women, with an assumption of goodwill, that actually keeps me going intellectually and keeps me thinking about what is to be done. And I have also found that I have trouble seeing the present, I mean, being able to interpret it.

GS: You know, I’m so delighted that young women, in general, have a better “shit detector” than I did. Big time! And they also have higher expectations. We were still apologizing and asking daddy. [Today’s attitude] is very, very helpful. I only worry when the expectations are lowered. I worry when students or young women ask me, “How can I combine career and family?” Why ask that question? We have to change social policy, change the way we work so it’s not this insane workday that was meant for guys who never saw their kids and took a check home.

FT: Many of my peers—myself included—felt concerned when we read your essay on transsexualism in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and felt that in some ways it was dismissive of and not entirely empathetic to the experiences of trans people. Obviously that was some time ago and the conversation has changed a lot since then. I was wondering if your ideas on that have changed…and if so how?

 Gloria Steinem with Lauren Mulligan ‘15 and Elizabeth Schrock, campus coordinator, Sexual Assault Violence Prevention
Gloria Steinem with Lauren Mulligan ‘15 and Elizabeth Schrock, campus coordinator, Sexual Assault Violence Prevention

GS: Well, the first and most important thing is that we support each other in whatever it is we want to do. And I think that was pretty clear from the beginning. There was a book called the Transsexual Empire, [which revealed that] doctors were really profiting off this surgery and especially hormonal treatments. Hormonal treatments, in general, whether for fertility or for gender purposes, nobody knows whether they’re dangerous or not. And that’s a worry. I just think our choices need to be informed. Otherwise we just have to support each other.

MS: I’ve thought about your career and one of the things that I find both interesting and impressive is the way that you’ve not only dealt with issues in the United States but have moved into international contexts. Recently you’ve helped to get rape declared a war crime [in the International Criminal Court] and called attention to rape as an instrument of war, and you’ve also addressed sex trafficking as it affects both women and children. I would be interested to know, what are the international issues you find the most important? And then a follow-up question: What do you find are the difficulties as well as the pleasures of working internationally?

GS: I don’t believe in national boundaries very much. We used to be organized along migratory paths, like lace around the globe. It’s only been very recently in human history that people tried to draw lines in the sand. And we now know it doesn’t stop anything. It doesn’t stop polluted air. It doesn’t stop poor people or refugees. So my international global work has taught me that. It’s taught me that for female human beings, reproductive freedom takes many different forms from one country to the next. But it’s all about making it possible for the individual female human being to decide when and whether to have children. In some countries [this oppression] expresses itself as child marriage, in some countries as female genital mutilation, and in some countries, like this one, an entire election that seems to be running against reproductive freedom, against safe and legal abortion, against contraception and even family planning. It’s clearly in backlash. But I think establishing reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right is as fundamental as freedom of speech.

There’s a current book out [Valerie M. Hudson’s Sex and World Peace] that has demonstrated with masses of objective proof what we’ve always known, that the most war-like societies are the ones with the most polarized gender roles—masculine and feminine—and the most peaceful societies have the fewest gender roles. And indeed, in Indian country here—the really old cultures—many of the languages didn’t even have a gender. There were distinct functions, but they were porous. It was communal. But this book proves empirically that the single most important element in whether a society is violent and has organized violence is not wealth, natural resources, democracy, or religion, it’s violence against women. That’s the beginning of the idea that one group has an obligation even to dominate the other. And then along come race, religion, class, and everything else to fit into that groove.

In my own life, I would say that working globally gives me hope. In India, for example, Ela Bhatt of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, the biggest women’s union in the world, invented a form of circular economic cooperation [micro-lending], in which a loan fund passes around. It’s called the “Grameen Bank model,” but she really invented it. We took that and used it here, at the Ms. Foundation, and it was very successful.

Just look at the older cultures, which are more in evidence in many places—say in India, where the groups across the Himalayas, for instance, still reflect some of the old matrilineal systems. It helps me to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way; it’s not always been patriarchal. And here, in Indian country, the idea that two women love each other, two men love each other, is okay. It’s not the majority but it’s also perfectly acceptable and quite honored.

FT: My peers and I have pretty strong ideas about what we think we should be doing. But I’d like to know, from your perspective, if there’s anything that has been a part of the conversation in the past that has dropped off the radar screen that my generation ought to be thinking of.

GS: Yes, changing the work patterns, because I think there’s too much emphasis on fitting into the work patterns as they exist, as in the “Can you have it all?” argument, which I hate, because most people are worried about losing it all, not having it all. Too many of the discussions we are having are putting the burden of change on the person with the least power, instead of putting the burden of change, or the opportunity for change, on the particular place where we work. We can tell each other how much we make so we at least know that we’re getting discriminated against or not. Or just expect that if we are in partnership with men, that they will take care of the children as much as we do. Just expect it. Why not? It’s a gift for them, too. We’re still, I think, asking ourselves to change more than we are asking the world around us to change.

MS: I’d like to circle back to the time when you founded Ms., which we’re celebrating. What about contemporary feminism do you think would have surprised you most back in the early ’70s?

GS: I really thought—this will show you the degree of my naiveté—that if we got the majority of Americans to approve of certain changes, that they would happen. I thought we had much more of a democracy than we really have. We do have a majority on almost every issue that we care about. But what we also have is a backlash by people, many of whom have a lot of cash or positions of power. So even though the polls show what the majority wants and believes, it’s not necessarily reflected in our power structure, in the way power is distributed. I underestimated the degree of backlash we would get.

MS: It all seems so self-evidently right! We thought that the minute consciousness was raised, the world will change.

GS: But the native cultures here, at least the Cherokees, say it takes four generations to heal one act of violence. And I think we need to understand that what we experience in our childhood feels familiar, feels like home, and to travel too distant from that takes awhile. Change is not a straight line—it’s a spiral. There are a lot of people who, through absolutely no fault of theirs, got born into a very hierarchical norm. They really see the family in a hierarchical way and they often see races and classes in a hierarchical way, too. They feel cold and lonely out there on the edge of the universe because things are changing.

People say to me sometimes, why are the same forces against immigration and against abortion and contraception? Because they see that, in about 20 minutes, this country is not going to be a majority European-American country anymore. To me, that feels like a great connection to the world. Hello! We’re the minority in the world anyway, so why not in this country? But it takes time. What is normal to us is what we experienced in our childhood.

MS: I, like you, see the work issue as incredibly important, and one of the things that that means is that you have to work for institutional change.

GS: You can change the institutions by opting out, too, you know. I have never had a “job” in my life. I’ve never had a salary; I’ve always been a freelancer. And I’m always trying to seduce other people into it.