She’s been at the head of the feminist movement since the 60s. What’s changed? Gloria Steinem talks about Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton – and the brand-new threats to women’s rights

The pope is in town the morning i visit Gloria Steinem, continuing to be a couple of blocks from her on the eastern side of Manhattan, a truth that tickles the 81-year-old activist. She is, needless come say, unimpressed by the pontiff’s free window-dressing. “I’m very glad the he cares around the environment,” she claims drily. “And poverty. And also dogs.” he has additionally relaxed the language roughly abortion, urging “forgiveness”, as opposed come damnation. Steinem, that is the nearest thing we need to a grande dame that feminism – a mantle she abhors – laughs. “Excuse me? are you kidding me? Forgiveness?”

It is not easy to it is in an old hand in a political activity the very nature of which is, to some extent, to interrogate and also reject the presumptions of what come before. Once Steinem come of politics age, in the late 1960s and early 70s, Betty Friedan ruled the roost, urging women to shuck off their residential duties and also grab the economic reins the power, something her feminist progeny praised even while deposing her for the reactionary limit of her interests. (As Bella Abzug claimed at the time, Friedan’s proposals were in danger of replacing “a white, male, middle-class elite through a white, female, middle-class elite”, a fist Steinem echoed: “We wanted to change the system, not imitate it,” she says.)

Since then, we’ve lived with Camille Paglia, Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks and also Alice Walker; Hélène Cixous and the post-structuralists; intersectionality and political lesbianism; the trans civil liberties movement and the burgeoning of identification politics. And Naomi Wolf. Steinem is quiet here, in she basement apartment, dressed all in black and also Hepburn-slight, v a bandaged foot. The apartment is dimly lit and warren-like, a series of rooms causing a conservatory at the back, full of rugs and treasures she has collected on the road, and a three-legged cat the belongs to she niece. She no look 81. Her face is pale and unlined and, going over the feminist stations of the cross however again, she is as eager as if new to the cause. The only apparent readjust is in her fingernails, a much-mocked Steinem trademark, constantly highly manicured. Now they room unpainted.

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Steinem’s appearance has been an unwelcome source of attention over the years, guaranteeing fist from the mainstream media and also irritating other, less high-profile feminists, whose really obscurity family member to Steinem’s underscores the criteria ladies must satisfy to enter and also stay in publicly life. Her an excellent looks have also been provided by idiots together the exemption to the dominion that women revolve to feminism only because they can’t acquire a man.

She is a token without a break-out book to her name, much less scary come the mainstream than plenty of of her peers, and also for that reason one can expect her to be less impressive. She is nothing of the sort. End the food of an hour, with good humour and also anger undimmed, she displayed the importance to fourth-wave feminism the someone with institutional memory, who who has actually spent the best part of a life on the road, lobbying, canvassing and also interviewing a vast selection of women, rather than extrapolating political points native the special, of her very own background.


Marching against pornography in new York in 1979, through Bella Abzug (on right). Photograph: CorbisHer brand-new book, mine Life ~ above The Road, is an account the those travels, a loosened collection of tales from the anti-Vietnam rallies the the 60s to the an initial National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, to an ext personal story such together the memorial, in countryside Oklahoma in 2010, the Wilma Mankiller, the first woman come be chosen chief the the Cherokee nation and Steinem’s great friend. There room some outrageous moments along the way, such as when, together a young journalist, Steinem sat between the writers Gay Talese and Saul Bellow in a taxi, and also told them just how she plan to obtain Bobby Kennedy to provide her great quotes in an interview. Talese leant across her, “as if i were neither talking nor existing – and also said come Bellow, you know how every year there’s a nice girl who comes to brand-new York and also pretends to it is in a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

This country is about to become majority non-white. Therefore the world whose identity depends ~ above race room going crazyMuch the the overtly political stuff Steinem talks about should in ~ this point be old history, a reality underlined by her dedication the the publication to one obscure London physician called Dr john Sharpe who, in 1957, performed she abortion at a time when it to be still illegal. Sharpe told her: “You need to promise me 2 things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, friend will perform what you desire to carry out with her life.” Steinem was 22 and also credits Sharpe’s act of charity for having permitted her life. The truth that, virtually 60 years later, conference hearings space still concentrated on a woman’s appropriate to access not only abortion yet contraception would, one imagines, be deep depressing come Steinem. No, she says. To think that it would ever before have been otherwise is naive. Strides might be make in other locations – same-sex marriage, same pay and also opportunity – yet abortion will certainly be the last concern to fall.

“It took us a if to number out,” Steinem says, “but patriarchy – or whatever you desire to contact it, the solution that speak there’s masculine and also feminine and other bullshit – is about controlling reproduction. Every business economics course ought to start not through production however with reproduction. It is way more important.”

She has actually a fantasy that “the pope and the head the every patriarchal, fundamentalist, orthodox religion” must be hauled right into the dock for causing an international warming. “Because they are forcing girl – v child marital relationship – to have children. Having children too young is the biggest cause of adolescent death in the world. The a health issue for us. So the is the an essential political question. And also it i do not care even an ext political as soon as there’s racism and also caste or class, since the advertise to preserve way you have actually to manage who has youngsters with whom, and also how many. And this nation right currently is walk bonkers due to the fact that it’s around to become bulk non-white. For this reason the human being whose identity depends ~ above race room going crazy.”

