Gloria Steinem On Sheryl Sandberg, Women’s Magazines And The “B” Word

Gloria Steinem at the Athena Film Festival on Feb.11, 2012

“But the problem is that when I go around and speak on campuses, I still don’t get young men standing up and saying, “How can I combine career and family?”-Gloria Steinem

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to attend The Athena Film Festival held at Barnard College in New York City. Though there were many great filmmakers, writers, activists and other various important women there was one person in particular that most people came to see. Her name is Gloria Steinem and I am in awe of her. She spoke after a screening of the HBO documentary about her life with activist and writer Amy Richards.

I’ll be honest. I really don’t know much about the feminist movement and I don’t consider myself a feminist. A workplace feminist I suppose. But what was thrilling to find out was that Gloria, arguably the most well-known feminist of all time, didn’t come out of her mother’s womb knowing she was going to be a feminist. She wasn’t remarking on the injustices of women as an 8-year-old in Toledo, Ohio or burning her bra by age 16. According to the new HBO documentary,Gloria: In Her Own Words, she did not start her journalism career in New York City writing about feminist issues. Originally she thought she would dance her way out of Ohio (she still occasionally taps in the elevator.) She was actually assigned mostly puff pieces in the beginning of her career. She wrote a lot about panty hose, how to cook a meal and makeup. Though her undercover piece on The Playboy Club  was considered groundbreaking by many, she thought it made her sound like a joke. But it wasn’t until she was working for New York Magazine, which she helped create in the late 1960s,that she really became interested in women’s rights. She was covering an abortion hearing given by the radical feminist group known as the Redstockings when she became truly inspired and passionate.  She expressed her feminist views in such essays as “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.”

In 1971 Steinem joined other prominent feminists, such as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, in forming the National Women’s Political Caucus, which worked on behalf of women’s issues. She also took the lead in launching the pioneering, feminist Ms magazine. Under her direction, the magazine tackled important topics, including domestic violence. Ms. became the first national publication to feature the subject on its cover in 1976. The documentary tells the story of her rather rough childhood, her struggle to be taken seriously because she was not your typical feminist with her movie star looks (her hair style was a nod to Holly Golightly) and style, her prominent role in the feminist movement and other aspects of her very interesting, and often emotional personal life. The film is wonderful but the real fun started when the 74-year-old icon came and spoke to the audience. Still beautiful, graceful and well read as ever, the audience was eager to pick her amazing mind.

On the feminist movement today

Though we often think of Gloria Steinem and feminists in general as very strong people, Steinem says she feels so much compassion every time she watches this documentary and sees footage of her 25-year-old self. “I wonder [when I watch it] how did I get past my vulnerable 25 year old self?…That young person is inside all of us,” she said. Though Gloria feels that the feminist movement has made progress she is seeing a backlash now. “There is a cult of femininity that supports the cult of masculinity…I don’t see enough anger. People aren’t pissed enough.” Women are still expected to be able to do both things [childcare and have a career] and even though more men today say they want to be different from their fathers but they still aren’t expected to do both jobs. “We know that we can do what men can do, but we still don’t know that men can do what women can do. That’s absolutely crucial. We can’t go on doing two jobs,” she said.

On Sheryl Sandberg

An audience member asked about what Gloria thought of Sheryl Sandberg especially considering all the Sheryl backlash that has been happening lately. By the way Sheryl has said often that Gloria made her life better. Some women are upset that Sheryl has “blamed” women for the ambition gap and says they need to be more aggressive. Gloria has known Sheryl for years and feels that many women who get to her level don’t help other women at all. “It seems that they are only their to put other women down. They become the Clarence Thomas of the boardroom,” she said. “Sheryl is completely the opposite. She is there to help other women.” Gloria said Sheryl is definitely not trying to criticize other women and she agrees very strongly with her that the most important business decision a woman can make is choosing the right life partner.

On the state of women’s magazines

Gloria believes that women’s magazines have gotten worse, mainly due to the fact that they are completely controlled by advertising. “That never happened at Ms because we hardly had any ads,” she said with a chuckle. Women’s magazines used to have quality investigative journalism and excellent fiction. “Now magazines are just oceans of clothing and makeup and that’s fine but it is all dictated. There is nothing about the sweatshops that made those clothes,” she said. She looks to the Web (so sites like this one!) as a way to rectify this situation. She hopes the internet can come up with a financial model that doesn’t depend on advertising.

The B Word

The word b*tch has become a part of the vernacular on a whole new level but Gloria isn’t sure that is a bad thing. “What movements do is take the words that are used against us,” she said. “It is good to take the words that have power in them and take the power back. Now it depends on who is using them though. Sometimes when they call you bitch they are not giving you the power. But sometimes I do think, “Yeah, watch out for me.” Gloria said when she was a young woman in her 20s she went back to Toledo for a TV show and she was called a “slut from Toledo.” “At the time I would have been devastated when I lived there [in Ohio.] But then I thought, yeah, that’s a pretty good thing to be. I want it on my tombstone: “Here lies the slut from Toledo,” she said with a laugh.

So this was Gloria Steinem in my words. It was amazing to be in her presence and see the energy she brought into the room. I will end with a quote from another great feminist, Susan B. Anthony, that pretty much sums up what Gloria did for us: “Our Job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make the ungrateful so they keep going. Gratitude never radicalized anybody.”

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