Feminist organizer and icon Gloria Steinem recalled formative moments in her life and career and spoke about her great hope for the future as she addressed Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series at Symphony Hall on Wednesday night.
“We are on the edge of great progress,” said Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine and an early contributor to New York magazine. “It doesn’t mean a backlash won’t happen and that it’s not dangerous, but we should count and value how much has changed and how much we are finally, finally, finally realizing that as human beings, we are linked, not ranked,” she said to resounding applause.
Departing from the Speakers Series’ standard lecture format, WGBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen interviewed Steinem onstage, followed by written questions from the audience. Steinem weighed in on dozens of topics ranging from “The Bachelor” television show to the 2016 presidential election to her decision to get married in her 60s.
Now in her mid-80s, she shared advice for today’s women, recalled the time she famously went undercover as a Playboy Bunny, and consistently deflected praise for her achievements.
“I am not an icon! An icon is like a thing,” Steinem declared in response to a question.
“This is a huge movement and we all play different roles,” she asserted. “Because I’m a writer and a speaker, I have been able to report on what’s going on.”
Steinem says her celebrity stems from solidarity.
“For me, when I’m recognized, as I just was at the airport by a couple of women, it’s because we know we care about the same things,” she said, “and it’s like we’ve already had lunch three or four times, and we can talk to each other. It’s like instant friendship. That’s very different from being an icon.”
Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2013, and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, among many achievements and recognitions. As she continues her activism, she is adamant about working with younger generations.
“To be older means that I have hope, because I remember when it was worse,” said Steinem. “And what that means is I need to organize with these women who are mad as hell at the way it still is, because they need me, and I need them. … We’re all part of the same group.”
While she may be older, Steinem entertained the audience with witty jabs and her signature brashness and honesty, such as her response to a query about the most effective messaging for their signs at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. later this month: “Anything you fucking well please,” she deadpanned.
Asked about her instructions to millennial women to carry on the feminist movement, she replied, “That is for them to know and me to listen to. It’s not for me to say.”
And in response to the question, “Was Hugh Hefner a misogynist or misunderstood?” she quipped, “He was pathetic,” as the audience roared.
The birth of a feminist organizer
Bowen asked Steinem what set her on the path to becoming who she is, including her unconventional childhood, raised by a father who “never wore a hat and never had a full-time job” and a mother who sacrificed her career and passions.
“The more I think about it, the more I realize that the fact (my father) always worked for himself has helped me become a freelance writer and an organizer – not to feel like I had to have a salary or a job – and also to understand the pleasures of the road, the spontaneity of the road, so I’m grateful to him,” she said.
The family bounced between their summer camp in Michigan and wintering in Florida and California in a house trailer, and Steinem didn’t consistently attend school until after she turned 10.
“But I was always reading, constantly reading,” she recalled. “My mother would say, ‘Look out the window!’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I looked an hour ago.’”
Only later did she learn what her mother gave up to have a family and the toll that it took on her.
“Before I was born, she had been a pioneering journalist, a reporter even when she had to write under a man’s name, and ultimately Sunday editor of the Toledo Blade. This is shortly after women got the vote,” recalled Steinem. “She loved her work, but with the combination of my father, who is also a wonderful person but also the most financially irresponsible person you could possibly find, and (my) older sister, she just couldn’t make it work.”
Her mother suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown and was sent to a sanatorium.
“She was given an early form of tranquilizers, sodium pentothal, also given to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, which was also quite addictive,” said Steinem, “so by the time I knew her, I didn’t realize how much she had given up. And I think I’m one of those many people who perhaps are living out the unlived lives of our mothers.”
As Steinem ventured to college and then lived abroad, concerns about racial and class inequality took root.
“I got mad. I just got mad,” she said. “It just didn’t seem to make sense to me. And then gradually, also the ideas of male and female roles didn’t make sense to me.”
The pursuit for equality continues to drive Steinem, all these years later.
