Talia Weisberg ’17
On November 4, Second Wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem spoke at the Harvard Book Store about her memoir, My Life on the Road. I had the honor and privilege to speak with her ahead of time and discuss her experiences in life, ranging from her involvement in feminist activism to her religious identity. On behalf of every Manifesta editor and writer, past and present, I thank Ms. Steinem for all of the work that she has done on behalf of women’s rights. Without her, neither Manifesta nor the society we live in would exist.
Talia Weisberg: You’re not new to writing – you established Ms. in 1972, when it was just an insert in New York magazine. Did you ever expect it to have such longevity?
Gloria Steinem: No I didn’t, because I thought it would have an impact. We all expected it to have more impact on other women’s magazines so that the magazines in general would change. What we didn’t understand was the economic structure of women’s magazines, which means their content is pretty much dictated by advertising. So here we are, forty-something years later, still the only women’s magazine owned by women.
However, with the other conventional women’s magazines, the editors do do their best to get an article or two in them that are different from what would’ve been in the past.
TW: I don’t really read women’s magazines, but I know that friends will often send me articles they find in magazines like Cosmo about topics that they think I will appreciate, like sexual assault or body image.
GS: Yes, that’s a good example, because the editor of Cosmo is trying to give more political info in the magazine. The editors themselves are doing their best, but the economics of a women’s magazine are just not conducive – they’re referred to as cash cows in the industry. If somebody is advertising make up or fashion or food they want to be next to an editorial copy that’s about make up or fashion or food, and that’s why you no longer see, say, fiction or poetry which used to be in women’s magazines. It’s gotten more restrictive in some ways.
TW: How involved are you in Ms. now, and how has the publication changed or stayed the same?
GS: I’m a contributing editor, which means I occasionally suggest an article or a book to review or a subject, but I’m not involved on a day-to-day basis. It’s published in LA by the Feminist Majority Foundation and I’m very grateful to them that they took over. Just looking at it objectively as a reader, it does publish informational articles and writers that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, and I think that’s still its strength. Now that it’s on the web, it comes out in print four times a year.
TW: Do you have any advice for a young feminist magazine at Harvard?
GS: About the economics of the magazine, we did better economically when we stopped taking commercial ads. The readers and the advertisers often want two different things. So I would just question the conventional wisdom that you can only publish a successful magazine if it’s supported by advertisers. There are other ways you can enter into it with an understanding that people will pay for what they want. We buy paperback books and books to put on our kindles and they don’t have advertising. I think that we can lead somewhat of a revolution, a small revolution anyway, in the way magazines have been published.
TW: Two out of the eight male final clubs have gone coed under pressure from the College in an administrative attempt to curb sexual assault. What do you think about these spaces becoming open to women “with a forced hand”?
GS: Well, I don’t know if it’s possible to make a judgment about all of them; it depends on whether they really do become changed in their spirit and more inclusive. It’s quite possible to integrate in a token way, and it’s also possible to integrate in a transformational way. Since Harvard itself is integrated and struggling to transform, it makes sense that its social groupings would be going through the same transition.
TW: That’s an interesting perspective. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that could be because Harvard has been coed for my entire life, but you were around before Radcliffe and Harvard merged.
GS: I remember when the integration was taking place. I could be wrong about it because I wasn’t close to it, but it felt as if Harvard wanted the real estate of Radcliffe more than anything else. I wasn’t sure that Radcliffe was going to be able to become an influencer or partner, at least in the way that Harvard proceeded.
TW: I know a lot of Radcliffe alumni feel that Radcliffe got a raw deal when Harvard absorbed it.
GS: At that point, Ruth Simmons was the president of Smith and I was on the student board. I remember saying to Ruth that the problem of Radcliffe and Harvard was like a woman negotiating with her more powerful husband and what she needed was a girlfriend, and that Smith should offer to merge with Radcliffe since their mission is shared. We did actually call someone at Radcliffe about it, but it was too late, and the process too far down the road.
TW: On a related note to the final club question – what do you think is the most important thing for men to understand about feminism?