Steinem sees racism in ~ the love of the evangelical strike on household planning, a political revolt posing as a spiritual one that has offered rise to, amongst other things, the Quiverfull movement, popular among some fundamentalist Christians, “devoted to encouraging, forcing white females to have a the majority of children”. The data on abortion, meanwhile, renders a josh of the entire rightwing project. “The fact of the issue is one in three American ladies was having an abortion as soon as it was illegal; and one in 3 is having an abortion now.” The difference being, of course, that women aren’t dying together a an outcome of the now. Steinem says, together she must have actually said countless times over the last 40 years and with the amusement that permits her to walk on, “If men can get pregnant, abortion would certainly be a sacrament.”

A life specialized to a single political movement offers rise to particular habits the thought. Steinem sees whatever through the filter of what it way for women, minorities and also society’s the very least empowered, category that regularly overlap. Top top a current visit come Google HQ, she noticed discrepancies in accessibility to technology, as stood for by the Google map that reflects searches going increase in actual time. “You deserve to see the geographical bias. Even in this country, exactly how much much more there is on the coasts. An innovation can be divisive; it counts who controls it.” The web is great, she says, except that “women space the huge bulk of illiterates in the world, and also are way less likely to have power or any ability to use the net in countryside areas.”


Receiving the presidential medal of liberty from Barack Obama in 2013. Photograph: Getty ImagesIt need to be exhausting, this focus, and also one wonders what that is that, in ~ a marginalised group, differentiates in between someone sympathetic come the cause and someone who devotes your life to it. Steinem has constantly taken national politics personally. Nora Ephron, in she 1972 item for Esquire ~ above the famous meeting that the national Women’s politics Caucus, in ~ which Steinem’s star rose and Friedan was pushed aside, looked on in amazement at one suggest as Steinem burst right into tears of frustration. “They i will not ~ take us seriously,” she wept, of the male political establishment. “We’re just talking wombs.” to which Ephron remarked, “I have actually never cried over anything remotely politics in mine life, and also I honestly have actually no idea what to say.”

The most obvious differential is disadvantage, and Steinem had some of that: an itinerant childhood through a father who get-rich-quick schemes always turned to dust, and also a mother who, after giving up a promising career in journalism to be a wife and also mother, to be profoundly depressed. If her mommy was political, Leo Steinem, as much as she knows, never ever once voted. Or payment taxes.

Nonetheless, it is her father with whom Steinem determined more, she says. The may have actually dragged her roughly the country chasing harebrained schemes, yet he was likewise a charming showboater whose notepaper bore the legend: “It’s Steinemite!” He had actually a sense of flexibility that characterized her outlook and, ultimately, encouraged her activism. “There is the difference between people who look at the people as basically friendly and also those who look at it as basically unfriendly,” she says. Her father was the former. “That struck home with me. You have to imagine the something could be, prior to you begin to work for it.”

Beyond that, she says, who knows what it is that drives life-long campaigners? “We’d gain a bunch that activists together and we’d either discover a common strain, or not. However it’s addictive. Girlfriend think, if we just did this and also that, maybe that would change! occasionally it’s not good; ns think of it together my Ms deal with It complex.”

Steinem’s early campaign interests were also a function of the times. After graduating from smith college, Massachusetts, in the mid-50s, she spent a pair of years studying in India, climate kicked about in new York for a few years together a freelance journalist, prior to joining the polite rights and also anti-Vietnam movements. Here, “even in those teams that lock loved”, Steinem realised, women “were quiet in the same second position”.

Glancing at today’s periodically conflict-ridden feminist landscape, the is useful to remember ’twas ever thus. Once Steinem co-founded Ms newspaper in 1972, faultlines along just how much emphasis to put on abortion, how much come capitulate to the political establishment, and also how to negotiate race and class were as pronounced as they are now. No concern was more divisive than the question of who obtained to speak because that the movement. The method in i m sorry feminist leaders were and are selected, Steinem says, is choose “a snake eating its very own tail”: tendency media predisposition towards white, middle-class females promotes them as “pioneers that feminism”, if the basic is much more diverse.

“In the very first issues of Ms, we commissioned a poll of women’s opinions top top women’s issues. The an outcome was about 60% of afri American women supported the movement, and only about 30% of white women. It’s constantly been disproportionate.”

Sheryl Sandberg needs to stop gift number 2 to some asshole. First it was Larry Summers, then note ZuckerbergHer current support of Sheryl Sandberg, who feminist hit skinny In was to some degree legitimised through Steinem’s endorsement, has actually proved irritating to those commentators because that whom Sandberg’s wealth and privilege sit awkwardly within any social justice movement. Steinem, that has constantly been a pragmatist, look at this as simply another type of internalised misogyny. “Only in females is success perceived as a barrier to offering advice,” she has actually said. Knocking Sandberg for she shallow expertise of feminism fails to account for the reality that she is proactively pitching to women, and men, who don’t already identify together feminists. “I think the book is good because she was learning at the exact same time,” she claims now.

