At 61, Steinem wants straight talk, more fun, and a new Congress

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More than two decades after founding Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem remains America’s most influential, eloquent, and revered feminist. Her 1992 book, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, was a number one bestseller and has been translated into 11 languages. Last winter, shortly after publishing a book of six essays titled Moving Beyond Words, she canceled a national speaking tour because of a rare nerve disorder that left her bedridden. Now rejuvenated, the 61-year-old Steinem spoke with us about politics, aging, and why her best activist days are still to come.

Q: Where do you stand in the current debate that the feminist world has divided into “equity” feminism vs. “difference” feminism–about whether women are to be treated like men or as different from men?

A: [Sighs] Of course, you understand that I’ve turned up in every category. So it makes it harder for me to take the divisions with great seriousness, since I don’t feel attached to any of them–and also since I don’t hear about the division from women who are not academics or in the media. The idea that there are two “camps” has not been my experience. The mark to me of a constructive argument is one that looks at a specific problem and says, “What shall we do about this?” And a nonconstructive one is one that tries to label people. “Difference” feminist, “gender” feminist–it has no meaning in specific situations.

Q: From a distance, a fair bit of academic feminist writing and argument seems pretty near impenetrable.

A: Yeah, but that’s stupid. Nobody cares about them. That’s careerism. These poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted, they think. If I read the word “problematize” one more time, I’m going to vomit. If I hear people talking about “feminist praxis”–I mean, it’s practice, say practice. But I recognize the fact that we have this ridiculous system of tenure, that the whole thrust of academia is one that values education, in my opinion, in inverse ratio to its usefulness–and what you write in inverse relationship to its understandability. So I think the answer to it is to look with some compassion at the situation in which the women who are writing this gobbledygook find themselves and to say, “How can we solve this?”

Well, one way we can solve it is to get a better exchange going between activism and academia, so that the academics are putting their glorious intellectual powers to work on researching real problems. But I don’t see any point in blaming feminism–which is essentially a populist movement–for what filters through in an academic setting we don’t control.

It’s much more about grassroots, just in terms of numbers. I think we have to look where the power is flowing from. Here’s an example: There is a burgeoning economic development movement. Low-income, no-income women come together around some project, skill, whatever–there’s a handicraft cooperative in North Carolina, there’s a home health care group in the Bronx where they collectively own the business. There are hundreds of these kinds of businesses out there.

Q: At age 61, you’re still declaring yourself a radical and an activist. What are you up against as you grow older?

A: In my case, and in the case of some other women, it takes a lot of years even to question your conditioning. There’s such a deep part of our conditioning that is to make nice. That has an upside, it makes me a peacemaker. But a major problem I see is that we are into this kind of inner-outer division, so that activism is perceived as an activity in which you kill yourself and burn out.

There’s that joke, you know, that death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down. Well, burnout is a way of telling you that your form of activism was perhaps not very full circle. If we want a world in which you can tell jokes and get massages and have sex and dress however you fucking well please, then we have to create a form of activism that reflects that, and have fun while we’re doing it.

Actually the women’s movement has been pretty good at that, but we constantly get sucked back towards the culture in order to prove Seriousness. So we have to be conscious of the fact that as Gandhi said, and Martin Luther King said, and Emma Goldman said, and everybody else in the world who has had this experience has concluded, it isn’t that the end justifies the means, it’s that the means are the ends. And if we can do that, you see, it makes for joy, and mind-expansion, and friendships, and jokes in the process. And that means we can go on forever.

Q: Were you broadsided by the Republican victory in Congress last year? In your travels since, what have people been saying?

A: I think that in this case it was such a clear and painful lesson that most people I encountered were saying the same thing: We have to have old-fashioned, block-by-block, neighborhood-organization-by-neighborhood-organization get-out-the- vote efforts. We are currently the least participatory democracy in the world. Thirty-nine percent of eligible voters in this nation vote.

The reality of the elections was better reflected by such symbolic facts as the following: During the campaign I would be in a town, say, doing a benefit for a battered women’s shelter. Now, the shelter is doing good work. But when the women came in and were asked to put down their name and address and so on, nowhere on the card did it say: “Are you registered to vote? Where do you live? Would you like to know about the issues? Would you like us to take care of your kids for you?” Nowhere.

