JAIPUR — For nearly six decades, Gloria Steinem has been one of America’s most visible, vocal commanders in the ongoing war for the rights of women, children, minorities and the poor. But few know that Steinem, who turns 80 in March — yes, eight-zero— traces her battle tactics to the two years she spent in India right out of Smith College.
At a time when stories about gang rape and violence against women are much in the news here, Steinem recalled her political epiphany and strategic training while at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, where she is among about 240 writers sharing ideas and hawking their work.
Her latest book is “As If Women Matter,” a collection of her game-changing journalism. She is, after all, author of the undercover exposé as a Playboy Bunny written in her 20s; co-founder of Ms. magazine; anti-Vietnam warrior; champion of civil, human and reproductive rights; winner of the Medal of Freedom; and eloquent commentator on such issues as prostitution, pornography, human trafficking and serious paternal parenting. To break the cycle of male domestic and sexual violence, boys must be taught by example that fathers should be as tender as mothers, she said.
“To have democracy outside the home you must have democracy inside,” she told nearly 1,000 people in the heavily female audience under a vivid fabric canopy that did nothing to ward off the winter chill.
In a dialogue with longtime friend and Indian activist Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of the organization Apne Aap Women Worldwide, Steinem recalled how during the two years she spent here studying and writing in the late 1950s, she absorbed Mahatma Gandhi’s organizing principles, which she would later apply to American feminism: Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down; to learn, you must listen; to be heard you must speak; and to bring change against all odds, you must fight “as if it matters.”
Back then, Steinem traversed the country to join local women fighting everything from the selling of low-caste girls into marriage to murderous sectarian violence.
She recalled a trip to a small African village that two women had left to work as prostitutes in the city. When she asked their neighbors why, they described how the corn crop was being decimated by animals and that the duo felt compelled to sell their bodies to earn money for an electrified fence. She helped raise funds for the barricade and a year later returned to celebrate the abundant harvest, which not only fed village families but provided income from the sale of surplus maize. “I was witness to what happens when women talk to each other . . . if you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them.”
Given her love of India — she said she has been here six times since that first trip aimed at expanding her world view and ditching a fiance she knew was all wrong for her — Steinem was loath to blame this nation’s slowly changing culture for recent, horrific sexual attacks on Indian women and several Western tourists. Such violence, she said, happens the world over.
She slammed the “blame the victim” mindset, which says that women who wear short skirts or show some cleavage essentially deserve whatever they get: “We should be able to be nude and be safe” in public, she said.
Well, yes, in a perfect world, but at the moment, it is imperfect enough to drive gangs of young men to sexual violence to prove their superiority, Steinem said. That same power imbalance fuels prostitution, and she advocated adopting the “Nordic model” of decriminalizing sex for hire by fining and publicly “embarrassing” the johns and protecting rather than jailing the prostitutes.
When her session ended, dozens of women in the audience approached the stage seeking Steinem’s autograph and taking her photograph. The approaches continued all day as she attended talks by other writers at what is called the world’s largest free literature fest. About 250,000 people were expected to attend the five-day event in a region where sales of dead-tree books are rising, not falling, said the festival’s co-chair, British historian and author William Dalrymple.
Steinem was a magnet for countless readers, male and female, wanting to thank her for promoting equality or to share their own pain. They included a married mother of two who was afraid to tell her family that she had been repeatedly raped by an uncle.
At this gathering of mega-talent from India, South Asia and around the world — winners of Nobels and Pulitzers, National Book Awards and MacArthurs as well as countless other commendations for literary, political, cultural and scientific brilliance and innovation — Steinem moved elegantly and unhurriedly, stopping to listen to scores of devoted readers.
One reason may be that, at age 79, she remains instantly recognizable, which is to say she still looks fabulous: tall, thin and wearing those signature glasses, New York black trousers and a sweater topped by a scarlet wool shawl. And oh, her hands! Weathered, to be sure, but mesmerizing as they moved constantly, balletically, around her face.
At an informal session with reporters, when the subject of Hollywood and Bollywood came up, she noted that almost any movie starring women discussing real life is called a “chick flick.” Then slyly, wryly, she suggested that movies starring men who rarely speak but commit multiple acts of murder and mayhem ought to be called “prick flicks.”
Not likely in the male-dominated industry of either nation.
But Steinem said it as if it matters.
Annie Groer is a Washington journalist.