Gloria Steinem arrived in Oberlin in style on Wednesday, urging students toward direct action and offering aspiring activists, organizers and those hungry for change a glimpse of what half a century of relentless advocacy and activism could accomplish.
On Wednesday night, Steinem delivered the second convocation of the semester as part of Oberlin’s celebration of Women’s History Month. It was Steinem’s second appearance on the stage of Finney Chapel — in 1972 she spoke there with Margaret Sloan on the topics of racism and sexism.
“Ms. Steinem has played and continues to play an integral role in the struggle in America and around the world for women’s rights and human rights,” said President Marvin Krislov in his introduction of the icon. “Over the past 50 years the lives of millions of women and men, including all of you in the audience, have been changed for the better because of Ms. Steinem’s tireless advocacy of equal rights for women.”
Before the convocation, I had the chance to hear Steinem speak in an interview and then in an informal discussion session about the state of abortion today, the relationship between racism and sexism, the importance of studying marginalized history in college and why feminism is as relevant as ever.
When I asked her if the recent GOP attacks on abortion rights were part of a larger cultural war to stigmatize reproductive healthcare, Steinem responded that the attacks have never stopped, as it’s the only issue in which the ultra-right wing will vote against their own financial interest. “We’ve been doing financial impact statements for all of these years explaining that for every dollar you don’t spend on women’s health, we all know that it’s 300 percent more for unwanted births, not to mention for abortions because contraception is not available,” she said. “But the good news is that the public opinion polls are very different — it’s very clear that 67 percent of Americans think that it should be a woman and her physician who make the decision, not the government. But those polls have not been reflected in who goes to vote.”
Roe v. Wade has already been overturned for most people, Steinem said, because 85 percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion service at all and the Hyde Amendment has prevented poor women and young women from access to abortion. “The shell of Roe v. Wade remains because they’re afraid to overturn it, because it’s a big symbol,” she said.
What we have to do, she said, is overturn the Hyde Amendment, because it has turned abortion into a class privilege. “I know that there’s a feeling that we’re fighting the same battle over and over again, but this is the battle — if we weren’t the means of reproduction, so to speak, we wouldn’t be in this jam. And in fact, we weren’t in this jam for 95 percent of human history. Women for as far as we know for 95 percent of human history controlled their own fertility and decided when and whether to have children.”
Steinem elaborated that controlling reproduction, and therefore controlling women’s bodies, is the nature of patriarchy. “Europe became the pioneers of patriarchy for a series of reasons, and the name of the game is controlling reproduction, so that you can decide how many workers, how many soldiers, what race people belong to. The right wing is terrified that this country is about 20 minutes away from no longer being a majority European-American country and of course, there are culturally differential birth rates and they’re aware of that.”
Racism and sexism are inherently linked, Steinem explained. “If you’re going to maintain racism, you have to control reproduction, because in the long term, if there’s a lot of intermarriage, there’s no more visible difference,” she said. “We’re historically restricted in order to maintain racial purity, so white women are more likely to be restricted and women of color exploited for cheap labor, so everybody is affected by racism. Everybody is affected by sexism because the first thing we see in our families usually that lies to us is that one group is more important than the other — that people are born into groups and that we have labels. If you accept that in your family, you’re more likely to accept that when it comes to class or race or ethnicity or anything else. They are caste systems that are so intertwined that they are impossible to uproot separately.”
When I told her that the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at Oberlin recently terminated and that now we have an interdisciplinary program, Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies in its place, she responded: “The only acceptable thing that could mean is that women are half of every course, so we don’t need it anymore. I hope that’s true, but I’m not so sure. There was a famous longitudinal study called the Valedictorian Study. Male and female high school valedictorians were followed for 15 years and the conclusion was that women’s intellectual self-esteem went down with every year of higher education because we were studying our own absence. We got good grades, and on average better grades, but because of what we were studying and because of the common sense that if you can’t see it you can’t be it, we came to think that we could learn about it but not do it. It seems to me that until we have human history, we can’t do away with remedial history, which is what women’s history, African American history and Native American history really is.”
“It took me 20 years to get over my college education,” she said later. “I was sitting there reading Aristotle, and he loathed women, and nobody thought that was a problem at all. I didn’t study a word about Africa or Asia — it was all about Europe. It’s much better now, I realize, but we still have the remnants of that.”
When another student asked how she would respond to those who said our society was post-feminist and post-racist, Steinem replied that the initial argument against feminism was, “‘It’s not really necessary, it’s unnatural, women really are different and inferior, blacks really are different and inferior.’” “But we did it anyway,” she said. “Now the argument is, ‘Well, it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore,’ and it’s just not true. We’ve barely begun. Any movement has to last 100 years in order to survive and really be embedded in a culture and in society. I think post-feminism was, as far as I know, a term invented by The New York Times. It’s exactly like saying ‘post-democracy,’ because you can’t have democracy without feminism.”
Activism is especially important for college students, Steinem said, “because otherwise you feel like you’re doing everything in your head — you’re learning all of this and it becomes frustrating because it’s all about learning and not really about acting. We don’t know which of the things we do is important. Have faith in whatever it is, small or large, because it’s like a chain, it will lead to other things. If it fails, at least you won’t be walking around saying to yourself, ‘What if?,’ because that’s the greatest punishment.”
“Gratitude never radicalized anybody,” the revered feminist said. “I did not walk around saying, ‘Thank you for the vote.’ I got mad because of what was happening to me. Even Susan B. Anthony said, ‘Our task is not to make women grateful, but to make them ungrateful.’”