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Politics

Gloria Steinem and the ‘long, long, long’ feminist revolution

On 10 July 1971, Gloria Steinem made one of the most significant speeches in recent history. Her Address to the Women of America signalled the ascent of feminism – but 50 years later she tells Laura Kelly why the fight for equality is far from over.

“Sex and race, because they are easy, visible differences, have been the primary ways of organising human beings into superior and inferior groups, and into the cheap labour on which this system still depends.” 

Fifty years ago this week, feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem stood at the front of a hotel conference room in Washington DC and delivered these words. It was one of the most important speeches of the 20th century. 

Addressing sexism and misogyny, racism, social class and poverty, the central rallying cry of the Address to the Women of America remains the core demand of feminists to this day – the institution of a society “in which there will be no roles other than those chosen, or those earned”.

On that July 10 day in 1971, Steinem was a co-convenor of a gathering of more than 300 women, including such fellow luminaries as The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, civil rights activist and journalist Myrlie Evers-Williams, ‘Battling Bella’ Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. By the end of the weekend, they’d founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) – a ground-breaking organisation to increase women’s participation in all areas of political and public life.

“This is no simple reform,” Steinem promised. “It really is a revolution.”

Five decades on, “it’s been a long, long, long revolution,” Steinem tells The Big Issue, speaking over video call from her office in New York. It’s her current base for a battle that she’s still actively fighting today, at 87.

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“We didn’t emerge into the sunshine for three days,” she recalls of that historic meeting. “Eleanor Holmes Norton [then a lawyer, now a Congresswoman] was running the meetings and being a parliamentarian. Otherwise, we probably would have flown apart.

“Our goals were mainly electoral and political,” she continues. “It was a bipartisan effort to see to it that there were more women – hopefully, half women – in both elected and appointed political office.”

Did it feel like a revolution? “Not yet. It still doesn’t.”

The feminist revolt may not yet have toppled the patriarchy, but the NWPC has helped shift the dial on women’s participation in politics. In 1971, women numbered just 363, or 4.7 per cent, of state legislators; today, they are 2,288 or 31 per cent. Fifty years ago, there were only seven women mayors of cities with populations of more than 30,000, or one per cent of the total; today, there are 407, or 25.1 per cent. 

The current US Congress is a record breaker for female representation, with women making up just over a quarter of all members, in comparison to the 15 women (less than three per cent) who took their seats in 1971. “Things have changed enormously in a half century,” Steinem agrees.

Still, the most powerful position in America remains the preserve of men. In 2016, Hillary Clinton came the closest to being the US’s first female head of state – only to lose to possibly the most boorish misogynist ever to hold the role.

Steinem was a prominent campaigner for Clinton, so it comes as a shock to hear her say, “I never thought that she could win, actually.”

Really? “Yes, yes. Of course, we all worked our hearts out anyway, right? 

“And because I live in New York, I was painfully well aware of what an asshole Trump is. He may – he should – end up in jail.”

It’s much less of a surprise that Steinem sees Trump’s election as a step backwards for women in America. “How could he not be? He had bragged about sexually assaulting women on television, in print,” she says. “One of his wives wrote about how he tore her hair out. He could not be more obviously a misogynist.”

Though Trump has been ousted – and Kamala Harris sworn in as the first female, first African American, and first Asian American vice president of the United States – the hangover from his administration remains. 

Trump’s Supreme Court appointments now threaten one of the totemic achievements of American feminists – Roe vs Wade. In 1973, the landmark case blocked individual states from banning abortion, thus protecting a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. 

For Steinem, an attack on the rights of women over their bodies is nothing less than an assault on democracy.

“The first step in every hierarchy that I know about is controlling reproduction. And that means controlling women’s bodies,” she warns. “So, democracy also starts there.”

In May this year, the Supreme Court justices announced they will review a Mississippi law that would outlaw most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It’s a case that could overthrow Roe vs Wade. Many fear the court’s make-up, post-Trump makes that a near certainty.

“Oh, fuck them!” exclaims Steinem. “How dare they say that they can make a decision over our bodies? It’s just impossible and wrong. Can you imagine how would men feel if the state decided the fate of their bodies?”

The day after Trump’s inauguration, at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, Steinem had a hero’s welcome from the hundreds of thousands of people who thronged the streets. “I’ve been thinking about the uses of a long life,” she told the crowds, “and one of them is you remember when things were worse.” 

The fight against Trump had brought together feminists of all stripes, even if Steinem rankles at any suggestion that the introduction of a unifying baddie reinvigorated the feminist movement. “We don’t need reinvigorating by an adversary, thank you very much. We can reinvigorate ourselves.”

The critique of second-wave feminism – the feminism strongly associated with Steinem and her contemporaries – had not gone away, however. Chief among the criticisms is the charge that the second wave was insufficiently intersectional, failing to address the ways different forms of oppression – such as race, class, disability and sexuality – intersect.

While she accepts that it’s right that “everybody’s subject to criticism”, Steinem says of the critics: “I also don’t think that – through no fault of theirs – they know the history.”

She points to prominent black activists in the movement, including Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Florynce Rae Kennedy, alongside whom Steinem often appeared on the lecture circuit, and to Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for the presidency.

Chisholm, in particular, has been unjustly forgotten, Steinem argues. “Shirley Chisholm took the white-male-only sign off the White House door all by herself. In 1972. That is extraordinary.”

In her whole storied life, Chisholm’s presidential campaign is the moment Steinem says she’s most proud of. Yet the story doesn’t get the attention it deserves. 

“That’s a problem,” says Steinem. “Even to the extent that we have been part of history, it kind of gets wiped out or underplayed. Shirley Chisholm should have been a bigger part of the coverage of Kamala Harris’s candidacy. I’m not sure I saw it mentioned at all.”

Young women’s forgetfulness about the battles that have been fought is not always a bad thing, however. Steinem is energised by their sense of entitlement. 

“I love to see all the things that they just assume. And get mad when they’re not as real as they should be,” she explains. “I’m very proud of young women.”

Neither Steinem’s team, nor I, could find a full version of the 1971 Address to the Women of America online. It has, Steinem fears, fallen victim to a combination of the general erasure of women’s history, as well as the “failure” of the women’s movement to recognise themselves as history makers at the time. 

I did turn up a queasily uncomfortable news clip of Steinem from the same year, which possibly does a better job of illustrating the world outside that Washington DC hotel. In the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) report, Steinem sits by massive, old-fashioned, reel-to-reel tape recorder, smoking a cigarette, as an off-camera journalist plays her recordings of an anonymous woman calling her “very aggressive and pushy”, and a “real bitch”. 

In extreme close-up, Steinem responds. “It makes me sad because of the ‘bitch’ part,” she says. “I mean, that really gets to me.”

The power dynamics of the clip and the sense of an on-air ambush make it a tough watch. Today, I hope, there would be an outcry. But some things have not changed. Steinem still finds herself described as a bitch. Her response has changed through the years. 

“I’ve learned now, if somebody calls me a bitch, to say thank you,” she laughs, “because the reason they’re calling you a bitch is usually something to be proud of.”

Under that harder shell, is there still the same fire in her belly? “Oh yes, of course. I mean, are you kidding me?!

“Part of what is great about social justice movements, is that you learn, it’s exciting. You have a chosen family of people who share some of the same hopes and values. You laugh at each other’s jokes. You dance. 

“I don’t know why people think a movement is a source of deprivation. It’s not. It’s a gift.”

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