Gloria Steinem and the road to liberation
This American feminist inspired a generation of women. What can her life tell us about today’s struggles for equality?
This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Feminist anger blazes through the pages of Gloria Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Road. Here she is, for example, explaining how she came to decide between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate.
I was angry because it was okay for two generations of Bush sons to inherit power from a political patriarchy even if they spent no time in the White House, but not okay for one Clinton wife to claim experience and inherit power from a husband whose full political partner she had been for twenty years . . . I was angry about all the women candidates who put their political skills on hold to raise children – and all the male candidates who didn’t. I was angry about the human talent that was lost just because it was born into a female body, and the mediocrity that was rewarded because it was born into a male one.
That unassuagable fury has fuelled her approach to life and politics throughout a career devoted to rousing the same rage in countless women and inspiring them to action. And it worked. For those of us responding to the rallying call of women’s liberation in the 1970s, Steinem was a role model, a cheerleader, a voice of passion and reason, the epitome of how women could behave and feel.
But while the last four decades have witnessed what the Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray calls a “genderquake” in the lives of women, how far has that elusive ambition of equal opportunities and equal treatment been achieved? How much remains to be done?
Steinem has always managed to couple her anger with an unflinching optimism, kept aflame, she maintains, by the endless campaigning: her visits to university campuses, political meetings, gatherings of women across the United States and beyond. She’s been inspired by meeting women from every background and culture – groups of native Americans, Afro-Americans, writers and poets, activists and organisers, and any number of fellow travellers who have all along shared her vision.
In My Life on the Road she extols the virtues of travelling as the most basic form of liberation. “The road is messy in the way that real life is messy,” she writes. “It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”
So it’s not surprising that, like so many of us who came of age during that second wave of women’s liberation, Steinem is infuriated by lazy media assumptions that feminism is a middle-class movement of privileged women.
This is why the film Suffragette – written, directed, produced by women with a heavily female crew – goes to great lengths to highlight the participation and sacrifices of working-class women. Maud Watts, the central character played by Carey Mulligan, works in a laundry where she and her fellow-workers endure grinding conditions and daily harassment. The film graphically illustrates what she, like so many, had to face when she joined The Cause: loss of job, of husband, of child; the disgusted sneering of those around her; imprisonment, starvation, the indignity and pain of force-feeding.
Yet that same accusation, of feminism as a movement of the privileged, has arisen once again with the arrival of the latest attempt to put women’s issues at the forefront of the political agenda. The Women’s Equality Party, founded last year by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer, is planning to field candidates in the next election with an uncompromising manifesto: Equal representation; Equal pay and opportunity; Equal parenting and caregiving; Equal media treatment; End violence against women.
No sooner had its intentions been announced than the ridicule began. “I’d go as far as to suggest that ‘feminist political party’ is actually a misnomer,” wrote the journalist Abi Wilkinson in the International Business Times. “The Women’s Equality Party is more accurately described as a middle-class ladies’ campaign group.”
Such a dismissal may be unfair. But Wilkinson also suggests, with rather more reason, that what is missing from that manifesto is any mention of class differences. The party’s claim to be non-partisan, with no division of left or right, ignores the very essence of politics. Women from different parties may well unite on some of these issues, but what about the fundamental differences?
Steinem also advocates a non-partisan approach. But rather than arguing for a separate party, her strategy is to operate within the mainstream: to make sure that feminist aims, most particularly reproductive rights, be prioritised by any woman in politics, and in any party. And this is a difference that has always dogged radical causes. Is it better to effect change by infiltrating the establishment, or to work outside the barriers in order to bring them down?
This dichotomy was highlighted by some of the reactions to Sheryl Sandberg’s advice in her recent book Lean In. Billionaire Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, advocates a series of stratagems for women to wriggle their way to the boardroom: be assertive, be ruthless, be visible.
In her riposte to Sandberg, Lean Out, Dawn Foster dismisses the concept of “corporate feminism” as a trap. Capitalism, she argues, is simply incompatible with feminism since it regards the successes of a few “as a victory for women as a whole, without examining whether it genuinely has any wider effect on society”. “Stripped of any international and political quality,” agrees the academic Nina Power in her introduction to Lean Out, “feminism is about as radical as a diamante phone cover.”
The contrast between these two positions, one typically American, the other staunchly British, was exemplified by the two feminist magazines that appeared at around the same time during the 1970s. Gloria’s own Ms Magazine was glossy, sophisticated and inspirational. In the UK we had Spare Rib: defiant, radical, unglossy and socialist.
What these two approaches had in common, though, were the aims themselves. Those five “Es” blazoned by the Women’s Equality Party are strikingly similar to those of the Women’s Liberation movement: Equal pay for equal work; equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; free 24-hour, community-controlled childcare; legal and financial independence for women; an end to discrimination against lesbians; freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of male violence. And the end of the laws, assumptions and institutions that perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.
