You know what they say about March -- comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.
Forget that. March is Women’s History Month. It should come in like a lioness, and go out like one too. Like, say, Gloria Steinem.
As a seminal figure in the American women’s movement, Steinem inhabits both history and the here and now. This time “here” happened to be the Skirball Center, honoring a retiring rabbi, Sheryl Lewart.
She wore New York black, ornamented by a Native American beaded necklace that means a great deal to her -- a talisman, a gift from her friend, Wilma Mankiller, who for 10 years was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. In a just country, Steinem believes, Mankiller would be president.
As you can probably surmise, Steinem doesn’t think that “just country” is this one -- not yet, anyway.
How do you pick your fights?
There are people who’d suggest that when it comes to women’s liberation, it’s game over, a done deal.
The first argument was, you don’t need this movement, you’re fighting biology, it’s impossible. Then we did it anyway. Then the second argument was, it used to be necessary but it’s not anymore. [That’s] just obstruction, and the civil rights movement is suffering from it too, as if having an African American president has now meant that the huge disparity in health and income and employment didn’t exist. It’s a tactic to stop the movement.
Are the biases against women more nuanced now?
No, they’re not nuanced at all. They’re unequal pay, pink-collar ghettos -- 70% of women are still employed in primarily female occupations that are less well paid. A parking lot attendant who’s a guy makes a lot more money than a child-care attendant who’s a woman. We have moved forward from 59 cents to 70-some cents on the [male] dollar. By the fact that we value our children more than our cars, it does not make sense that a parking lot attendant who’s a guy makes a lot more money than a child-care attendant who’s a woman.
What about the greater numbers of women in college, in some professions?
I’m glad about that, but part of the reason that’s true is because [some] male blue-collar professions pay better than female white-collar professions. You can still graduate from college with a BA degree and make less than a man with a high school education.
One place that [advances] are very important is sports and physical strength and fitness. Rich cultures, patriarchal cultures, value thin women, like ours; poor ones value fat women. But all patriarchal cultures value weak women. So for women to become physically strong is very profound. Title IX helped enormously, and sports and fitness have helped a great deal.
Must change happen from the bottom up, or the top down? Is it individual or structural?
It requires both. It also requires valuing care-giving. Raising children, taking care of invalids, helping elderly parents is about a third of the work in this country, and it’s 90% done by women. [When family members do it], it could easily be given an attributed economic value: How much would it cost if you were paying? And make that tax deductible. That would be a huge difference. The big step for this coming generation is to get to a place where men raise children as much as women do.
I wonder whether you think the war on terrorism may have elevated feminist awareness in this country because of how hideously the Taliban treats women?
We don’t need martyrs and we don’t need examples. I think we have a bad case of first-ism in this country. We seem to think that women here are better off than they are in any other country, and that’s not true. We are the only modern democracy in the whole world with no national system of child care, no national system of healthcare, no system of family-friendly workplace policies. Women are a lesser percentage of elected officials [here] than in India. We are not “first.”
Where do women’s issues figure in the healthcare debate?
Women tend to need the healthcare system more because we bear children. Insurance companies -- not all of them, but many of them -- “gender-rate.” Women may pay 40% more for their health insurance than men do. [Companies] are not allowed to [discriminate] racially anymore, but they still do it on gender. They say the reason they get to charge more is we have children. I would say having children is a socially useful act. Being female is not a preexisting condition.
Far and away most women believe in equal pay, equal rights, equal treatment, and yet they may shrink from the word “feminist.” How did it become a no-go?
Because it’s been demonized by the right wing. Every time I can bear to turn on Rush Limbaugh, he’s talking about femi-Nazis. It has been distorted, just as “liberal” has.
Do we need the Equal Rights Amendment?
Yes we do. But it’s going to be quite a long time. Discrimination based on sex is still not a suspect category in the way that race or national origin or religion is. Not only do we still have laws on the book that need changing, but capricious legislators could make another law based on sex. So we still do need it.
Some young women, like some young men, are having casual sex, putting
embarrassing pictures of themselves on Facebook, drinking and fighting like men.
But that’s not a downside of the movement -- that’s a downside of the culture. If men could get public notice by taking their clothes off, they would be taking their clothes off! The culture still rewards women for certain types of behavior, and it’s not surprising that when [they’re] young, they think it’s in their interest and don’t realize that employers for 30 years are going to be looking at this Facebook page and not hiring you.
You wrote critically about Sarah Palin for The Times in 2008. What do her political persona and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s say about us?
She is, as I said in that column, a young Phyllis Schlafly. There’ll always be a Clarence Thomas, a Phyllis Schlafly, someone who goes against the majority needs of their group. We create jobs for them too. If it weren’t for the women’s movement, there wouldn’t be anything to sell out!
I do think Hillary Clinton’s candidacy changed the atmosphere. I never for a moment thought a woman could win. It’s too soon. But I do think that her candidacy made it possible for many more people to imagine a woman president. How she got up every morning and took that much punishment, I don’t know. She was so strong.
Is there a pendulum to social movements, progress and backswing?
I think we make progress and we have a backlash. If we hadn’t had a front-lash, we wouldn’t have a backlash. We were ownable, like this table. All women, and men of color -- we were owned like tables and chairs. We spent a hundred years getting a legal identity as human beings. That’s a big thing. So now we’re trying to get social and legal equality.
Who’s at the forefront of the women’s movement now?
Now it’s pretty much everywhere. The reason people know me is because there were so few of us. We were, like, 12 crazy women, and now there are all kinds of leadership going on. If I could have one wish for the women’s movement worldwide, it would be to have feminist groups everywhere. We’re communal creatures. We need to gather together once a week or once a month and discover that we’re not alone, and to be able to tell the truth together.
Is Hollywood mending its sexist ways?
I’m an outside person watching, but I would say we have made some age progress. Marilyn Monroe was profoundly depressed at turning 30. Now we have women at 40 and 50 who are sexual beings in movies. We have Meryl Streep, age 60, playing a lead in a romantic comedy. But we still have older men with much younger women, rarely the other way around, and when it is the other way around, they call them “cougars.” When it’s older men with younger women, they call them “men.”
Do you have a favorite movie we’d call a chick flick?
To me, one of the greatest ever made was “Antonia’s Line,” which won an Oscar for best foreign film in the 1990s. It was written and directed by a Dutch woman.
We’ve now had women prisoners of war, and women have been cleared to serve on submarines; when are we going to have women officially in combat?
It’s pretty academic, actually, because warfare doesn’t have neat combat zones anymore. But what it does do is keep women much less likely to be promoted and much less likely to be in command of [the] U.S. military, which happens to be the largest managed economy in the world.
What does having women’s history month mean anymore?
It means that every other month is men’s history month. At least we have one month!