Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gloria Steinem Returns to Oberlin College

Photo by Kate Noftsinger, March 2, 2011, Oberlin College

There’s something so inspiring about the dedicated group of women depicted in Gloria Steinem’s “Life Between the Lines.”  When reading my favorite selection from Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, I swell at the thought of Steinem, Flo Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Margaret Sloan touring America in those radical times.
Longing for a memory that isn’t mine, it saddens me to think the third wave has never known a spectacle quite like this. 
Met with applause and adversity, these brave women traveled from city to city, using their commanding rhetoric and united front to make the world a better place. 
I always believed Gloria Steinem possessed the ability to create change with just her words.  And after hearing her speak at Oberlin College earlier this month, I know it’s true.
Steinem visited that very campus in Ohio with Margaret Sloan 39 years ago, where they explained to a rather “open-minded” student body that race and sex could not be separated.  But not every school was ready to discuss the intersectionality of oppression in 1972.
“Lots of campuses didn’t invite us at all.   And we were very aware of that.” Steinem said.
Arguably the most recognizable name feminism, many young women were dying to know where their aviator-wearing idol found the spark that ignited a wildfire. 
Personally, I would begin by explaining that Steinem was involved in multiple campaigns, pushing alongside Cesar Chavez for workers’ rights.  Or anything of interest, really.  And it wasn’t until she attended a Red Stockings abortion speak-out that she began to focus on gender. 
Given these experiences, it seems ironic the current events overshadowing her second Oberlin appearance were nationwide protests supporting unions and Planned Parenthood—issues the speaker cared deeply about and insisted were intrinsically connected. 
Steinem made a career of crafting sentences that made sense.  Authoring several books and endless articles, she’s best known for her expose in Show magazine, revealing the rather unglamorous life of a Playboy Bunny. 
Following the journalist and her chronological bylines in The New York Times, topics slide from fashion and patterned tights to feminism and a more egalitarian society.  “Ms. Steinem” went on to launch Ms. Magazine and co-found the Women’s Media Center.
But when recently asked how she got started all those years ago, Steinem decided it really began with the word ‘no.’
“It was a series of saying no to things.  Saying no, I don’t want to get married just now.  Later—I’ll do that later.  And that lasted a long time until the women’s movement came along in my life and let me know not everyone had to live the same way.”
Often criticized for being a media favorite, Steinem seemed particularly sensitive to adoring fans, endless praise, and the hero-worship surrounding her iconic existence.
“I’m very conscious of being lucky to be a recognizable part of a movement.  But I’m very conscious that it’s a movement.  If I disappear tomorrow, it would go right on,” Steinem said.
But where would it go and what would it do?  The obvious “hot topic” is reproductive rights and the slew of anti-abortion legislation the House Republican majority has put on the table. 
Steinem believes this is the only issue where Republicans will vote against money.  Countless studies show that every dollar spent on women’s health actually saves tax-payers three or four dollars in the long run—which quickly adds up, considering the 75 million they’re attempting to take away from Planned Parenthood.
 “They know they’re voting against their own financial interest but there’s something deeper and that is controlling reproduction.  And in order to control reproduction, you have to control women.”
Public opinion continues to support abortion—yet not everyone is making it out to vote, which could have an unfortunate effect on public policy regarding women’s health. 
But will Republican anti-abortion extremists ever go so far as to overturn Roe V. Wade?
“Actually, they have overturned Roe V. Wade for most people,” Steinem said, explaining that many women are restricted by clinic access or the price tag of an abortion, not to mention minor’s parental consent laws.
“It’s become like a class privilege, practically,” Steinem said.
“The shell of Roe V. Wade remains because they’re afraid to overturn it-- because it’s a big symbol.   I think even they would worry about actually overturning it.  But we have to overturn the Hyde amendment.” 
Restricting federal money from funding abortion services since 1976, the Hyde amendment guarantees most low-income women cannot afford their right to choose.
“I know that there’s a feeling that ‘oh, we’re fighting the same battle over and over again’ but this is the battle.  If we weren’t the means of reproduction, so to speak, we wouldn’t be in this jam,” said Steinem, believing the opposition is motivated by the fear that their melting pot will soon see a white minority. 
Controlling reproduction, to Steinem, means restricting white women while exploiting women of color.
While abortion is old news, there’s plenty of fresh material for a feminist analysis.  In fact, it’s strange to think Gloria Steinem has witnessed the Jersey Shore, women’s self-objectification and what Ariel Levy described as “raunch culture” in her lifetime.
On March 2, 2011 one woman asked if today’s society seemed strange to an admittedly older feminist.  Was it more alien for her to move throughout the 21st century and its “liberated” women?
 “I suppose it’s not more alien,” Steinem answered, “but because we should have progressed more, it’s probably more frustrating.”
And then it was time to talk about the effects of aging on feminism, as well as the effects of feminism on aging. 
There is a well-known disconnect between women of the second and third waves.  However, Gloria Steinem has been able to transcend generations.  As she maintains her relevance to all women, she functions as a messenger between young and old; because they will listen.
“The young women I know are very frustrated, by being judged apathetic and being judged not caring because they are—they’re there,” Steinem said.
She acknowledged that the major feminist organizations are typically run by older women “because there’s no place for them to go.”  With older women unable to move on, “there’s no place for younger women to move in.”
And so begins another endless battle— established revolutionaries wanting to show their protégés the ropes and Riot Grrrls wanting to unravel the existing beliefs because the status quo is still not good enough.
Steinem had a partner with women’s health advocate Barbara Seaman—and a plan.  Together, they joked about gathering the entire second wave and graciously asking them to move aside.
“Gratitude never radicalized anybody.  I did not walk around saying thank you for the vote.  I got mad because of what was happening to me.  And even Susan B. Anthony always said ‘our task is not to make young women grateful, but to make them ungrateful,’” Steinem said.
But she also understands the natural paternalism.
“I think what happened is that there were several generations of women who worked so hard, and were so brave and never got rewarded—in fact got punished.  So, in a human sense, it’s somewhat understandable that they’re looking for gratitude and reward from their daughters or granddaughters,” Steinem said. 
And then she qualified her own position in a room full of starry-eyed student reporters by saying, “It didn’t happen to me.  I got over-rewarded.”
As her previous statement went almost completely unnoticed, a girl of barely twenty asked Steinem which issue she should care most about.  With the patience of a feminist saint, Steinem answered the question she had undoubtedly been asked thousands of times; “whatever affects you.”
“Anybody who has experienced something is more expert than the experts” Steinem said, insisting if we share our experiences, others will relate.
“That’s what we used to call the consciousness-raising experience.  Now it’s called a book club,” she teased, and then turned serious again.
“If unique people are having a shared problem—it’s political.  It’s about power and we can come together to change it.”
As long as women can identify sexism in society, feminism will be there to envision an alternative.  And that’s why post-feminism is “bullshit,” according to Gloria Steinem.
The argument against change of any kind has always been that it’s not necessary.
“We did it anyway.  And now the argument is, well it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore.  And it’s just not true.  We’ve barely begun.  Any movement has to last a hundred years in order to survive and really be embedded in a culture,” said Steinem.
Well, we’re nine years away from a century of women’s suffrage this March.  And as we near a familiarity with women’s participation in government, one thing is certain; Gloria Steinem is already embedded in our culture as the chosen mother of a movement that refuses to stop moving.

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