Gloria Steinem: No such thing as a ‘feminist icon’

November 19, 2013

(We Belong Together)

Gloria Steinem, 79, is a writer and feminist activist who led the women’s liberation movement during the sixties and seventies. In 1972, she co-founded Ms. Magazine and was one of its editors for 15 years. Steinem has written four bestselling books on women’s issues and has helped organizations seeking to promote the role of women in education, media and politics. She has also produced work to promote awareness on child abuse, reproductive health and the death penalty. Tuesday, Steinem spoke on behalf of the immigration reform group We Belong Together at the National Press Club in Washington. On Wednesday, Steinem will be awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Steinem talked to She The People about her work and the state of the women’s movement.

You first spoke at the National Press Club in 1972. How has your public persona changed since then?

Well, I was the first woman to speak ever at the National Press Club and they gave me a necktie. Now the National Press Club has had eleven women presidents. So obviously you can see some distance even though the membership is not as equal. You’d have to ask the people in the audience in 1972 but I think I was an oddity.

Why have you started campaigning for immigration reform as a women’s issue? 

I want to help correct the inaccurate image of immigration in the media. There is an idea that women’s issues are over here and immigration is over there. Three quarters of undocumented workers are women and children. When the image in the media is a potential terrorist or drug dealer and at best, a male farm worker, it is an unrealistic portrayal of who immigrants really are. We need to make sure that our news, blogs and sources are more accurate about this imagery and what this nation needs as a work force. There’s an idea that high-tech jobs, which culturally are still dominated by males, are more important than care-giving jobs, which are culturally still dominated by females. That is simply not true. We live in a prosperous country and have a higher life expectancy and we need more care-giving work. In the interest of accuracy and in supplying the expertise that this society really needs, I hope we can reflect reality in what we write into law.

You spent your early career fighting for abortion rights. It’s still a hot-button issue. How has the fight over abortion changed in your lifetime and what’s the next battleground?

It shouldn’t be an issue. Approximately one in three women in this country needs an abortion at some time in her life. It should be a part of reproductive rights. We want to diminish the number. Nobody wants to get up in the morning and think, “I want to have a surgical procedure.” But the problem is that there’s a fervent and well-financed minority that believes that all sexuality that can’t end in conception is wrong and immoral.

The anti-reproductive freedom forces have, in their view, lost at a federal level and the ones in control are enacting punitive legislation to shut down clinics. The next big step is to pay more attention to state legislators, where they are not representing the majority opinion and remedying the situation where Americans don’t know who their state senators are. We probably are focusing more on Washington than our state senators and we need to remedy that.

What do you have to say to women of color and non-cisgender women who feel like the feminist movement lacks intersectionality?

I don’t have to say anything; I have to listen. But what worries me about saying that the women’s movement doesn’t or hasn’t always included women of color is that it renders invisible all the women of color who were there. Because women of color were more likely to be in the paid labor force, they were more likely to recognize discrimination so they were always leading the women’s movement. I’ve learned feminism from the National Welfare Rights Organization and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who was my first speaking partner in the seventies. It’s not that there isn’t racism in the women’s movement, there’s racism in this country and we have to be constantly vigilant. We can’t render those women invisible.

You founded Ms. Magazine because you thought there wasn’t enough material available to women that was controlled by women. Now that there are so many feminist-themed Web sites and blogs, how has the conversation shifted for young feminists?

Women’s magazines were controlled by advertisers and they still are. It’s much better than it was because there are all these sources of additional information with more accuracy and diversity in experience. Publications like Ms. were good but it’s not where most people get their information from today. The Women’s Media Center, which we started five years ago, focuses on mainstream media by critiquing its stories, seeing who is employed, who has clout positions and what gets covered. It also trains and educates. In March, the center’s putting out a guide to non-sexist, non-racist, multicultural language. A lot of times, reporters want to be inclusive but they don’t have the tradition of looking for the language. I’d be interested to know how many mainstream reporters know what cissexual is.

There are so many brands of feminism. How can women listen to different ideas for supporting women and unite together?

If you go to the dictionary, all it says is that it’s the belief in the whole social, economic, political equality of women and men. There are also wonderfully diverse terms that also mean feminism. There’s ‘womanism,’ which I love. There’s ‘girrrl’ with like two or three ‘r’s, which is wonderful. There’s women’s liberation. We should be able to choose what terms we want but it’s basically about equality and the power to make choices so labels are usually just a question of emphasis. If pressed for an adjective, I would call myself a radical feminist because it’s been my experience that the discrimination of females is the root of other violence. It normalizes other violence and it’s necessary to perpetuate racism. But I don’t feel like that divides. On campuses, people would ask me if I was a difference feminist or an equalist feminist and I used to say “yes” because it depends on the situation of what needs to be done.

A lot of women would list you as their feminist icon/personal hero. Who is your feminist icon, your personal hero?

I don’t think there is such a thing as a feminist icon. I guess it just means that you’re recognizable, which for me was just an accident. If I was a physicist or astronaut or mechanic, I would be just as much a feminist.

What does the Presidential Medal of Freedom mean to you?

The medal itself is a sign of progress because it is the first major national medal that isn’t related to the military. I can think of no president in history from whose hand I would be more honored to receive this medal from. Not only the change he represents but because he stands for and has stood with Planned Parenthood and reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right. But this medal belongs to all of us. It’s so clearly a medal for the movement. It has huge, huge meaning.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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