“Each of us is a unique miracle that could never have happened before and could never happen again,” she said. “We’re a combination of environment and heredity, and what we share as human beings is way more than anything that could possibly divide us that has to do with melanin in our skin and our genitals and so forth. It’s just about our ability to be who we are and share our humanity,” she said as the audience erupted in applause.
Progress will prevail
Steinem touched on President Donald Trump at various points during the conversation, describing his election, in part, as “a real desire to go back to the past and a kind of hierarchy.”
“‘Make America Great Again’ was a very seductive and symbolic statement,” she said. However, she noted, “I want to say how much progress has been made even though we have a regression in the White House, which represents only a third of the country. All of the issues of the great social justice movements and the environmental movement are now majority issues, which they were not before.”
Steinem said gender equality is critical to advancing democracy nationally and globally, citing a 2012 book titled “Sex and World Peace,” which posits that security of women is a vital factor in the security of the state and diminishing conflict and war.
“We’ve become much more aware that the greatest cause of war and violence is not access to natural resources or poverty or religion or even degree of democracy, it’s actually gender roles - domination of and violence against females,” said Steinem. “And when we see that in our families, it normalizes that kind of relationship everywhere else. We are never going to have a democracy until we have democratic families. We’re not going to diminish violence in public life until we diminish dominance and violence in private life. It’s just fundamental.”
She called on members of the audience to lift up the voices of people who have been silenced and to “listen as much as you talk,” saying, “It’s amazing what a difference it makes.”
“The listening part may be harder for people who are accustomed to having all the power. But I’m telling you, the talking part is hard, too, because if you’re used to listening and not feeling like you have a right to talk, it’s hard to talk,” Steinem said.
Asked how fired up she is on a scale of 1 to 10, Steinem immediately noted President Trump’s speech earlier in the day about immigration and border security.
“The speech today about the border was such a shame to this nation,” said Steinem. “Every word was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘but,’” she said to sustained applause, “so that is incredibly angering.”
She continued, “Yes, I’m angry, and anger is an energy cell. We see the danger, but we also know we’re the majority and we’re going to change it. I have never in my life seen the degree of activism that I see now as I travel around the country. So yes, it’s dangerous, but we are woke. We are seriously woke.”
Life in the spotlight
Recalling her experience going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, about which she wrote her famed account, titled “A Bunny’s Tale,” Steinem said it’s been a mixed blessing.
“I’m not sorry that I did it because it did expose the working conditions and change them to some extent, and you no longer had to have an internal exam,” said Steinem, “but the problem with it for me is just that, especially people who want to diminish me in some way, will say ‘Oh well, she was just a Playboy Bunny,’ or they’ll introduce me that way, so it has been unpleasant as a continuing identification.”
She also talked about the perception that her marriage to her late husband, David Bale, father of actor Christian Bale, was somehow a betrayal of her feminist principles.
“At our advanced ages, I don’t think we would have thought of getting married, except he needed a green card,” said Steinem. “I thought, well, we have spent 30 years changing the marriage laws, so no longer would I be giving up my name, my legal residence, my credit rating. We made the marriage laws equal, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s not marriage per se that people were against, it was the inequality of marriage.”
Steinem praised the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements as a critical evolution of feminism and other social justice movements.
“The Me Too movement is courageous and great in a whole new wave,” said Steinem. “These movements are saying, ‘I spoke out and you can do it, too.’ Nothing is more important.”
Asked if she fears a backlash to these movements, Steinem quipped, “We haven’t even had a ‘frontlash.’”
“I heard somebody on television calling it the ‘patriarchal Stockholm syndrome,’ that we worry about the backlash,” said Steinem. “Just tell the truth and do our best. Will there be false accusations? Yes. Should we worry about that? Yes. But first, you have to tell the truth and speak out.”
Above all, Steinem is grateful for the social change she’s been able to participate in and she urged others to “do what you love to do so much that you forget what time it is when you’re doing it.”
“We are not isolated individuals, we are communal animals,” said Steinem. “We cannot exist for long without each other and I’m grateful to be part of the movement, which is a family to me. A movement is a family for people who are trying to make a change. I’m so grateful that I have that in my life.”