GS: That feminism relieves them of the restrictions of the masculine role. It’s really about lifting up the bifurcation of human nature into “masculine” and “feminine” and becoming fully human, unique. Each of us also shares full humanity, so I hope that men will understand that feminism benefits them, because people who are of any one race hopefully understand that the end of judgments based on race benefits them too.
TW: Trans issues have been getting a lot of media attention recently. I know that your views have changed on this – could you explain why?
GS: It’s hard to remember states of mind, but I wouldn’t say they’ve changed. My hope is that we can evolve in society in which people can be themselves uniquely whoever they are, and choose to describe themselves however they wish, without drastic changes that might endanger them. But we’re not there yet, and in any case we need to support each other in our self-descriptions and our decisions of what to do, because at the moment gender roles are still very deep.
In the essay I wrote 35 or 40 years ago, “If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Must We Change the Foot?” I was trying to say that we should change society instead of asking individuals to change. I still think that’s the ultimate goal, and in the process we respect each other’s choices along the way. It’s possible that people reading that piece in a current consciousness feel that I was criticizing people for not changing society but changing themselves. I didn’t mean that. It’s going to take a long time.
TW: What have you done after that change to be an ally to trans women?
GS: Wherever there is a statement of equal rights and the ability to name ourselves, I – and everybody I know – include trans language. As a movement we also try to do that legally, to give protection by civil rights legislation. In fact, New York State finally did just do that legally at the behest of women’s groups.
TW: You just released a memoir, My Life On the Road, which you’ll be talking about on campus on Wednesday. What prompted you to write it?
GS: It’s really a road book, a classic road book, because I belatedly, after I started to write the book, realized that perhaps I had been influenced by growing up in a house trailer – there’s a chapter about my father, who really was a gypsy.
TW: Right, so – I know your dad was Jewish. I’m Orthodox and was raised in a pretty conservative community, so when I first discovered feminism, hearing about movement leaders with Jewish names like Steinem and Friedan was so validating to me.
GS: That wasn’t the way I was raised, but I’m glad I served that purpose!
TW: Me too! I guess, can I ask – how do you identify religiously?
GS: My father was from a Jewish family, and he and his parents were not observant. Both of my grandmothers had become theosophists, and my mother came from a Christian family, and she also didn’t observe or practice and became a theosophist. So I find that I identify as Jewish when I sense that not to do so would be a desertion, which says there’s anti-Semitism, because I don’t feel that way about being Christian. I don’t feel I have to identify as a Christian because I don’t sense the same kind of discrimination.
TW: Right. So do you think that sense of Jewish identity informed or had any interplay with your feminist identity?
GS: In one way, because I have friends who are Jewish and feminist. One of them, Esther Broner, really rewrote the entire haggadah in a book called The Telling in a very poetic way, so that on the third night of Passover women had their own seder [after the first two nights with the two traditional seders], with their own haggadah. She rewrote all the questions and answers [that are found in the haggadah] for the women’s seder. Each of us would say our matrilineal heritage [in contrast to the fact that Jewish tradition usually recognizes the patrilineal line], “I am Gloria daughter of Ruth daughter of Marie” and so on, and we would recognize all the women who had no names of their own. It was always very moving. So I was part of that women’s seder scene for 20 some years, and I still go. That’s the most Jewish and feminist tradition in my life.
TW: What advice do you have for young women today, who hope and expect to lead active and independent lives?
GS: In terms of advice, I would say don’t listen to my advice – listen to yourself. Have confidence in that voice inside you that tells you what you love to do because you forget what time it is when you’re doing it and tells you what makes you feel diminished or uncomfortable that you need to change. I really think we’re here to find each other’s uniqueness in each other’s unique voice. I try to give advice to be helpful in specific situations, but I wouldn’t try to give more overarching advice than to listen to one’s own true voice.
And [regarding] how you hope to be active people in the world – I would just say, put into the present what you want in the future. If you want to be a writer in the future, write a little bit each day. If you want more kindness and music in the future, try to have a little kindness and music each day. The ends don’t justify the means; the means are the end, and the more we can make the means of each day have some semblance to what we’re looking forward to in the future, the more likely we are to get there.