The reiteration of these demands may be a stark reminder of why they are still relevant. But it is also a welcome relief for those of us who have seen feminism take on so many different and sometimes baffling guises over the decades. When the phenomenon of “women’s studies” began to enter university curricula, for example, it was at first another victory for liberation: a reclaiming of women’s place in history, politics, science and culture. It was exciting. But once it had become an established discipline, feminism seemed to undergo a sea change. Political demands took second place to theory; legal and social rights were too often sidelined.
“As feminism has changed academia by enlarging what is taught, academia has sometimes changed feminism. Scholarly language may be so theoretical that it obscures the source of feminism in women’s lived experience,” acknowledges Steinem. “One of the saddest things I hear as I travel is ‘I don’t know enough to be a feminist,’ or even ‘I’m not smart enough to be a feminist.’ It breaks my heart.”
It was not just the language that had changed, though. As the notion of “gender studies” took over, concerns with gay rights over women’s rights, race over class, and more recently the campaigns for transgender rights, represent a shift from our original slogan that “the personal is political.” The ratio has changed. All too often identity politics highlight differences rather than unity – a trap to which Steinem herself has a crisp response. “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together . . . It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers.” Another towering figure from the early days of women’s liberation, Germaine Greer, caused controversy recently when she commented that transgender women were not proper women. She attracted tsunamis of righteous abuse, but was speaking on behalf of many feminists who long for a return to the universal quest for equality.
It’s disappointing that some of the more recent recruits to the gender wars seem bent on silencing or banning those with opposing views. Especially as Steinem values so passionately the opportunity to debate, to listen, to be open to other views. Everyone, she believes, should benefit from time on the road – “not seeking out the familiar but staying open to whatever comes along.”
Meanwhile, despite the huge advances in the progress towards equality, we don’t seem to be much nearer to one of those original demands, reiterated by the Women’s Equality Party: an end to male violence and abuse of women. There are still, of course, the most horrific and widespread incidences of this all over the world: honour killings, rape, genital mutilation. But there is also no let-up in the daily – sometimes violent, sometimes milder, sometimes subtly undermining attacks on women. As Greer herself put it in her seminal work The Female Eunuch: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.”
Over her 60 years on the road, Steinem has encountered plenty of male hatred, usually in the form of dismissiveness or ridicule. When she started out as a freelance reporter, for example, she was described as pretty. As she became more vocal she was beautiful. And as the women’s movement took hold, she was assumed to be a lesbian. Her response to such taunts? “Thank you.”
As an enthusiastic campaigner for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1960s, Steinem was shocked that when they were expecting a visit from the man himself, the women were confined to a room upstairs. The explanation was that he was recently divorced so couldn’t be exposed to temptation.
In the early 1970s female students at Harvard Law School told her of the many ways they were marginalised. An eminent professor of administrative law, who had never heard of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, opposed the hiring of female faculty because of the danger of “sexual vibrations”. Professors would joke about the “reasonable man” test by saying there was no such thing as a reasonable woman, and would describe rape as “a very small assault”. Steinem details countless sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton – for wearing a blouse that revealed a sliver of cleavage; for wearing trousers because she must be hiding ugly legs – unlike Sarah Palin who must be a better politician because she wore skirts.
The derision may take different forms these days, but it’s ever present. In the UK a new generation of young women is beginning to wake up to the fact that, despite the many freedoms they enjoy, this kind of experience is routine. That’s what Laura Bates discovered when she started her blog Everyday Sexism, collating women’s daily experiences. She was startled to be inundated with over 50,000 testimonies – now immortalised in her book of the same name. The respondents range from young girls to businesswomen, politicians to mothers and grandmothers.
Indeed, the internet is dangerous territory, agrees Laurie Penny in her spirited feminist polemic Unspeakable Things. And she should know. “There’s nothing wrong with [her that] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garroting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn’t sort out,” declared one of her many critics.
Vitriolic trolling of prominent women, vicious abuse, rape and murder threats are now commonplace online. But, argues Penny, while such vicious sexism is indeed rampant on the Internet, it’s far from a new phenomenon. “The Internet is not the reason for the supposed tide of filth and commercial sexuality we’re drowning in . . . One has to ask when there has ever truly been a time when abuse and violence did not take place, when women were not brutalised, when children were not taken advantage of.”
Blogs like Everyday Sexism, UK Feminista, The F Word and The Vagenda, Penny suggests, signal the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny, as do their accompanying books. “Women and girls and their allies are coming together to expose gender violence online and combat structural sexism and racism offline.”
It may be heart-warming for us old hands to see the next wave of feminists rising up in anger, and a matter of pride that they take for granted so many of the freedoms achieved since we took to the streets 40 years ago. So if we feel despair at the slow progress of some aspects of change, let’s also follow Steinem’s example and be optimistic about all that has been done and all that is still changing.
In her 1996 book The Woman’s Hour: 50 Years of Women in Britain, Jenni Murray pays tribute to the legacy of Steinem and her fellow travellers on the road to liberation. “They paved the way and raised our expectations as women, in all aspects of our lives from education to jobs to relationships, style, looks, family and even growing older. They led a revolution which has changed the laws and the culture by which we now live.”