Meanwhile, right-wing groups are voting–they say–a very high percentage of their membership, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. They had a massive grassroots mobilization campaign, and we didn’t.

I’m not being dramatic about the electoral system. I never think for a moment that change starts in the electoral system–it doesn’t. It starts in the streets. But it can be stopped by the electoral system. So it seems to me that the 1996 election is more crucial than any election in my memory.

Q: What have you been encouraging people to do?

A: Look at the overall situation, which is this: The anti-change, anti-equality, racist, economic establishment forces have control of the House now. Essentially they have control of the Congress. If we lose the presidency, there’s nothing to stop all of the regressive legislation they have in mind. Therefore we really need to focus on retaining this president–and on diselecting the right-wing leaders who were elected last time. It’s easier to do it before they’re entrenched, after two years rather than after four or six years. So we can target and focus on what it takes to retain a president who, however much we might want to argue with him–and of course I argue all the time–nonetheless is better than we deserve, I think, in terms of our record as an electorate.

Q: Isn’t it possible that the country really is a good deal more conservative than people like you might have imagined?

A: I would believe that if I didn’t travel. I’m met–wherever, the airport or the bus station–by this hardy band of activists who say one of two things: either, “This is the most conservative place you’ve ever been,” or, “This is the most apathetic place.” Then they say: “We’ve hired a hall for tonight. We’re really afraid no-body’s going to come. We’re this lonely, embattled group.”

Then you get to this hall they’ve hired. The hall is full. There are thousands of people outside. This happens constantly. And it happens to Ralph Nader. It happens to anybody who expresses hope rather than fear. I mean at Princeton we had to walk across the campus for an hour to get a bigger hall. Sometimes at bookstores there have been people sleeping in sleeping bags outside to keep a place in line.

Q: You don’t see this as indicative of your own popularity?

A: No! Of course not! I’d have to be crazy to think that. I know better. It’s about hope.

Q: Last winter you had to cancel a national speaking tour and remain housebound for some months because of a nerve disorder. Has this given you a new perspective on health care?

A: My experience with trigeminal neuralgia certainly made me realize how little the health care system knows about many things. With this ailment, 5 percent are due to brain tumors, 5 percent are due to multiple sclerosis, and for most they have no idea. It manifests itself as an excruciating, worst-kind-of-tooth-pain, somewhere in the face, usually in the jaw. The current theory is that the insulation of the nerve is damaged, and it becomes like a loose electrical wire that is activated by any muscular motion–speaking, brushing your teeth, eating, even walking. Painkillers don’t work on it. And because of the costs of searching out different specialists, it was very clear to me that if I hadn’t had the resources and insurance both, I would probably have done what most poor people with this disease do, which is end up having all of their teeth out and then discovering it’s not their teeth.

So it certainly is a sobering disease in every way–cost, knowledge of the health care system, and so on. In my case, it had another meaning, because I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t walk. The only thing I could do was stay home and write and read.

Q: What was your position on the health care debate and the administration-supported “managed care” plans?

A: I did my best to be helpful in the debate by supporting the administration’s proposal. Was I completely happy with this proposal? No. But I accepted their political judgment that the single-payer system was not possible to get through at this point.

Q: Why did you accept that judgment, given that you spent most of your adult life fighting for causes other people might have dismissed as unrealistic?

A: I looked at Congress. You couldn’t get the Ten Commandments through this Congress. I think that for all its recognized faults, the Canadian system–the single-payer system–actually works much better. But the fundamental problem, in addition to the nature of Congress, is that most of us don’t vote. What that leads to is the nature of Congress, and what that further leads to is that the insurance industry is the only big national industry that remains unregulated by the federal government.

Q: Didn’t the single-payer forces come to you for public support?

A: No, they didn’t. How shall I say this? It just clearly wasn’t going to happen. I think they were important, because if you’re trying to do a compromise you have to have somebody out on the edge who says, “You’d better deal with those folks or else you’ll have to deal with me.”

