Reflections on Gloria Steinem: Feminism Struggles Against All Oppression

Katy MceGhee and Shannon Ikebe

Gloria Steinem has reminded us of why we are feminists, and why everyone should be. Feminism, she has passionately appealed to us, is about us all, about the very nature of the society which we are continually in the process of creating and recreating. It is our duty (and our joy!) to use the tools and values of feminism, which both draw from and contribute to all other struggles against oppression — based on class, race, sexuality and gender identity. It is our duty to be constantly inspired and self-reflective, allowing us to understand and combat what we are otherwise compelled by oppressive forces to be and to do.

Being a student at a politically progressive institution, you may have heard about the patriarchy. Patriarchy, we emphasize, is not the woman’s excuse for man-hatred as it is often caricatured, but, in its very basic definition, it is the very real system of power that restricts the freedom of female bodies based on sex. Institutional control of women’s reproductive capacities has been the cornerstone of the patriarchal system since its inception a few thousand years ago. A very apparent contemporary example of its functioning, as Steinem pointed out, is the control over reproductive functions currently perpetuated by legislation like the bill H.R. 3 and the Pence Amendment, which denies funds — without any sound economic basis — to women’s health organizations like Planned Parenthood. Patriarchal restrictions appear at this legal and political level, but also far more subtly in norms and expectations that even we feminists sometimes unwittingly subscribe to. Steinem’s speech drove home the reality of the persisting values of patriarchy, which we are all exposed to and often have internalized. Yet she also emphasized the power that we, as activists and members of all humanity, have in challenging them. She urged us to be “skeptical, not cynical,” positing that the oppressive legislation we have seen in the past month is in fact a sign of a backlash — defending patriarchal status quo in the face of a growing contestation by a rapidly changing American social fabric.

Patriarchy, however, extends beyond sex-based control. As Steinem emphasized throughout the day, all systems of dominations are connected through the authoritarian value systems that they share, whose ultimate and primal origins, as she argues, can be traced back to the patriarchy. The control of women and the system of inequality and subordination based on gender are the models from which the concepts of domination are learned and analogies are drawn. Precisely because the patriarchal values are the root of all oppression and authoritarian values, feminism, a struggle against patriarchy is relevant and necessary for all forms of emancipatory struggles. Feminism is simultaneously a struggle for women’s lives and bodies and a struggle against the authoritarian mindset.

In fact, as Steinem has eloquently argued and demonstrated, the second-wave feminist movement was profoundly integrated with other liberatory struggles since its inception. The Civil Rights Movement inspired the feminist consciousness of the second wave, and a countless number of second-wave feminists participated in, and incorporated, class struggles and movements for racial equality, just as Steinem herself has always done. Steinem has demonstrated an enduring support for the struggles of those who are marginalized on the bases other than gender. These are the best insights of intersectional analysis, though her language evades the fashionable terminology popular at Oberlin.

We do not agree with every example and idea expressed in Steinem’s speech and answers. We do not believe that, in their entirety, Steinem’s ideals are those shared by all feminisms, or those of all second-wave feminists. Feminism is a united, yet not monolithic, movement; we wish to dispel the myth any single feminist, no matter how high profile, entirely represents all views of all feminists. However, the overriding themes of emancipatory unity Gloria Steinem presented to us represent the fundamental values that unite all feminists, and unite feminism inextricably with all other movements for liberation.

The accomplishments of what we refer to as second-wave feminism — feminism of the 1960s and 1970s — are, upon reflection, historically remarkable. The legitimacy of sexism, which persisted for millennia, has been dealt a catastrophic blow in a matter of decades by the second-wave movement. However, the struggle to demolish deeply oppressive, hierarchical values, which have corrupted and poisoned the world for five thousand years, has just begun. Steinem has rightfully charged us with the continuation of the feminist challenge to all forms of oppression, imparting a sense of overwhelming optimism that was palpable in her passionate appeals. We ask all of you to join us in actively growing and sustaining a community united in these fundamental feminist values, which seek to create an emancipated world.

In this spirit, we invite you all to join us at a feminist collective meeting this coming Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. in Wilder Lounge.