The first question comes from a woman named Robyn. “This isn’t intimidating at all,” she jokes into the microphone, drawing laughs from a cluster of millennials in the balcony.
They all clutch Gloria Steinem’s new book, “My Life on the Road,” a diary from the activist’s six-decade tour of the country. Steinem sits center-stage at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, hair parted down the middle, wearing all black and a silver chain belt.
“I was wondering,” says Robyn, one of 800 people in the room, “what your thoughts are on the newer abortion storytelling movement?”
She names #ShoutYourAbortion, the Twitter campaign started this fall by another feminist writer, Lindy West. Does Steinem think more women should disclose their abortions online?
“Well, it’s not my decision — it’s their decision,” Steinem replies. She endorses the concept, though. “It seems to me that political justice, social justice, comes from telling the truth as much as we possibly can.”
Abortion, Steinem continues, was the issue that convinced her the country needed a women’s movement. In 1969, four years before Roe v. Wade, New York magazine sent her to cover a “speak-out” in a Greenwich Village basement, where women shared stories about ending their pregnancies.
Forty-eight years later, she has dedicated her eighth book to the London doctor who illegally performed her abortion. She was 22, a recent Smith College graduate and headed to India for a research fellowship.
At Sixth & I, she begins to read her own story.
“Knowing that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, ‘You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.' ”
She pauses, switching to the first-person.
“Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death. I’ve done the best I could with my life.”
Steinem, 81, launched her career in 1963 with an undercover investigation into the Playboy Club, Hugh Hefner’s chain of lounges. Her magazine story revealed Playboy Bunnies endured near-constant sexual harassment at pay far below the advertised wages.
She co-founded Ms. Magazine, America’s first feminist glossy, in 1971. She also helped launch that year the National Women’s Political Caucus, a group that supports women seeking public office. She was arrested outside the South African embassy for protesting apartheid in 1984. This summer, she visited North Korea to promote peace.
“My Life on the Road,” Steinem’s eighth book, chronicles her travels. In a Washington Post review, Roxanne Roberts described it as “first-person account of Second Wave feminism” and, less flatteringly, “a tsunami of earnestness that all but swamps readers with Life Lessons.”
The District is the first stop on her 10-city book tour. (“My Life on the Road” became an Amazon best-seller before she started promoting it.) She gives no specific reason for the timing of her first book since 2006.
But the memoir hits bookstores as the national conversation swells around classic issues for Steinem: reproductive rights and workplace equality.
Earlier this year, antiabortion activists released a series of clandestinely recorded videos, thrusting Planned Parenthood into the center of a reinvigorated abortion debate. This election cycle, presidential candidates on both sides of the political aisle are unveiling proposals to fund maternity leave. And Jennifer Lawrence, the world’s most highly paid actress, supercharged the dialogue over the gender wage gap last month with a viral essay about encountering sexism on the job.
I snag a seat in the synagogue balcony, hoping to catch Steinem after the event for a brief interview. As the talk wraps, an e-mail arrives from her team: Yes, she would be available for 10 minutes. It’s nearly 9:30 p.m.
After an hour of book signing, Steinem leads me outside. We climb into the back seat of a Cadillac XTS.
Why did she choose this book, I ask, to thank the London doctor?
“You know, I had dedicated other books to friends and family,” she says. “All of that seemed natural. This seemed just as natural. There are so many states now that are restricting clinics in ways that make it impossible to function.”
Did the Planned Parenthood battle motivate her?
“Telling the truth is the way you build a movement, regardless of what the movement is. And somehow it just seemed to me time.”
As we weave through the rain-slicked Chinatown streets, Steinem unfurls some of her feminist theory. She believes a woman’s autonomy, health and prosperity depend on maintaining control of what happens to her uterus.
“The power to decide who has children with whom, and to control reproduction, is the basis of hierarchy, the basis of patriarchy — it’s deep,” she says. “If you lose control of reproduction, you lose one of the two pillars of nationalism: Control of territory and control of population. It’s quite subversive to seize control of the means of reproduction. It even sounds radical, right?”
“It’s a health issue. It’s a lifetime issue. It’s the biggest determinant of whether we’re educated or not, whether we can work outside the home or not,” she says. “It’s a fundamental human right.”
During our conversation, the third Republican debate reaches 14 million viewers around the country — a showdown that was supposed to focus on the economy. (Steinem says she’ll be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
“I hope the candidates realize equal pay for women is the biggest economic stimulus that could possibly exist,” she says. “Not only does it stimulate the economy — because women are going to spend it, not put it in a Swiss bank account — it also reduces demands on federal government because poor kids are most likely to be in a female headed household, so they’d need fewer government services.”
