Gloria Steinem is more than a feminist icon: She is an 83-year-old unicorn who has spent her life bucking the social conventions that define modern womanhood. She doesn’t have kids, was only married briefly — and not until she was in her 60s — and she tells me during our chat that she’s never really had a job. While she’s made a career of speaking up for women, her life has been very different from those of many people for whom she advocates. This unique background doesn’t preclude her from taking part in the conversation, but it certainly gives her an interesting vantage point.
We sit in a light-soaked renovated factory deep in Brooklyn, where Steinem is hosting a conversation as part of Create & Cultivate NYC, a nationwide conference for women looking to “create and cultivate the career of their dreams." (Editor's note: Refinery29 is Create & Cultivate's exclusive media partner.) There are flowers everywhere. Attendees can get their hair and makeup done in between sessions on channeling their entrepreneurial spirit and the power of content. Inspirational quotes are sprinkled across the floors so the young women can show off their shoes and their motivation in one perfect Instagram. The motto of the day isn’t “act like a man” but “collaboration over competition” — and in our current climate, the message feels more important than ever.
Yet following Hillary Clinton’s loss in November, the glass ceiling now seems bullet-proof. And it’s impossible to talk about female empowerment without getting political — and acknowledging the importance of intersectional feminism. To be fighting for women’s rights for your entire adult life, only to watch an alleged sexual harasser become the U.S. president, must be devastating in many ways. And yet, Steinem speaks a lot about hope. “I’m a hope-aholic,” she tells the Create & Cultivate audience later that evening. And, as you’ll find out ahead, she’s not planning to stop fighting anytime soon.
Why do you think conferences like Create & Cultivate are so important for young women?
“First and foremost because you meet each other. There's nothing that can replace just being in each other's presence. That's why we need girlfriends and support groups and families. There's just nothing that replaces being physically together. And there's not so many opportunities for that. So conferences like this, which are aspirational, attract people who are on their way somewhere and can help each other.”
What about engaging men? I have a baby boy at home, and lately I’ve been thinking more about how to get men involved with women's rights. Do you have any suggestions?
“Tell them the masculine realm is killing them. It's [in their] self-interest. Men would live quite a few years longer without the masculine realm. And not only that, but they're deprived of their kids — they don't get to see their children, or they aren't raised to raise children, which is how they get deprived of their humanity. Women usually become whole people by being active outside the home. Men become whole people by being active inside the home.”
Telling them that it's good for their health is great, but do we need to be having different conversations about equality in order to engage them?
“We've been knitting their socks and raising their children; we can't also make their revolution for them. They have to do it themselves. But I think we understand that it's possible when it's organic. And it's also true that more and more men are finding strength in relationships. I think we should reach out, because it's perfectly clear that it's not about biology — it's about consciousness. And there are many men who are very strong feminists and humanitarians.”
Ivanka Trump has gotten a lot of criticism for trying to co-opt feminism.
“She hasn't co-opted feminism. Nobody on earth thinks she's a feminist, are you kidding me?”
She does try to market herself as one.
“No, she doesn't.”
So how would you define a feminist?
“Somebody who believes in the full equality of the sexes. I have not seen her standing up and saying women should have a right to control their own bodies and decide when and whether to have children, no. I saw her being interviewed by Cosmopolitan, and she was asked about her maternity leave policy, but it's only if you physically give birth. It's not for adoptive parents, not for fathers.
“That happens to be the same policy as every authoritarian regime on Earth that I know of, including Hitler's Germany. I'm not saying that she knows this, but [the Nazis] were paying women to have children. By accident, perhaps, that's her policy. So it's perfectly natural for the [Cosmopolitan interviewer] to say 'What about fathers, what about adoptive parents?' And when she asked that question, Ivanka stopped the interview."
So have you given up hope? It’s scary times we live in, but there’s something inspiring in seeing so many women and men embrace activism.
“I never gave up hope. I have never seen such activism in my life. It's a thousand times anything I've ever seen.”
Really, even more than in the ‘60s?
“Oh my God, more. So much more.”
People argue that climate change and other issues are also feminist issues. What do we lose by broadening the meaning of the term?
“Are you kidding me? Listen, what causes climate deprivation is population. If we had not been systematically forcing women to have children they don't want or can't care for over the 500 years of patriarchy, we wouldn't have the climate problems that we have. That's the fundamental cause of climate change. Even if the Vatican doesn't tell us that. In addition to that, because women are the major agricultural workers in the world, and also the carriers of water and the feeders of families and so on, it's a disproportionate burden.”
Equal pay for equal work is a great idea in theory. But how do you encourage young women to speak up in the workplace when they see that things are not equal?
“We shouldn't put all the burden on saying 'It's the woman's fault for not speaking up for herself.' But it's also true that we need to learn to speak up for ourselves. And collectively we also can do a lot. If wherever we work, we just tell each other how much we get paid, we can find out what's unjust.
“Also, we need to think about what's called ‘comparable worth.’ The classic example is that people who park cars get paid more than people in childcare centres. It isn't that we care for our cars more than our babies. It's that one group is men, and the other group is mostly women.”
Women can be their own worst critics. Personally, of themselves, but then also of each other. Do you think that's one of the reasons that we haven't broken down all the glass ceilings?
“Of course. Listen, a system of oppression wouldn't work if it weren't internalised. We're half the human race. Harriet Tubman, who freed thousands of slaves, when she was being praised, said ‘I could have freed thousands more, if only they knew they were slaves.’ We internalise it. That's why it works, and we internalise it when we raise boys and girls differently.”
Do you think things are better than when you were growing up? It seems like every day we hear a new story of women’s rights being suppressed.
“Oh yeah, it’s much better. I mean, then, we were crazy people, or we were object of fun, ridicule, stuff like that. So serious opposition is a kind of step forward. And now it's a majority, even though we're not in power. If you look at public opinion polls, it's a majority. And that's very different.”
Do you think there’s a problem with gendered leadership advice? I don’t want to be a “girl boss” — I just want to be the boss.
“I think we need to do it in order to make ourselves visible, because unfortunately when people hear the word ‘boss’ they don't see a woman... It's like saying ‘Black poet,’ not just poet. Or ‘Black Lives Matter’ not just 'All Lives Matter.' It's not forever, but it's maybe necessary to be visible.”
Editor's note: This post has been edited and updated.
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