THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“When unique voices are united in a common cause, they make history.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, May 2022 and MAKERS, February 2013
GS: My name is Gloria Steinem. I was born on March 25th, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio. I grew up as a Midwesterner, either in Michigan or Ohio, until I was a junior in high school when I went to live with my sister in Washington, DC. I went to a public high school in DC for a year. Then I went to Smith College, where my sister also had gone. After Smith, I went to live in India for two years.
MJC: Please state a little bit of your history at the time and how your life led you to the women’s movement.
GS: I believe because both of my grandmothers, even though one was Jewish and one was Protestant, had been supportive of equality and suffrage. It was present, but it seemed to be in the past in some sense, because [it was] my grandmother’s experience. I think she had once testified in Congress for the vote, but it didn’t seem in the present until after I graduated from Smith. As I said, I went to live in India for two years.
In India, the independence movement and the women’s movement were very much the same thing. In fact, the women’s movement had preceded the Gandhian movement. As Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who was a great pioneering Indian feminist, always said about Gandhi, “Well, my dear, we taught him everything he knew.” But it was, obviously, very much one independence movement, you might say.
MJC: India for two years, and then back to the United States?
GS: Yes. I was trying to get a job with Eric Sevareid. I was trying to get a news job, which I continued to do until New York magazine started, which I helped to start with Clay Felker and many others. Then out of that, we learned how to start a magazine and started Ms. magazine.
MJC: Drop back a little bit, Gloria, and talk about the feminist organizations that would have influenced you in that same period or that you were part of founding.
GS: Well, as I was saying, it was the feminist organizations in India that first influenced me, because they had been so much part of the independence movement. I had not experienced women organizing as women in this country; my first experience of that was in India. From that, it was more about journalism, because though I had helped to start New York magazine with Clay Felker, and I had a column myself in New York, I didn’t really see a movement until as a writer, as a columnist.
I went to cover an abortion hearing held in a church basement in downtown New York. It really was transforming for me, because I had never before heard women standing up and speaking in public about something that was not acceptable and indeed, often illegal. It started my questioning. Even then, something like one in three of us had needed an abortion at some time in our life. Why was it criminal, illegal, and dangerous?
I also had had an abortion, but in London, while I was waiting for my visa to India. So, it was my experience, too. It was quasi-illegal, even in London, because it required the signatures of two doctors before you could have a procedure legally. Just listening to that really was the beginning of my questioning. Why is it illegal and dangerous? Is it not a requisite of democracy that we at least have decision-making power over our own bodies? Which women did not have.
Going to that hearing, writing about it in my column for New York magazine and getting an overwhelming response, more than anything I had written. Also, I had come to know activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who ran a childcare center on the Upper West Side; and Florynce Kennedy, who was a lawyer and effective, dramatic, amazing feminist. I turned to them because obviously, they were already living a feminist life.
It was because of writing that column, which meant I got invitations to speak, which terrified me because I had become a writer so I didn’t have to talk. Knowing Flo, I essentially said to Flo, “Can you help me? What should I do? I feel like I have to do something. Somebody should respond to these letters.” That was how she and I began slowly to respond and to go out to speak together. I don’t think I could have done it without Flo, because as I was saying, you become a writer so you don’t have to talk. But because Flo was fearless, we began to speak together. Then we began to get invitations from other campuses. That was really an unexpected beginning for me.
MJC: That was probably the early ’70s, late ’60s?
GS: Yes, right.
MJC: You were part of the founding of NARAL and some other organizations, is that correct?
GS: Yes, I was a supporter. I wasn’t responsible for NARAL really.
MJC: Can you describe the period of how much blossoming there was of activity? Did that make an impression on you?
GS: Yes. Most of us had been part of the peace movement against the war in Vietnam and/or the civil rights movement or both. Yet even within those admirable, courageous, necessary movements, women were not necessarily equal. They were doing organizing work, but they weren’t necessarily in the leadership. I remember going to one anti-Vietnam rally in Washington, which became famous. Maybe you remember this too, because there was a woman speaker and some of the veterans or the anti-Vietnam young men were yelling, “Take her off and fuck her. Take her off and fuck her.” It was shocking. That and many other indications said, “These are admirable, important movements, but we need to have a woman’s movement within them.”
MJC: Right. Exactly. That’s how it happened. What do you think are the greatest achievements of the women’s movement?
GS: I think the greatest fundamental achievement of the women’s movement is to take away adjectives, to say we are each one a unique human being and a citizen with all the rights attendant upon citizenship. Whether we are black or Puerto Rican or female or transgender or whatever group we also belong to, we must be full citizens.
Of course, all we had to do was look at Congress to see that we were not. I campaigned for Shirley Chisholm when she was first running in Brooklyn. I don’t think I knew Shirley Chisholm, I just admired her. I was out there giving out literature or something. And then in 1972, Flo Kennedy and I ran as her delegates because she had declared for the presidency for symbolic but crucial reasons. So we ran as delegates, pledged to her in the 14 states in which she was on the ballot. She was only on the ballot in 14 states. But of course, we lost, naturally. But that was, in my life, the beginning of the feminist movement becoming electoral.