A few years back, New York magazine, her former employer, published an oral history of Ms. Magazine, which Steinem directed in a male-dominated industry. The recollection includes article ideas from a confidential memo, dated 4/71. One story concept mocks a faux-concerned male voice with the prompt: “OF COURSE, I’M ALL FOR EQUAL PAY, BUT…”
The first issue of Ms. sold out in eight days. Steinem still had trouble attracting advertisers, who feared she was peddling a weapon against domestic America. (The magazine, which now has roughly 100,000 subscribers, will turn 45 in January.)
Equal pay, meanwhile, remains a hot topic, with women in the U.S. making an average of 79 cents for every dollar paid to men.
“[Employers] could eliminate it,” Steinem says. “They could, for instance, establish a salary level for a job, regardless of who has it. Once a person is there, they could be rewarded for productivity.”
We reach the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, where Steinem would stay before heading to Chicago. She finds a plush couch in the lobby, nurses a venti Chai Latte from Starbucks and recalls another question from the night’s audience.
A long-time Ms. reader asked the Steinem when “weird” things — like men staying home to raise the kids — will become “ordinary.”
When people started doing them, she replied.
Those gender roles, Steinem said, “aren’t real. They’re bulls***.”
At the hotel, I ask her to elaborate. Roles, she says, have already dramatically changed in the last half-century.
“One day, someone like me, but in the future — or like you! — will be talking to a group of young people, and will be saying, ‘You know, once upon a time, people thought that genitals dictated their brains, or the amount of melanin in their skin dictated their lives.’ And the young people will be saying, ‘Oh, give me a break.’ ”
How do we get there? I ask. What’s the most pressing issue for today's women?
She’s hesitant to rank issues, asserting feminism still has much to achieve. If Steinem had to pick, though, she would focus on a force that didn’t have a widely recognized name before she started organizing: domestic violence.
“If you added up all the women who have been killed by their husbands and boyfriends since 9/11, according to FBI statistics, which are probably conservative — and you add up all the Americans who were killed in 9/11 — and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — more women have been killed by their husbands and boyfriends in this country.”
Statistics support her claim, though it’s hard to compare these kinds of tragedies. The FBI’s most recent annual crime report shows 950 women were murdered in 2014 by a former or current male partner. iCasualties, an independent site tracking U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, says 21 Americans were killed in both countries so far this year, compared to 58 last year.
“So, domestic terrorism takes more lives,” Steinem says. “But the emphasis on it, the understanding of it, is far behind. Not to mention the money spent…”
She hopes this will change.
“More people have been telling the truth for a longer time. More people recognize discrimination is wrong as opposed to natural.”
One powerful example of truth-telling, she says, is the Black Lives Matter movement.
Steinem pulls out a green leather notebook. Scrawled inside are its three guiding principles, according to Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza:
- Lead with love
- Low ego, high impact
- Move with the speed of trust
“Now,” Steinem says, “I use them when I give a speech.”
When I told my friends, a millennial bunch, about this interview, they seemed particularly eager to hear about how Steinem thinks we should navigate today’s dating scene.
She long condemned marriage, declaring it an institution for “one-and-a-half people.” But at 66, after deciding family law had sufficiently evolved, she wore jeans to wed English entrepreneur and activist David Bale, who died in 2003.
Bale had told Barbara Walters his wife was “a prophet.”
I wanted to know: How can Steinem tell if a romantic partner is, you know, a feminist?
“That’s a very interesting question,” Steinem says. “Trust your instinct. You probably know, deep in your heart. And look at the way he or she treats other people, not just you.”
Her parents had a fraught relationship, but she never blamed her father. Steinem says he always treated her like a grown-up, and with great respect — which is why she expected the same from potential partners.
“I knew such men existed,” she says. “That was sheer luck. So, I actually never fell in love with anybody who’s really destructive. That’s no virtue in me. Because I see smart, amazing, great women who had distant, cold, even violent fathers, and they therefore found distant, cold, abusive men. It takes a while to change the script and grow out of that.”
The conversation veers from love to sex. Healthy intimacy, Steinem says, happens between two enthusiastic partners. “‘Yes’ is probably the most erotic word in the English language,” she wrote recently in a New York Times column.
Last year, California became the first state to unveil a “yes means yes” law, requiring students on public campuses to get explicit permission during every step of a sexual encounter. The mandate has since spread to schools across the country.
How would Steinem, I ask, talk to a bunch of, say, fraternity brothers about consent?
“Better than consent is the word ‘welcome,’” she says. “One of the innovations of sexual harassment law was to talk about not just consent, which can be coerced — but is the sex welcome? Is the sexual attention welcome? That’s a much better word. And especially when there’s a big power difference between two people. It’s important to know that the less powerful person can say no.”
She speaks with her hands. Two charm bracelets on her wrist catch my eye.
What do they say?
“Oh this? This is a bracelet that Feminist.com made as a fundraiser. One says ‘imagine.’ And this one says, 'We are linked, not ranked.' "
*An earlier version of this article misidentified Robyn.