Q&A

photo collage of feminist, author and activist Gloria Steinem 

Gloria has spoken with hundreds of interviewers, but she hears many questions time and time again. Below, she answers them while talking to her friend Marianne Schnall. For an interview conducted in 2007 by Meenakshi Mukherjee and Ira Pande, click here.

Interview by Marianne Schnall

MS: As one of the original founders of the modern women’s movement, what do you think about where we are now on the road to equality? Would you have expected us to be farther along than we are all these years later?

GS: If I’d been trying to imagine this time 30 or 35 years ago, I think I would have been surprised that we have majority support on pretty much all of the issues now. In the beginning, we were so subject to ridicule -- even to the charge that we were going against nature -- that to see majorities in public opinion polls now would have been a big surprise. However, given that, I would have been surprised that we have such a disastrous administration with such anti-women and war-loving policies. I guess 35 years ago, I thought we had more of a democracy than we actually do. Majority support doesn’t help unless the majority is active and votes – but the opposition minority votes a much greater proportion, so we often lose by a narrow margin.

MS: What do you think are the biggest challenges that women face today?

GS: Whatever each individual woman is facing; only she knows her biggest challenge. However, if we add up the problems that affect the biggest numbers of women, then issues having to do with physical safety and reproduction are still the biggest. Female bodies are still the battleground, whether that means restricting freedom, birth control and safe abortion in order to turn them into factories, or abandoning female infants because females are less valuable for everything other than reproduction. If you add up all the forms of gynocide, from female infanticide and genital mutilation to so-called honor crimes, sex trafficking, and domestic abuse, everything, we lose about 6 million humans every year just because they were born female. That’s a holocaust every year. It makes sense that reproductive freedom is still the biggest issue – because the reason females got in this jam in the first place was because the patriarchal state or religion or family wanted to control reproduction -- to decide how many workers, how many children the nation needs, and who owned them in systems of legitimacy -- or even outright slavery. The International Labor Organization says there are about 12 million people living in literal slavery around the world, and 80 percent of them are women and girls.

MS: I have heard a lot of references lately – one in a book a friend wrote, and another while my daughter was doing a school report on the role of women in Medieval society – that the origins of patriarchy may have begun in primitive cultures when men realized that women gave birth and controlled reproduction - that men’s domination over women seemed to stem from an insecurity and almost a fear of women’s reproductive power. Do you think that is true?

GS: I used to agree with that, but now that I know more about original cultures, I think that people have always understood reproduction; it’s just that the knowledge of contraception began to be punished and suppressed in order to produce more children as property, labor, armies. For instance, among the so-called Bushpeople in the Kalahari in Africa -- the ancestors of us all, the oldest, longest-running, most successful culture on Earth – women had two or three children two or three years apart, just as they did on this continent in the 500 or so cultures that were here before Europeans showed up. Women well understood how to restrict birth through timing of sexual intercourse, herbs and abortifacients. I suspect the focus on men’s control of women as the means of reproduction came much later, in the last five percent or so of human history, with the idea of children as property and labor. One needed to have as many as possible, never mind about women’s health or mobility or brainpower. Women’s freedom was restricted in order to make sure of the paternity and ownership of children.

MS: How has modern medicine affected women and culture today – between birth control and abortion, having children later in life, in vitro fertilization, etc?

GS: It’s not so much the technology itself as it is who controls it. Anything can be used for or against the welfare of women -- or the welfare of anyone -- depending on who controls it. The women in the Kalahari take you out into the desert with their digging sticks and show you the herbs they use for contraception, for abortifacients, or to render themselves sterile when they’ve had enough children -- not to mention the herbs that work for headaches, and for migraine headaches. They have such sophisticated knowledge of the pharmacological use of plants that the big drug companies are still trying to steal their secrets. The knowledge has been there, but later it was suppressed by patriarchal systems. Look at the three centuries of murdering something like six million witches because they practiced medicine for women – they understood contraception and they performed abortions.