Q: Tell us a little about the role of men in your daily working and personal life–as friends, as family, as lovers, whatever. How do they fit in?

A: I have a family of old lovers. I mean, former lovers [laughs]. Well, some are elderly right now. With one or two exceptions, I’m friends with all my former lovers. And I spent a long time with them, that was my pattern, two to nine years with each one. So it means you’re really connected. One I still see. I talk to him almost every day. He lives in New York, we see each other every week. There are also the husbands and lovers and now sons of my women friends. There are the boyfriends of my surrogate daughters. You acquire people in all kinds of ways. And there are movement colleagues, who’ve been there for the long haul. I suppose if you look at the men in my life, they’re disproportionately men of color, and I think for obvious reasons, because they identify more with the women’s struggle.

Q: How do you envision yourself as an old lady, 25 or 30 years from now?

A: I don’t know, because if you’d asked me that before I would have picked the wrong kind of old lady. My vision of my-self as an old lady used to be concocted together with my first lecture partner, Dorothy Pittman Hughes. And our vision was that we would be sitting on bar stools in too-tight skirts, you know, the kind that strain at the seam. With too much makeup. Now, neither of us drinks.

Q: You don’t wear a lot of makeup, either.

A: Some things are conformist at 20 but revolutionary at 70. Tight skirts and makeup might be OK at 70. So we’d be sitting there on bar stools and going out and propositioning sailors and Boy Scouts, and so on. That was my defiant, glorious vision. Well, it took me a while to figure out that defiance–saying, “I’m just going to go on doing everything I did before and so there!”–is not progress. Because actually you can go on to something different. And what instructed me about that is just experience, and experiencing that my feelings about sex have changed. I’m no longer obsessed.

Q: Does that suggest that you once were?

A: Yes, I think I said in my book, I confused it with aerobics. And maybe if I hadn’t I would now be exploring. But as it is, I feel like I’ve discovered, contrary to my first image of myself as a pioneer Dirty Old Lady, that the third of my brain previously reliably preoccupied with sex is now freed for other things. So this is very exciting. It’s not better than before, but it’s different.

Q: What are you envisioning for the future in your life and the lives of the women around you? What’s going to shift in the next 10, 20 years?

A: Well, I am very interested in aging, because I see that as where the revolutionaries and the radicals are going to be in the critical mass. Women’s pattern of activism, culturally, is often different from men’s. Women get more radical with age, men get more conservative. So that pattern, combined with the fact that life expectancy has increased 30 or 35 years since 1900, and that there are all of us uppity women who have a little tradition of rebellion coming into this age group–those three things combined, I think, are very heartening. It means there’s going to be a lot of fireworks and a lot of excitement.

Q: Are you as consistently upbeat about your 60s as you sound in your book?

A: It’s complicated…. Old is not a thing. We’re the same people, going through a different stage. And I just want to say to you, in the realism department, that 50 was much harder than 60.

Fifty was the end of this long familiar plateau that you entered at 13–you know, the country of the female stereotype. And when I got to 50, which is the edge of this territory–indeed, the edge used to be 35, 40, we’ve pushed it to 50–then it was like falling off a cliff. There was no map. Now it’s true that I had been fighting with the map. But you’re enmeshed with it either way, whether you’re obeying it or fighting with it. It was very difficult. So I’m not saying it’s all cheerful. I’m just saying that even though you realize the only country described to women is this 13- to-50-year-old country, there is another country after 50. It’s so exciting, and so interesting.

Remember when you were 9 or 10 or 11, and maybe you were this tree-climbing, shit-free little girl who said, “It’s not fair,” and then at 12 or 13 you suddenly turned into a female impersonator who said, “How clever of you to know what time it is!” and all that stuff? Well, what happens is that when you get to be 60, and the role is over, you go back to that clear-eyed, shit-free, I-know-what-I-want, I-know-what-I-think, 9- or 10-year-old girl. Only now–you have your own apartment.

Cynthia Gorney, a reporter for The Washington Post, currently is writing a book about the history of the abortion conflict in the United States. A portion of this interview originated at a public talk between Gorney and Gloria Steinem that was part of the 1995 San Francisco City Arts & Lectures program.


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