MJC: Other areas where you think there’s been accomplishments, obviously, Roe vs. Wade?
GS: For women, of course, since we happen to have wombs, reproductive rights, reproductive freedom is absolutely crucial. That was the most visceral issue, I would say. And second to that was the electoral issue and being able to run for office and have women candidates. For instance, Eleanor Holmes Norton had a city position here before she was in Congress, and so she was a great organizer.
We also collectively started the Women’s Action Alliance, which was a way of responding to people’s desire for information. What were the feminist groups in their area, or how could they join a national group on whatever issues they were concerned with? The need for it did not survive because, obviously, it was about an earlier stage of the movement, but it was important for today.
MJC: What goals would you describe as not yet realized?
GS: Since we uniquely have wombs and the control of women is centered around that, we can see that in Texas, for instance. Not in all states, New York State has pretty much established the woman’s right to make reproductive decisions. But in some states, it is still very contentious.
MJC: Some of the same fights might have to be fought by the next generation.
GS: Yes. I think reproductive freedom is also an object of opposition now among some very right-wing or racist groups because they seem very aware of the fact that the first generation of babies who are majority babies of color has already been born. So clearly, the country is on the cusp of becoming a majority people of color country, which seems to me a good thing. We’ll probably have better relationships with other countries besides European countries. Better food, I don’t know. There are people, some women, too, whose identity rests on not being a person of color, let’s put it that way, on being a white person, whatever that means. We are in transition.
MJC: What suggestions do you have for the kind of power that needs to be built on our side to overcome these obstacles?
GS: It always seemed to me that change is like a tree. It doesn’t grow from the top down; it grows from the bottom up. What we do in our communities, on our school boards, how we name ourselves, do we have our own identity as well as any chosen identity through marriage or through family or through employment. Equal doesn’t mean the same to me. It means the right to our individual uniqueness.
It’s not about imitating men or the current hierarchy necessarily, unless one wishes to do that, but it’s about the ability to make choices, not imitate, be our own unique selves. After all, we’re born this unique miracle when we show up in the world. Each is a miracle that could never have happened before in exactly the same way and could never happen again in exactly the same way. So, it’s the right to express that and to not experience coercion or violence against that. The Native American culture is, to the extent that I know anything about them, quite an example of this treasury of uniqueness of each person.
MJC: Any suggestions about how to incorporate some of those ideas into our majority culture?
GS: I think there are some basic suggestions. For instance, if we’re sitting in a group making decisions that affect people across gender or racial or class lines, then the group making the decision ought to look like the group they’re making decisions for.
MJC: And that could be true in a number of sectors, including electoral, right?
GS: Yes. It’s just in organizations. It took us as a women’s movement a while to come together. For instance, the national conference in Houston, which was and might still be the only representative group by state, by race, by ethnicity. It was truly a remarkable meeting, thanks to Patsy Mink and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, who spearheaded it.
MJC: I was there. I think you might be right. It is the only one of its kind that I can think of right now. I was struck. There was a book written about the conference, and there was an anniversary meeting in Houston for anybody who wanted to come. I learned maybe for the second time, at that time, that Phyllis Schlafly had organized 10,000 people across town.
GS: Yes, she had a counter conference.
MJC: I think every action has a reaction.
GS: Yes, but I think we can take some comfort in the fact that the meeting across town was not representative of the country, to put it mildly.
MJC: And the fact is the right-wing movement, and the anti-feminist movement are still not very representative. So perhaps, could you comment on us trying to build on our strength of having a broad section of Americans fighting on our side?
GS: Yes. We need to preserve the rights of everybody to object and to demonstrate including the anti-feminist groups, of course. Often, they are grounded in patriarchal religion or patriarchal view of the family. Certainly, Phyllis Schlafly was someone whose view of life was founded in that way. There’s a certain irony to the fact that she was out there as a leader talking about how women shouldn’t be leaders. But nonetheless, it was her right to do that. I did not debate her, but other feminists did.
MJC: Do you have thoughts about how we can convert what we think is our pro-choice majority and the anger around the potential loss of Roe into some electoral victories? Any thoughts on that?
GS: First, it’s voting. I believe we still have this democracy in this country, but still has the lowest turnout rate of any democracy in the world. Some of that is because voting is made more difficult than it needs to be. That we need to be able to vote regardless of the hours we work or to vote by mail or to take lessons from other democracies and make it easier to vote. I think also we need to pay more attention to state legislatures.
We’re way more likely to look at Congress than we are at our own state legislatures. That is a big part of the reason that, for instance, the Equal Rights Amendment has been going for 50 years that I know of and that it took a while to get the requisite number of states. But also, it took a while because there were economic interests against it. Perhaps not all, but a lot of the insurance industry was concerned about being unable, at the state level, to make categories by gender which had a financial cost to it.
MJC: As you think about your life, are there ways in which you would like to be remembered?
GS: That’s a tough question, isn’t it? I guess I would just like to be remembered as somebody who tried to leave the world a little more compassionate than it was when I showed up.
MJC: As a feminist, how are you looking at the present time in terms of our potential to advance our causes, and are you optimistic about the future?
