Gloria Steinem: Feminism alive and well
It’s not just celebrities Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise who make being a great dad look cool. At any given time in Montreal, a father sits on a bench watching over his sleeping newborn in her carriage, while another whizzes around the street corner on a bike with kid in tow on the backseat.
Babies are carried in snugglies and toddlers are pushed along in strollers by both moms and dads. One young father was recently observed patiently teaching skipping to his four-year-old daughter. Gloria Steinem would surely agree that this development, unusual 20 years ago but now almost routine, is a definite glimmer of hope for a more just society.
Feminist organizer, author, journalist and founder of the groundbreaking Ms magazine, Steinem, a self-proclaimed “hope-a-holic,” has been campaigning for women’s rights for over 40 years. “I’ve come to feel that hope is natural, a necessity of human evolution — and hopelessness has to be carefully taught by those who benefit from the status quo, ” she has written.
In Montreal last May, Steinem’s message was to challenge inequality, rather than accepting blatant injustice as immutable. She said that, although much has been accomplished, the feminist struggle is far from over. “Now [feminism] is part of everyday lives and we’ve been successful enough to have a backlash. After years of consciousness change, we ’re now seeing the beginning of structural change.”
When Steinem, Betty Friedan and others created the National Women’s Political Caucuses in 1971, they mobilized women around issues such as abortion rights, equal pay, equal representation and domestic violence. At that time, women made up only 10% of doctors, 4% of lawyers and less than 1% of engineers.
While women today are entering the professions en masse, they still have hurdles to deal with that don’t affect their male counterparts. Steinem notes, with her wry sense of humour and guttural chuckle, that she ’s never heard a man complain about having to juggle kids and a career. Regarding equal representation, in Quebec, where women were only given the vote in 1940, most candidates running in the last provincial election were male.
“There’s a barrier that has moved, but there’s still a barrier,” Steinem explained in a radio interview. “So what used to be, you couldn’t get a job, now you hit a ceiling after a few years. What used to be unequal marriage is now unequal after children are born. The barrier has moved, thank goodness. So there ’s more room back here that’s liberated. But the barrier is still there to be pushed.”
Steinem has been pushing barriers all her life. As a young journalist, Steinem was denied a coveted political assignment by an editor of a prominent magazine because he liked her looks. “We don’t want a pretty girl, we want a writer. Go home,” she was told. In another instance, in days when the concept of sexual harassment was not yet articulated but “just expected,” she had to rebuff the sexual advances of another editor. On her way out, he told her to take his mail. The incident became a cover story in Ms magazine, 15 years later. The first article that brought Steinem into the spotlight was her 1963 expos é of the life of the Playboy Bunny, resulting in improved working conditions for women working in Playboy Clubs.
Her resilience seems to have been instilled in her very early. “I had the good luck of missing school until I was 12. I wasn’t taught that boys and girls were practically different species, that America was “discovered” when the first white guy set foot on it, or that Europe deserved more space in my textbooks than Asia and Africa combined. I didn ’t even learn that people at the top were smarter than people at the bottom. Needless to say, school hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn ’t prepared for gender obsession, race and class complexities or the new-to-me idea that war, male leadership and a God who mysteriously resembled the ruling class were inevitable. ”
Steinem says that social justice movements are more alike than they are different. “It’s not a laundry list of causes. It’s impossible to be a feminist without also being anti-racist.”
Steinem described a study where women and men started out with the same level of self-esteem in high school, but women ’s self-esteem dropped with each additional year of higher learning. “Our challenge is as much to unlearn as it is to learn,” she says.
She spoke of the destructive power of rigid gender stereotypes, as “a false division of human nature,” that hurts both boys and girls in the long run by denying their individual talents, dreams and desires. “Individual differences are greater than group differences,” Steinem said. “It is the individual differences that we have been suppressing and that social justice movements are trying to let flower. ”
In keeping with the feminist guiding principle “The Personal is Political,” Steinem believes that social justice begins at home. “If we accept inequality among people we love the most, how much easier is it to accept it among people we do not know? ”
To those who say feminism is waning, she says “Open your eyes.” In a recent CBS News poll, a full 65% of all American women said they are feminists who believe in social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
“We had the courage to raise our daughters like our sons,” Steinem said. “Now we have to raise our sons like our daughters.” Judging by a summer walk in Montreal, it seems that some of us already have.