Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, is a social and political activist and among the foremost leaders of the women’s rights movement in America. In town recently to honor the retirement of Rabbi Sheryl Lewart from Kehillat Israel, Steinem spoke about the feminist myth of Superwoman, why men should take on equal parenting responsibilities and why reproductive freedom should be a fundamental human right.
Jewish Journal: Besides being a forerunner of the feminist movement, are you aware Wikipedia has given you the distinction of being ‘one of American history’s most important women’?
Gloria Steinem: That’s very impressive. I looked up affirmative action once in Wikipedia, and it said, ‘a measure by which white men are discriminated against,’ and I got so mad.
JJ: You first made a name for yourself as a journalist by going undercover as a Playboy bunny. Does it bother you that your beauty has played a role in your success?
GS: First of all, the basic problem is that women are assessed by how we look, whether we look conventionally pretty or conventionally not pretty. The problem for all women is we’re identified by how we look instead of by our heads and our hearts.
JJ: Would you deny that physical beauty has qualities that have helped you?
GS: It has inherent qualities, but some of them are bad and some of them are good. And incidentally, I am now 75 years old, and yet I’m still being asked those questions.
JJ: I’d be flattered if I were 75 and being asked those questions.
GS: No, you wouldn’t. Trust me.
JJ: How has your perspective shifted as you’ve aged?
GS: Age brings a freedom. When you’re young, you’re much more subject to the idea of what feminine is or how you should look or how you should behave.
JJ: Early feminism wrestled with the fact that women were forced to choose between a career and marriage. Today, women have more choices, but they struggle to ‘do it all.’ Is this what feminism was supposed to be?
GS: If I had a dollar for every time we tried to kill off the myth of Superwoman in Ms. Magazine, I’d have a lot of money.
JJ: I know loads of women who are still under the impression that feminism encourages that myth.
GS: It’s not possible; you can’t be both full time outside the home and full time inside the home. That idea came from the resistance to feminism. What feminism has been saying consistently for 30 or 40 years is that job patterns need to change so that both parents of small children — men and women — can have a chance to lead a full life. And that men need to become as responsible for raising small children as women are. As long as women have two jobs and men have one, it will never work.
JJ: So it is misunderstanding feminism to assume it’s about women having more opportunities and choices. It’s really about transformational change.
GS: We’re the only modern democracy in the whole world without a national system of child care and health care; that’s ridiculous.
JJ: Does it disturb you that issues like abortion rights are still being debated in the 21st century?
GS: It’s not surprising at a deeper level, if you consider that the whole reason for patriarchal cultures is to control reproduction. I find it very encouraging to realize that only 5 percent of human history has been like this. The Native American cultures on this continent, most of them, were matrilineal, and some women were the chiefs. Societies were about balance.
JJ: How does Nicholas Kristof’s book ‘Half the Sky,’ which has some startling statistics about the number of women suffering from atrocities like genital mutilation and sex slavery, fit in with the feminist agenda?
GS: What Kristof and Sheryl [WuDunn], his wife, are reporting on is the women’s movement — the women’s movement has been multinational and international from day one, because we always understood that our problems were not that dissimilar. The goal in all those countries is reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right.
JJ: Maureen Dowd wrote a column last year about recent studies that suggest women have become unhappier since the birth of the feminist movement. More choices equals more stress.
GS: Why is Maureen Dowd an authority just because she’s a female? She’s a very smart person and a good writer, but her trademark is being against everything.
JJ: Even so, many women do feel burdened by a guilt that comes from their inability to devote themselves entirely to either their career or their family.
GS: Guilt is a way of getting a group to conform; you get them to oppress themselves by making them feel guilty. In the earlier stages of feminism, women were told they could not be whatever it was they wanted to be. After women became those things anyway, then society said, ‘All right, you’re now a lawyer or a mechanic or an astronaut — but that’s only OK if you continue to do the work you did before — if you take care of the children, cook three meals a day and are multiorgasmic until dawn.’
>: What have been the major costs of feminism, in your opinion?
GS: What’s the cost of freedom? What’s the cost of self-determination? The cost is growing up, but to remain a child when you are an adult is much more painful.
JJ: Without children of your own, has your credibility ever been challenged in the debate over balancing career and parenthood?
GS: The important point here is that men ask that question. Men have to ask, ‘How can I combine career and family?’
JJ: It seems unrealistic to move society toward that balance in a country that is career-centric and capitalist.
GS: I think people have started. Because it turns out that raising and socializing baby humans is a lot more interesting than most of what goes on in the workplace.
JJ: How have Jewish women contributed to the feminist fight, as compared to other women?
GS: For many years, the anti-feminist movement accused feminism of being a Jewish plot to destroy the Christian family.
JJ: Was your desire to pursue feminist justice at all inspired by your Jewish background?
GS: My mother, who was not Jewish, was always very clear about the importance of the Jewish tradition and respect for the Jewish tradition. She really tried to stress that, and she loved her mother-in-law, adored her mother-in-law [who was Jewish]. You know the passage [in the Torah], ‘Wherever I shall go, you shall go?’ That was always how I knew it was a woman speaking to a woman — because of my mother.
JJ: Do you feel you’ve failed at anything?
GS: I haven’t written nearly enough.
JJ: Any regrets about feminism?
GS: Yes, we’ve been much too nice.