GS: I’m always somewhat optimistic because I think optimism is a form of planning. If we’re pessimistic, we’ve defeated ourselves before we even begin. As an organizer, as we both are, you look for opportunities to move forward whatever it may be, whether it’s women as physicians or women as voters or making sure that the women we’re talking about look like the country and not just like one group of women. What is sometimes missed is that difference is a reward. Because we don’t learn from sameness, we learn from differences.
MJC: When you talk to the young, what do you tell them to do?
GS: I try not to tell them what to do. I try to say, what do you want to do and how can I help you?
MJC: Do you have a sense of what their purposes are, that they’re moving forward that we can assist with?
GS: I’ve noticed that there is too little knowledge of history which might give them more support if they understood that change doesn’t flow from Congress all the time, that it flows from social justice movements. I think that is understood more often because of race and ethnicity perhaps, than because of gender, but I could be wrong about that. Because there’s still an idea, for instance during COVID, that women were responsible for the family.
One of the opportunities that COVID presented was that men were at home or more likely to be at home, and to see the intensity and the satisfaction of raising children, because we really are unlikely to have a deep democracy until we have families that are democratic. So that fathers raise children as much as mothers do, and daughters have the same opportunities and the same freedoms as sons and vice versa.
MJC: What do you consider your major accomplishments? There’s so many, Gloria.
GS: Because I’m a writer and because I’m a guilty writer because I’m not writing enough, I tend to focus on writing. But I have no idea whether that will have been a more important contribution than organizing or fundraising. I just don’t know, but I think we just have to do the best we can day by day. There’s one thing that we value too little, and that’s laughter, because I think it’s fair to say that laughter is the only free emotion. You can make someone afraid, obviously. You can even make someone feel they’re in love if they’re dependent and vulnerable for long enough, but you can’t make someone laugh if they don’t want to.
In Cherokee, and I guess other Native American cultures, there is a spirit of laughter, who is neither male nor female. The saying is that laughter breaks into the unknown. If you cannot laugh, you cannot pray. I think that’s something good to contemplate. Also, if you are someplace including churches and temples where you’re not allowed to laugh, I would think twice about that place because it’s not allowing freedom.
MJC: What do you see for our future in the next year or two?
GS: It’s hard to know where to focus because obviously the former Soviet Union is changing profoundly and the democratization of any place including Ukraine is crucial for everyone. It would probably be helpful if the United Nations had more ability to bring people together in practical ways across national boundaries. It also would be helpful if countries that can’t afford medical care, especially now with COVID had more ways of accessing [it]. There’s too much imbalance in terms of health, food, medical ability between poor countries and rich countries.
The spaceship Earth does not by itself have boundaries. Boundaries are invented. I think the women’s movement does and movements do think across boundaries and make connections with women’s groups. My friend from the 1950’s, Dave Keejane from India just came and stayed with me, and we are keeping our individual connections. I’m still in touch with Ruchira Gupta, who’s also from India, who lives here.
The United States and India are the two biggest and most diverse democracies in the world, so we have a lot in common. Fortunately, we got rid of Trump, but they still have Modi. But to think of the world as without boundaries, to travel if we can afford to do that, for organizations to sponsor and pay for women to travel across boundaries and organize across boundaries.
The predominant reaction to the women’s movement was ridicule. It took us a long time to be taken seriously enough to be opposed.
When it came to assignments as a freelance writer, I was assigned things about fashion, and food, and makeup, and babies, or the low point of my life, textured stockings. When I delivered the articles to my editor at The Sunday Times Magazine, he generally gave me a choice: either I could go to a hotel room with him in the afternoon or mail his letters on the way out. Needless to say, I mailed the letters, but I just assumed you had to put up with this.
I don’t think I understood the need for a movement until I went to cover an abortion hearing. I had had an abortion when I first graduated from college and had never told anyone.
I listened to women testify about all that they had to go through – the injury, the danger, the infection, the sexual humiliation – to get an illegal abortion. I began to understand that my experience was not just mine, but an almost universal female experience, and that meant that only if you got together with other women was it going to be affected in any way.
I only want to remind you tonight that what we are talking about is a revolution and not a reform.
Wherever we went there would be these huge crowds, and people would stay for hours afterwards and talk and form groups. Because women were so relieved to hear someone describing what actually happened to them that it was just like wildfire. It grew into an idea for a magazine.
We were terrified we were going to embarrass the movement by creating something that wasn’t successful. But it was supposed to be on the newsstands for a couple of months, and it was just a little over a week and it sold out. It just walked off the newsstands, we were shocked. It was heady and exciting and naive. Because we thought these injustices are so great, surely if we just explain them to people, they will want to fix them.
One great tribute to the success of the women’s movement is the degree of the backlash against it.
In my heart, I think the only alternative to being a feminist is being a masochist.
Before this wave of feminism came along, the majority of people probably thought that male and female roles were due to biology, or nature, or God, or Freud, or something that you couldn’t change. Now the majority of people in this country know that if there is inequality, it’s wrong, it’s unjust, that we’re all human beings, and the point is our individual talents. That’s a huge change. Huge, huge change.