“I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.” —Gloria Steinem
I was lucky enough to attend a talk last year at the 92nd Street Y hosted by Makers‘ (a wonderful documentary series focusing on women changing the world) producer Dyllan McGee, journalist Amy Richards, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, equal rights advocate Anu Bhagwait, and the iconic and amazing Gloria Steinem.
I would like to say I had an intimate talk with her about the state of feminism today while doing yoga at her infamous Upper West Side apartment, but unfortunately I had to share her with about 200 other people.
At 78, Steinem still managed to steal the show from the younger, but still extremely impressive, women who joined her on stage. There’s a light that just emits from her, and you can feel the excitement when she walks into a room. After all, this is the woman who has arguably been the most well-known face of the feminist movement since the late 1960s.
But when Steinem first debuted into the public eye, she wasn’t known as a hard-hitting feminist. As a journalist in New York City, she was assigned mostly puff pieces in the beginning of her career. At the time they weren’t giving female journalists much else. She wrote a lot about pantyhose, how to cook a meal, and how to apply makeup.
Her first real ounce of recognition came from a job that could be considered the antithesis of feminism. Working for Show Magazine, Steinem was assigned to go undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the famed New York Playboy Club to expose the working conditions and treatment of female employees. Quite an interesting job for the Smith College graduate.
It wasn’t until she was working for New York magazine, which she helped create in the late 1960s, that she really became interested in women’s rights. Steinem was covering an abortion hearing given by the radical feminist group known as the Redstockings when she became truly inspired and passionate about the fight for female equality.
Steinem actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, which promoted equality between women and men. In 1971 Steinem joined other prominent feminists, such as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, in forming the National Women’s Political Caucus. She also took the lead in launching the pioneering, feminist Ms. magazine, which became the first national publication to feature the subject of domestic violence on its cover in 1976.
Steinem, who often sported aviators and a hairstyle that, she confesses, was a tribute to Holly Golightly, was often criticized for being too glamorous and attractive to be a feminist. But this worked in her favor because she exposed a new kind of feminism to the world: a young, beautiful woman who wanted the same rights held by men for her and generations to come.
In other words, Gloria Steinem is a rock star.
But the state of feminism today is very different than it was in the late 1970s, and this was the real focus of the talk. For many young women today, feminism is not a word that’s thrown around lightly. Many young women don’t want to be associated with this particular “F” word.
So, what does Steinem have to say about this?
“Send them to the dictionary. [The word] has been demonized by Rush Limbaugh and company. It is just a person who believes in the full equality of rights for everyone,” she said. McGee chimed in that the word should be thrown around a lot more, as her young son considers himself a feminist because he has heard his mother say it so much. “Use it a lot. Say it to your kids!” she said.
The women on stage talked about how even though it seems like we’ve “won” the battle in some ways, there is still so much work to do.
Steinem said people will still come up to her and say, “Aren’t you happy? You won!”
“It’s not over,” she’ll tell them. “That’s ridiculous.”
The work is not done. We are still very much in the trenches when it comes to making sure women get every advantage available to them. (“We can’t have a democracy out there until we have democratic families.”) Men need to be held to the same standards when it comes to the role of primary child caretaker as women. As of right now, they still aren’t.
The conversation turned to Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In, with Steinem commending the author and outspoken women’s rights activist. Sandberg is encouraging women to be both mothers and employees, and the problem is that “[they are] being received in an either/or culture.” Steinem also noted, “Who but a woman would be told success prevents her from giving advice?” So true.
Steinem stressed the main problem is that there is still this impossible standard that women are expected to live up to, to “have it all.”
“It’s impossible for women to have it all, if they have to do it all. It is ridiculous!” Steinem said. “We tried to kill [that saying] off for years. It blames the person instead of the structure.”
Well said, Steinem. Well said.
Photo: Joyce Culver for 92Y