[INTERVIEW] Gloria Steinem Answers BlogHers' Questions

When I got the chance to interview groundbreaking feminist activist and co-founder of both Ms. Magazine and The Women's Media CenterGloria Steinem, I knew I had to ask you: What would you ask Ms. Steinem, if you could? We asked here on BlogHer and on Facebook, and you brought the questions. And more via email. And more via Twitter. You asked, and she responded. Read on! And read to the end, because her final answer...about community...really resonates on a site like BlogHer!

Elisa Camahort Page: Several BlogHer Community members want to ask you what they can do to help their daughters see how feminism is relevant to them, as Donna from SoCal Mom put it "Even my daughter wants to avoid being labeled a feminist". How do you advise such moms?

Gloria Steinem: Most of us probably came to feminism because of content, not form, and I bet your daughter will, too. What does she experience as unfair? Maybe the boys act up or talk more in class, and get away with it, or girls play boys' games and not vice versa -- or salaries and freedom if she's older -- whatever she wants to change, support her in doing it, and then explain this is what feminism is. She'll get support for believing in fairness by using the word, and she'll also find out who thinks unfairness is okay because they'll oppose the word.

Since kids seem to be born with an innate sense of fairness -- they say out of nowhere, "That's not fair!" or "You are not the boss of me!" -- it's a question of hanging on to this inner sense of self as we grow up.

As for the word itself, "feminism" has been demonized by the ultra-right along with "liberal" etc., yet more women self-identify as feminists than as Republicans. Young women are more likely to support feminist issues in public opinion polls than are older ones, single women more than married ones, women of color more than white women -- and so on. Then there are other good synonyms that we don't even test: womanist, equalist, women's liberationist, mujerista!

Finally and more for moms, the basic truth is that any words that designate a lesser group will be lesser until the group itself is raised up. For example, women artists and novelists shrink from the adjective, even as they're reviewed that way; "girlie" is not something girls want to be, yet even grown-up men are flattered by "boyish"; the single most damaging thing said about a man is still that he's "womanish" or "feminine" (which is also homophobia) -- and so on.

In a just world, we wouldn't ridicule "chick flicks," and fail to even name "prick flicks"!

© Martha Rial/St Petersburg Times/ZUMA Press

Elisa: Heather used an intriguing term, asking if you agree there's a "maternal wall" (rather than a glass ceiling) when it comes to women achieving in business and politics, and for your best advice on how society can break it down?

Gloria: Yes, there is a maternal wall! Many studies show that the wage and promotion gap between mothers and non-mothers is now greater than the gap between females and males. The causes can be attacked at the top, bottom and everywhere in between. At the top, this is the only modern democracy in the world without a national system of childcare and flexible family work policies. At the bottom, young women still say "how can I combine career and family" without insisting that male partners to ask the same question. In between, employers and lawmakers must offer parental leave -- for both parents -- and flexible work patterns, not only because women are now half the paid labor force, but because men are parents, too. It's in the national interest in every form, from workplace efficiency to reducing violence.

It starts with consciousness: We've convinced ourselves and most of the country that women can do what men can do. But we haven't convinced the country or even ourselves that men can do what women do.

Elisa: Do you agree with BlogHer member Mary that women's rights in this country seem to be regressing?

Gloria: Women's rights are regressing because anti-equality economic and religious groups are in backlash against them. They don't represent more than 30% of the country on any issue, but they control one of the two great political parties, have concentrated power in media ownership, and illegally use religious institutions for political power.

This backlash is a tribute to the success of our frontlash, so to speak -- but it could still win. For example, none of the leaders we think of as Republicans -- from Eisenhower and Nixon to Reagan and the first Bush -- could get through the nominating process anymore because it's controlled by extremists, many of whom used to be Democrats until that party got too inclusive for them. Long term, the most revolutionary thing women could do is take back the Republican Party, from the precinct level up. It was once the first to support the Equal Rights Amendment, and no self-respecting conservative wants government off the backs of corporations and into the wombs of women. Short term, we can to use everywoman's power everyday: vote power, consumer power and nuisance power. The women's movement is stronger and more populist than ever. It's top-down that's the problem.

Elisa: Since BlogHers are women of action, Tech contributing editor Virginia wants to know what should be the first thing we focus on accomplishing for women in the U.S....AND what can women in the U.S. do for women in other parts of the world where they don't have the freedoms or power that we do have.

Gloria: Our strength comes from our diversity -- we don't attack a goal from one direction, we surround it -- and you're probably the most effective where you have the most expertise, or on the problem that hurts or inspires you the most.

Voting and using our consumer power are not the most we can do, but they are the least. Collectively, the reason we're in this spot in the first place is because male-dominant systems need to control reproduction -- and our bodies are the means of reproduction. In this and other countries, women's power to decide for ourselves when and whether to give birth is the single biggest determinant of whether we're healthy or not, educated or not, working outside the home or not, and how long we live. We can do all kinds of things, from educating kids about sexuality -- instead of the abstinence only classes that have been a fraudulent use of our tax dollars -- to supporting a global group like Equality Now that works against child marriage, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and other forms of femicide. Often, the first thing is also dictated by opportunities around us: for example, offering friendship and resources to the women and children who are actually the big majority of undocumented immigrants here.

