Five Questions

Gloria Steinem lets loose on unequal pay, Girls, "Feminazis" and Beyoncé

Gloria Steinem lets loose on equal pay, Girls and "Feminazis"

Gloria Steinem
Photo courtesy of Gloria Steinem

As the co-founder of Ms. Magazine and the Women's Media Center, a longtime women's rights author and political activist, Gloria Steinem has become synonymous with feminism.

In anticipation of her appearance at the 22nd Annual Luncheon of the Women's Resource of Greater Houston on April 30, Steinem set aside some time from her writing (she's working on a book about her travels in the United States) for a phone interview with CultureMap.  

CultureMap: Can you describe a particular point when you decided that you wanted to fight — and devote your life to — women's equality?

Gloria Steinem: The surprising thing to me was how long it took me — I guess I was in my mid thirties or early thirties. Up until then there was no visible women's movement and I assumed that whatever the problems might be, I had to deal with them individually.

I owe to pioneers, from Simone de Beauvoir to Bella Abzug to the women in the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War movement, who began to speak out about the problems as systemic, not just individual.

CM: In your capacity as a journalist-cum-political activist, you have been a crucial figure on the women's lib front. How do you perceive a journalism's role — and specifically the role of female journalists — in carrying the movement forward? 

GS: Telling the truth. Reporting the facts. And of course the facts are that we are one of the least equal modern democracies in the world in terms of political representation, equal pay, job patterns that accommodate children and families, violence toward women. We're down the list in all of those things.

CM: Thinking back to the first National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977, what are the biggest strides that females have made since then? And what issues are you surprised that, 36 years later, we're still fighting?

GS: The Houston conference was, so far . . . the single most important event of the women's movement, because it was the first time that there were elected representatives, delegates from every state and territory, who came to a shared agenda, an enormous agenda. 

 The Houston conference was, so far . . . the single most important event of the women's movement. 

It actually may be the only racially and economically representative national meeting this country has ever had. Houston should be much bigger in history than it is. That meeting is not yet recorded for being as crucial and important as it really was.

It outlined basic needs which we are still trying to fill. For instance, reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech. Most Americans agree that the decision of whether and when to have children should be up to the individual and not the government, but we see what is going on in state legislatures, for instance, that are trying to restrict it, and sometimes in congress as well . . .  It's very easy to see how far along we are and what we have left to do.

Most of the country now agrees, since Houston, that women can do what men can do. But we are still very far from understanding that men can do what women do. So most women have a double burden — at home and outside the home — and that has to change.

And actually, the new book by Sheryl Sandberg [Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, 2013] is pointing that out. If men want children, they might also raise them.

CM: I'm curious to know what you think about the new wave of feminism, from Lena Dunham's Girls, to Beyoncé, who reluctantly came out as a "modern day feminist" in a recent interview, to Tavi Gevinson, the 16-year-old blogger behind Rookie Mag, who are all very different. 

GS: The whole idea is the freedom and the power to be an individual. I'm very joyful and supportive of what I see going on with younger feminists, and actually, the division between young and old is almost as false as class and race divisions . . . It's more about the experience than the year, or the age. I don't think that it's so smart, or humane, or accurate, to categorize people completely by age.

Of course women can be talented and sexy, and perhaps the answer is just in the dictionary: A feminist is a person, male or female, who believes in the full social, economic and political equality of women and men. [Beyoncé may have been] responding to people like Rush Limbaugh who say "Feminazi," who distort it completely. That's out there in the culture, but it's of course not what feminism means.

[Feminism] takes as many different forms as there are unique human beings, but we need the power to be who we are and to be paid equally, and get elected to Congress equally, and have fun equally, and dance equally, and be equally sexual. It's just about our right to be who we are.

CM: One of your current areas of activism is pay equity, and you're scheduled to speak at the Women's Resource about financial literacy on April 30. Talk about why this is such an important issue?

Of course women can be talented and sexy, and perhaps the answer is just in the dictionary.

GS: Money is dignity, autonomy, self-sufficiency, so it is a symbol of many human freedoms. It isn't human freedom in itself, but it is often the support of it or the deprivation of it is terribly important. Especially because one of the ways that women are kept poor is to tell them that money and power are unfeminine. It's important to demystify money and power and take control of our own lives financially.

Also, the effort to put women into a silo, separate from other issues, is very sinister, because the trick is that the greatest economic stimulus this country could possibly have would be equal pay for females. It would put billions of dollars into the daily economy. Almost every working woman would have more disposable income. Women aren't going to put their money into a Swiss bank account, they're probably going to spend it on themselves and their families, and that's an economic stimulus. But when economists and journalists discuss economic stimulus, they don't usually talk about equal pay.

There is equal pay legislation but since the beginning of the movement, it has changed but it's still not equal. It's gone from about 57 cents on the dollar on average . . . to about 78 cents on the dollar.

But there's another area we have to work on in addition to equal pay, which is an attributed economic value to productive work. Right now, work of care-giving in the home — whether it's raising children or taking care of elderly parents or invalids — is given no economic value, but it happens to be 37 percent of the productive work in the country.

That could be given an attributed value at replacement level, made tax-deductible if you pay taxes and tax-refundable if you don't. In addition to re-valuing work, we need to redefine work.