Gloria Steinem on the Secret to Never Burning Out During the Fight for Equality
"If we don't have poetry and laughter along the way, we won't have it at the end."
Photo by Rebekah Campbell
Gloria Steinem has been a tireless champion of women's rights for the past 50 years—her work as a feminist leader and activist has only grown since her days as a co-founder of Ms. magazine. She is one of the century's greatest agents of social change, though it's perhaps more accurate to describe her as an enduring force of nature. In January, Steinem was a co-chair of the Women's March on Washington, which turned into a global protest for women's rights that was millions of people strong. She's also the host and an executive producer for WOMAN, a VICELAND series that documents the ways that women around the world are shaping our future. We caught up with her shortly after the march to reflect on President Trump and her continued fight against injustice.
VICE: Your writing has always gone alongside your activism. How do they play off each other?
Gloria Steinem: I was a writer first. It was the urgency of what I was writing about that made me an activist; I couldn't just write about it. My commitment as a journalist is to make sure that facts are accurate, and it's clear what my experience or opinion is. If I do that, then I've done my job.
You've talked about the power of actually listening to people and breaking bread with them. Do you think the US is more divided as a country?
I think courtesy of the internet and greater travel, we're probably listening to one another more than we've had in the past. In very short order, the US will no longer be a majority-white country. People who were born into a system that told them there was a racial hierarchy and they had a superior place in it have been very upset by Obama's presidency, the changing population, immigration, and are responding in a backlash against all those things.
Have you ever managed to convince a diehard misogynist that he—or she—was wrong?
Absolutely. Not by saying "I am right" but by connecting their feelings of fairness to something they've experienced. For instance, if a right-wing Jewish person begins to feel anti-female prejudice as anti-Semitic prejudice and makes that parallel, they very often begin to change how they feel.
Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump. What's your take on it?
Fifty-three percent of white women have traditionally voted Republican because they are dependent on their husband's income. They are voting for their husband's interests. It has always been true that since the beginning of the women's movement in this country, African American women were twice as likely to support the movement and the issues of feminism as white women were.
Contemporary feminism has been criticized for so-called infighting. How do you feel about this issue?
It's not infighting to point out racism. That's important—just like it's not infighting to point out sexism. We need to do this because we're not raised to understand the long-term impact of institutional racism. But I'm very proud of the women's movement for being the most diverse of any social justice movement, and for having these very important conversations. The one thing that alarms me is when people think there is such a thing as white feminism. Because if it's white, it's not feminism—by definition, it includes all women.
Are you surprised we're still in the position of having to defend the right to abortion?
I was surprised for a few years in the beginning, but it was my naïveté. It was me saying to myself, This is so unjust—surely if I just explain it, people will agree, and not understanding that the sole reason women are oppressed is because we have the one thing no one else has: a womb. The Kwei and the San women in southern Africa will take you out and show you the herbs they use for contraception and abortion. It's natural to control your own body. You can't control your life unless you do that. But various forms of patriarchy have taken over and tried to control women's bodies.
If it all centers on controlling the means of reproduction, where does that leave trans women in the women's movement?
It leaves them in control of their own body and identity. The whole idea that there are two genders comes from this form of control. In old cultures, there was a continuum; you didn't have to divide the human race in two. Sometimes, I think there are two kinds of people: those who divide everything in two and those who don't.
Most activists I know talk about burnout. How do you stop yourself from becoming exhausted?
I certainly burned out in the beginning. I didn't understand that this was not a brief effort, that this was my life. Once you understand it is a lifetime effort, you begin to pace yourself and make sure you have support and include dancing and humor and love affairs in the revolution. The means are the end. If we don't have poetry and laughter along the way, we won't have it at the end.
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