If Steinem has a criticism the Sandberg, it is, rather surprisingly, the she has not to be ambitious enough. “She has to reduced this out, ns think – do one an effective guy watch good. Because she to be working first for Larry Summers, then president the Harvard, the one who stated girls don’t execute science. That nurtured her in the classroom, realised how smart she was, then he checked out Washington and she to be his assistant. And also in a way, with Zuckerberg, the the same thing. Ns mean, she needs to stop gift number two to part asshole.”


Holding the January 1978 covering of ms magazine external the White House. Photograph: APSteinem has actually been about long enough to know that human being on the very same side can disagree without the people ending. Likewise that good people can be idiots. The week before we met, Susan Brownmiller, an old comrade indigenous Ms, made part intemperate remarks about rape in a new York magazine interview (“There room predators the end there, and also all women have to take unique precautions. Lock think they can drink as much as men, i m sorry is crazy since they can’t drink as lot as men.… I uncover the position ‘Don’t reference us, we’re survivors’ to be appalling”) that led to a lot of upset. Steinem rolls her eyes. “Susan Brownmiller is really clever and good at being negative. But she no know just how to be positive.”

Steinem once sent Brownmiller come cover a residential violence situation in i beg your pardon a male beat his wife and also killed your baby. She filed a item for Ms that blamed the mother. “Not also the legitimate system involved this conclusion! therefore she blames the victim, which ns understand, since I think we have all done the in our lives, as a way of saying, if I simply don’t carry out this one point that this woman did, then it won’t occur to me.”

A much more serious issue than even if it is Brownmiller or Sandberg espouse the ideal kind that feminism has been the current flap over Amnesty International’s poll to decriminalise prostitution, which saw Hollywood actors sign a windy letter calling on elegance to rethink that position; the charity’s pendant accused castle of being “whorephobic”. The thing nobody discussed in all this, Steinem says, is the fallibility of elegance itself. She’s referring to the charity’s reluctance to campaign against female genital mutilation till the mid-90s, top top the grounds the it was focusing on abuses by governments, not individuals. “It doesn’t mean, that course, that they don’t execute wonderful work. Yet they really have behaved usually as if what wake up to guys is political, and also what wake up to females is cultural.”

Somewhere, ns sure, yes a happy contact girl who financing her PhD. But it’s no the normAmnesty suggests that “full decriminalisation of all facets of consensual sex work” is the best way to defend sex workers from abuse, yet Steinem takes issue with the word “consensual”. She sighs. “I mean, somewhere, ns sure, yes a happy speak to girl who financing she PhD. However it’s no the norm. In this country, the average period of entry into prostitution is 12. So once she reaches 18, it does not mean she suddenly has actually a choice.”

Steinem favours the “Nordic model”, wherein prostitute aren’t prosecuted but their clients are, which elegance maintains still exposes them to unnecessary risk. Steinem says, “The Nordic design guarantees better treatment that men, women and children in prostitution. If friend decriminalise everybody, it is it. And, that course, you’ve decriminalised the pimps and traffickers. If you monitor the Nordic model, you room obligated to sell services and options to the people who space prostituted. You nothing arrest them.”

Discussions around prostitution boil down to this: why is the worse than any type of other crappy, exploitative job at the fag finish of runaway capitalism? Because, Steinem says, “body intrusion is a various level the trauma than also being to win up. I gain letters from guys in prison who have actually been raped and also suddenly understand. To have your body attacked by strangers – the trauma is profound.”

Many year ago, Steinem went to Nevada, “the one ar where prostitution is legal. It’s utterly clear,” she says. “Legality provides it worse. If the legal, governments start to force you to perform it. In Nevada, the state government made decision they can have a win-win situation if they obtained women turn off welfare and also into prostitution. That remained in the 70s, and also the national Welfare legal rights Organisation, and me, and Flo Kennedy, marched with the streets outside brothels. We just made them prevent it by enormous national publicity.”

We room both silent for a moment. “If that a task like any type of other…” she says, and trails off. Well, quite.

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Steinem likewise flew to Europe, come watch some of the education sessions the clients, under the Nordic model, are required to resolve understand what that is castle participating in: a an international sex profession wherein they can not be certain the person they’ve purchase sex v is over there willingly. “Those sessions room amazing. Ns remember speak to one guy, ‘Didn’t girlfriend wonder why she to be crying?’ he said, ‘Well, yes. However I’d currently paid.’”

Although she didn’t marry till the age of 66, Gloria Steinem has had actually some high-profile relationship over the years, with director Mike Nichols and also publishing magnate Mort Zuckerman, among others. In 2000, she married David Bale, a businessman and environmentalist, and father that the gibbs Christian Bale. They loved each other and also wanted to it is in together, she has actually said, yet married only since his visa was about to operation out. Still, she is glad the they go it. Wilma Mankiller offered them a Cherokee ceremony and they were with each other for 3 years, till Bale passed away of lymphoma. It to be cruel, Steinem said, however for that brief time, oh, exactly how they enriched each other’s lives.