I think the point is less how we choose to act than that we do act. The art of behaving effectively is behaving as if everything we do matters -- because the truth is that we can't know in the present what the future importance of an act may be.

Elisa:BlogHer staff member Polly from Lesbian Dad was thinking about women's media and wonders what you see as similar and different between the women-owned media movement you spearheaded in the 70s with Ms. Magazine and the self-publishing empowerment movement, embodied by BlogHer itself.

Gloria: Our I think our reasons for doing all the work to start something new were very similar: we knew from our own experience that many women were interested in media and subjects that tradition said they didn't care about, and we also knew that this new entity had to be woman-owned and controlled; otherwise, Ms. would have been fashion/food/family to please advertisers and BlogHer would have been....I don't know, pink computers?

There are lots of similarities in content. We also had one or two well-known writers to call attention to others who hadn't been published much or at all. Ms. Classified ads also started dozens of small businesses by allowing women's enterprises to find the right public.

One difference may be that an individual blogger would be held responsible for inaccuracies or libel rather than all of BlogHer. For Ms., it's the other way around. A restraining order on one issue could mean folding, so we fact-checked every word -- and even so, a capricious law suit by a phony abortion doctor almost put us under, even though it was thrown out of court. Also Ms. probably always has more poets, novelists, investigative reporters, and fewer non-professional writers -- though letters-to-the-editors were always great and have been collected as a record of a changing movement.
I think a big difference is the degree to which advertisers try to control editorial content. By tradition, women's magazines were catalogues, with a few homemaking and fashion articles to get women to pay for a catalogue -- and that still holds. Indeed, it's worse now because even fiction and poetry are gone from women's mags. Ms. managed to get some dual-audience ads with higher ethical standards because they also advertised to men, but we turned down insertion orders that said things like, "must not be in issue with depressing stories or large size fashion." Because we published an article about migrant workers, for instance, one of the Gallo Brothers said he would advertise in Ms. "after Pravda." Whirlpool sent us our issues with every sexual reference marked in red, explaining why it would never advertise. What the readers wanted and what advertisers demanded were so different that we actually did better financially without ads. I wrote an expose of all this, "Sex, Lies and Advertising." Now, Ms. only takes non-profit ads.

Because you're in a newer medium and more evanescent than the printed page, I assume you don't have anything like those pressures. I hope BlogHer could publicize, say, a national consumer boycott of Wal-Mart -- which certainly deserves it as the subject of the biggest sex discrimination suit ever; I wouldn't buy a toothpick there -- without losing advertisers. However, I notice some big sites are already bragging about having no controversial content, just lifestyle and celebrities. If we want good information, we have to pay for some of it. After all, we buy books with no ads. We badly need a new no-ad economic model for media, and I hope at least some of the Internet can provide it.

Elisa: F.A. from Facebook asked a universal question that I think is valid to ask any activist or anyone working for social justice: What has kept you motivated all these years...especially as your personal life has gone through ups and downs?

Gloria: Yes, I get tired, frustrated, mad, but the truth is I feel lucky to be working at what I love. I'm constantly learning, and that "Aha!" is one of the greatest pleasures in life. As for hanging in there, what makes it possible is community. We're communal creatures. If we're alone, we start to feel wrong or at fault or crazy. I hope everyone reading this has a group of women -- maybe men, too -- to meet with once a week or once a month; people you can share experience and values with and trust, who value you so you know you're valuable; people you can laugh with, that's crucial; a chosen family. Such groups used to be called rap or c-r groups, now they're called book clubs or girl gangs -- the name doesn't matter. Small groups like that are the building blocks of any revolution -- and joyful!

Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, editor, and feminist activist. She travels in this and other countries as an organizer and lecturer and is a frequent media spokeswoman on issues of equality. She is particularly interested in the shared origins of sex and race caste systems, gender roles and child abuse as roots of violence, non-violent conflict resolution, the cultures of indigenous peoples, and organizing across boundaries for peace and justice.

In 1972, she co-founded Ms. magazine, and remained one of its editors for fifteen years. She continues to serve as a consulting editor for Ms., and was instrumental in the magazine's recent move to join and be published by the Feminist Majority Foundation. In 1968, she had helped to found New York magazine, where she was a political columnist and wrote feature articles. As a freelance writer, she was published in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and women's magazines as well as for publications in other countries. She has produced a documentary on child abuse for HBO, a feature film about the death penalty for Lifetime, and been the subject of profiles on Lifetime and Showtime.

Her books include the bestsellers Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Moving Beyond Words, and Marilyn: Norma Jean, on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Her writing also appears in many anthologies and textbooks, and she was an editor of Houghton Mifflin's The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History.

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