Steinem calls recent women's marches 'so much more contagious and so much more global'

In a ballroom at the sprawling Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, activist Gloria Steinem and actress Octavia Spencer emerged onstage hand in hand Monday night.

The crowd, predominately female, erupted into thunderous applause that led to a standing ovation. 

Steinem and Spencer, just two of many high-profile powerhouses speaking at Makers’ third women's conference through Wednesday, were here to discuss a range of topics. They dissected Spencer’s slow but steady rise through Hollywood’s ranks and how to tell underrepresented stories like the one at the heart of “Hidden Figures” (which earned Spencer an Oscar nod for supporting actress). And, of course, they pointed the way forward for women under an administration that many feel poses a threat to reproductive rights.

Unofficially dubbed the “meeting of the minds after the march,” the AOL-sponsored conference tapped other big names such as Debra Messing (“Will and Grace”) and Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) Monday night to share their stories and to shed light on issues affecting women.

“This is such a wonderful, wonderful movement that you guys have created,” Spencer said from the stage. “And my God, we definitely need to keep the momentum because four years is a long time.”

Steinem, a longtime feminist icon, writer and organizer,  interviewed Spencer at the conference  and spoke exclusively to The Times beforehand about the election, women’s marches and the work that’s left to be done.

How has the current administration set women back and what is the way forward?

Steinem: They set us back in every possible way they could think of. Fortunately, they have limited imaginations [laughs]. I think it’s very, very important to say and to realize what several people in the American Psychiatric Assn. said: that the president is an example of narcissistic personality disorder, which means that he cannot fail to respond negatively to the smallest slight. And he cannot fail to follow praise, even if it comes from an adversary, as is the case with Russia. I think once we understand that, because it’s so recognizable, we will really seriously consider why we don’t have some sort of standard of examination for high office. And also that the people around him who do know fact from fiction are perhaps more responsible than he is.

What does it mean to you that Trump got so many votes from women?

You know, I always remember that in China they didn’t bind the feet of poor women, they bound the feet of rich women. The majority [of Trump voters] was, like, 53% of white, married women. It was not the majority of white, unmarried women, and it was overwhelmingly not the majority of women of color. So if you are dependent on a man’s income and you have been convinced that your entire welfare depends not on yourself but someone else, then you vote that person’s interest. Now, I don’t mean to say that that’s the motive of all women. Some women were no doubt voting out of very conservative, religious views. I’m not pretending that I know, but I do think we need to remember that traditionally women in the upper classes are way more restricted. They may get better dental care and better food, but they’re way more restricted.

Which women’s issues do you think deserve the most attention right now?

Safety from violence. And we need to check our perceptions because we sometimes — even though we’ve begun to recognize, say, police violence against black Americans — we're still recognizing it against men more than against women. And so, protection from violence, diminishing violence and also achieving reproductive freedom. The idea that women’s bodies are regulated and invaded by the law is all about controlling reproduction, which is the source of our problem in the first place!

What would you like to see more women do?

Not ask what to do, but do what they know they should. Listen to the voice that’s in all of us telling us what we need to do and finding support and companionship for that. 

Do you think protests actually work?

Well, it’s just the beginning. Movements always come out of one person saying what they think only they are experiencing and then discovering other people having the same experience. [The Women’s March on Washington] was a gigantic version of that. Never ever have I experienced a march where there were so many people that I couldn’t march! Or where I was getting calls from other capital cities like Berlin saying, “Tell them walls don’t work” and they too were having a massive march.

What impact or significance do you think the marches had?

To me, they were so much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen in my life and so much more contagious and so much more global. I really believe they’ve created an energy cell and a sense of community and connection that turns into action.

sonaiya.kelley@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @sonaiyak

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