As she prepares for her trip to West Cork, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, 82, is as active and outspoken as ever, writes Marjorie Brennan
GLORIA Steinem may be one of the world’s most famous feminists but it is her professionalism as a journalist that is most evident when my phone rings bang on the appointed time for our interview.
The 82-year-old spends more time in New York these days but she is still very much the tireless traveller, preparing for a trip to Zambia the day we talk. Soon, she will also be packing her bags for her first ever visit to Ireland, with a much-anticipated appearance at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry at the end of the month. It is no surprise then that the title of her recent memoir is My Life on the Road. While the book chronicles the many journeys — physical, spiritual, and emotional — she has undertaken, staying still long enough to actually write it proved the biggest challenge.
“Ironically, I couldn’t write a book about being on the road because I was on the road all the time. I would work on it in the summertime and then set it aside until the next summer — the hardest part was not having a stretch of time in which to get into it,” she says.
Steinem has been a figurehead for feminists in the US and beyond for almost half a century, coming to prominence with her writing on the women’s movement, going on to found the influential Ms magazine, and becoming a noted political activist. The hearts of many Irish feminists skipped a beat earlier this year when a picture was tweeted of Steinem in New York with Waking the Feminist campaigners who had collected the first international Lilly Award for their work highlighting gender inequality in Irish theatre.
“It was so wonderful. The awards began with this great energetic scene on the screen of everyone demonstrating,” says Steinem. “It meant a lot to me because to the extent that I grew up with any real education — it was pretty limited — it was all about the Irish theatre and the Troubles. It was spirited and fervent but I hardly ever remember seeing a woman who wasn’t serving tea. It was absolutely great to see.”
Steinem is active on social media; does she think that the latest incarnation of feminism and the so-called hashtag activism that characterises it, is a revolution or just rhetoric?
“It probably has the potential to be both. It’s very effective when information — and protest — can spread quickly, and therefore attention is paid and change made that would never otherwise have happened. That’s very valuable. However, we need to remember that pressing ‘send’ is not actually doing anything. It’s sending out information which may lead to action, but sometimes I feel, too, that I get some startling information about a problem, I send it to the relevant people and I feel I’ve done something. But I haven’t.”
Steinem also cites Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism campaign, which documents incidences of sexism faced daily by ordinary women around the world, as an example of hashtag activism that has real impact.
“That’s an example of the great use of the web because it helps to convey how ubiquitous this is in the lives of women. It’s not one big act, it’s the cumulative impact — death by many small slices.”
Steinem recounts the stinging impact of one such ‘small slice’ in her memoir. She had just started out as a writer and was sharing a taxi to a Robert Kennedy Senate campaign event with authors Saul Bellow and Gay Talese.
As she describes it in the book, Steinem was in the middle of speaking when “….Talese leaned across me — as if I were neither talking nor present — and said to Bellow, ‘You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl’. Then they began to discuss the awful traffic.”
What went through her mind when Talese made the remark? “I was sitting between them and when he said that I was worried about Saul Bellow — I had interviewed him in Chicago but it hadn’t been published yet, and I was afraid he’d regret the interview, as I was being presented as not a writer.
"Then, when we were out of the car I realised I should have objected to what he said. I didn’t fact-check that incident and I was afraid he’d deny it, but the New Yorker ran a profile on me about the book, and because the magazine is obsessed with fact-checking, they rang Gay Talese, and he cheerfully said, ‘Yes, I probably said that’.”
Steinem’s activism across six decades means she is more familiar than most with the machinations of the US political system. It’s not hard to figure out where her allegiance lies in the upcoming election. Does she think Hillary Clinton can become the first female president of the US?
“Yes. I didn’t think so in 2008 but it didn’t matter because Obama was the same on the issues and a very good person. In supporting Hillary in 2008 I didn’t not support Obama but I thought she had more experience. It seemed to me we needed eight years of one and eight years of the other, it didn’t matter in which order. Now it is not only possible but crucial.”
Steinem doesn’t hold back when it comes to the other presidential hopeful, Donald Trump. “I can’t begin to express to you what an asshole he is. When people are asked why they support him they say it’s because he’s a successful businessman, which is not true at all. If he had only invested the money he inherited he’d be richer than he is now. He’s a disaster. I’d hope that with continued exposure that will become ever more evident.”
Steinem received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honour in the US — from Obama in 2013.
“It was very, very moving. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was created by Jack Kennedy to have an award that wasn’t military like the Medal of Honor. I like to think it’s a medal for people who didn’t kill anyone,” she laughs. “Oprah was getting one the same day, and Bill Clinton, so it was a truly great event.”
Steinem had an encounter with celebrity of a different kind when she made a cameo appearance on hit US television show The Good Wife. “Really, I wanted to meet Julianna Margulies [who played lead character Alicia Florrick] — to invite her to a benefit the Women’s Media Center was doing. They asked me to do a walk-on because her character was considering running as a political candidate, so I said OK.”
While Steinem is well used to being outside her comfort zone, the experience wasn’t a particularly pleasurable one.
“I’m not sure I’d say OK again — it was so difficult. I have renewed respect for actors. My memory’s never been good, but you also have to do it five or six times from different angles, and make it seem as if it’s happening in the moment while you’re worried whether your toe is on a piece of tape on the floor.”
Steinem says she is greatly looking forward to her first trip here, and speaks of the American affinity with Ireland and the crucial role women played in the peace process in the North. “The Irish are so much part of this country, so I feel oddly like I’m going home to a country that’s not my home. Ireland also has a special meaning for those of us trying to say the women’s movement can make peace when governments can’t.”
One topical issue Steinem is sure to encounter on her trip here is the current debate around the Eighth Amendment. In her book, Steinem recalls an encounter with a female Irish cab driver who told her: “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!”
“In many ways reproductive freedom is the basis of everything,” says Steinem. “Whatever form the patriarchal takes in our different cultures, control of women’s bodies in order to control reproduction is the beginning of hierarchy, something we have to eliminate.”
She muses about the influence of the Catholic church in Ireland and whether our ancient culture, which celebrated female power and fertility, could be used as an argument for political change.
“Given all the remnants of what seemed to be a matrilineal culture, it makes me wonder if one could not cite the original culture of Ireland and treat the church as an interloper,” she says.
Steinem’s energy levels would be the envy of people half her age, and she writes in the book of how she hopes to live to 100. “That’s just to make my deadlines,” she laughs.
There is one unfinished project close to her heart that she would like to bring to fruition, to honour one of her greatest friends, Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee nation, who died in 2010. “I was working on a book with Wilma and I want to finish that, though I’m not 100% sure I can do that without her. There are other writing projects — although I think movements give you what you want to write about and take away the time to write them. I don’t think, ‘Oh, I want to go to that country or this country’, although I’m sure I’d enjoy it. When I think about the future, I think about writing.”
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