The same is true now. If technology and medicine are used by women to have children or not to have children or to have healthier children – that’s one thing. But if it’s used to say, ‘You’re not a real woman unless you have a child, therefore take all these dangerous hormones and have one at 54,” then it’s another story.

MS: I did a recent interview with Jane Fonda, also one of the co-founders of the Women’s Media Center and GreenStone Media, and in regards to talking about what women want from the media, Jane quoted you as saying, “Women want less heat and more light.” What did you mean by that?

GS: The premise of most media is that only conflict is newsworthy. And that’s just not true. I think for a lot of men, too -- certainly for most women -- there’s enough real conflict without manufacturing it. The media formula is always to have a pro and con, to say there are two sides to any issue, when in fact there may be ten sides. Even in Japan, they often have three people, rather than two, when discussing an issue. We all assume because it’s the culture we’re brought up in, that there have to be two sides fighting. When we were doing research and surveys for GreenStone, I would say to women, “Well, how would you feel about having three?’ and even that was like a glass of water in the desert! [laughs] Why are solutions not just as newsworthy as problems? The notion that hostility is necessary all the time to create interest and news is not going to help us come to agreements and solve the huge problems we have.

I just think that culturally, women – we’re all human beings – but at least we don’t have our masculinity to prove [laughs]. GreenStone programming is about information, humor, and community. You can tell by our slogans: “A lecture-free zone.” “Respect spoken here.” And “We’re as edgy as you can get with the kids in the car!”

MS: People turn on the news these days and are barraged by all the “bad news” in the world, feeling detached from what’s happening in the world, as if it is all a bad movie. How can the media help people cope and contribute to being a part of the solution to the world’s problems? What changes would you like to see in the media overall?

GS: They could start by reporting on solutions and possible solutions. We all know as we travel around this country or around the world that there are huge problems, and also people doing amazing things on the ground -- but those people rarely get reported. Our media are so into conflict that they sometimes say to me, “Bring an ‘anti’ with you.” [laughs] So why not make solutions as newsworthy as problems, and treat conversation about possibilities as interesting? As it is, reporters immediately push their interviewees into the most extreme version by saying in a shocked tone, ‘Well, are you saying that …” [laughs] They’re trying to make people be as hostile and opposed to each other as possible because they think only conflict is news.

MS: Speaking of women’s media, recently I had the opportunity to leaf through several women’s magazines. I couldn’t believe how much focus there was on beauty and on a woman’s looks, and then of course half-way through it I found myself saying to myself, “I need that under-eye concealer” or “Maybe I should try that diet tip to lose those five pounds.” The media blames women for supporting this type of content by buying these magazines, yet feminists say the media and society keep reinforcing the appetite for it by the images they constantly inundate us with – how can we ever break out of this cycle?

GS: First, we can understand that the reason women’s magazines look the way they look is much less about readers than it is about advertisers. Advertisers simply won’t place ads in women’s magazines unless you write about their products. Other magazines may be punished if they write negatively about some product area, but only women’s magazines have to write positively or they don’t get the ads in the first place. A lot that women liked very much has gone out of women’s magazines – fiction and a lot of articles that aren’t just about products. Only Oprah has enough power to put in a few non-product articles about self-improvement you can’t buy, and even those seem to avoid criticizing companies that, say, damage the environment. Other women’s magazine editors have to sneak in a couple pages here and there about something that isn’t about a product. Really, they’re catalogues, not magazines, and should be given away free. They’re much cheaper because of advertising, but I think we would be better off if we paid for the magazines – just as we do for books -- and they had what we care about in them.

MS: I know you speak a lot on college campuses. What is the most important message that you hope to instill in young girls?

GS: That each of them is already a unique and valuable person when she’s born; every human being is. Inside each of us is a unique person resulting from millennia of environment and heredity combined in a way that could never happen again and could never have happened before. We aren’t blank slates, but we are also communal creatures who are born before our brains are fully developed, so we’re very sensitive to our environment. The question is: How to find the support and the circumstances that allow you to express what’s inside you?

For the complete interview, please visit www.feminist.com