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“It’s a truth-telling in the past couple of years that I haven’t seen before in the majority….the likelihood of being believed has increased.”
—Women’s rights pioneer and advocate Gloria Steinem
What would you ask Gloria Steinem if you could? This February, Steinem spoke at our Watermark Conference for Women in San Jose along with communication expert, award-winning journalist and author (and our new podcast host, but more about that later!) Celeste Headlee.
After their keynote appearance, Headlee continued the conversation so you could hear more of Steinem’s singular perspective on the state of women in the year 2019. We think you’ll enjoy their 20-minute conversation, and you’ll definitely think of Steinem the next time you get angry at work—or give your kid a hug.
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GLORIA STEINEM is a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer. She travels in this and other countries as an organizer and lecturer, and is a frequent media spokeswoman on issues of equality. She is particularly interested in the shared origins of gender and race caste systems, in non-violent conflict resolution, in the cultures of indigenous peoples, and in organizing across boundaries for peace and justice. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor. Her most recent book is My Life on the Road. She lives in New York City.
CELESTE HEADLEE is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Heard Mentality and We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thoughtat Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @celesteheadlee
The following transcript was generated using voice recognition software and may contain errors. Please listen to the actual audio for precise quotations.
Gloria Steinem: ….That’s white feminism, but it renders invisible all the women who were there. It’s always been disproportionately black women. So we’re going through from the 60’s through the 80’s.
Celeste Headlee: How did we get to this place then? I’m mixed race, so I should know all this history, but the history I was taught in my California public school, every time you looked at this section on feminism—which was like three pages—it was Susan B. Anthony, and you, and…
Gloria Steinem: Well, now we’re locked in a battle over statues because we’re trying to say it wasn’t just Susan B. Anthony. It was all these black [women]…
Celeste Headlee: So tell me that story of the statutes. You’re fighting over statues in Central Park. How come?
Gloria Steinem: Because there were hundreds of black suffragists of course. And also the white suffragists kind of learned that there could be an equal society from Native American women, especially upstate, the Iroquois Confederacy women.
Gloria Steinem: Right. But the women’s movement is white/ the civil rights movement is…. This always happened to me because for however many, 20 years, I was always lecturing with a partner, with Flo or Dorothy or-
Celeste Headlee: Black women.
Gloria Steinem: Yeah, right. And whenever there was a press conference, a little one on campus or a big one someplace else, the reporters would always first ask me about the Women’s Movement and Flo or Dorothy or whoever about the Civil Rights Movement. And we would let it happen and then point it out. If it was Margaret Sloan, she would do the entire, “Ain’t I a woman” speech, you know, right? Because it’s never been accurate.
Celeste Headlee: So have you ever had to make a calculation over which conferences to appear at, and which not to? I have a very well-known colleague in media who, as a female journalist, will no longer speak at women’s events because she wants to stop separating herself out as a female. Do you ever have to make these calculations about how you’re seen or how you’re perceived or where you choose to speak and where you don’t?
Gloria Steinem: Well, I have little guidelines in my head, you know, like I’ll never appear in a photograph that represents the movement that’s all white. If there’s a panel, I’ll never do a panel if it’s all white. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you get there and there’s nothing you can do, but just try to point that out. But that still is not right because it puts me in the position of making the decision….
Celeste Headlee: So what do we do? How do we change some of these decisions that are made, because at this point, if you’re on a panel, it’s more likely to be all male, right? Or if they do have a woman, they’re the ones at the conference who are speaking on women’s issues.
Gloria Steinem: You can still say, “I don’t do panels that are all men or women.” Unless it makes sense. Remember the Young President’s Organization?
For years they used to ask me to speak and I would say, “Do you have any women?” “No.” “Do you have any black?” “No.” Then finally they got like one of each and I had to go speak to this terrible…
Celeste Headlee: And you’re regretting having agreed.
Gloria Steinem: Right.
Celeste Headlee: A question I hear a lot from women is what to do about crying. Women are deathly afraid to cry at work because they feel it undermines them. Do you think that it can be undermining, and what is a woman to do when she needs to cry?
Gloria Steinem: Well, I was greatly instructed quite a long time ago by a woman, top level executive. Because I also, if I get mad, I cry. It’s related to anger in my experience, and it makes you afraid to express anger because you’re going [to cry]… And she was a very upper level executive in Minnesota, I think, and she said that she had this problem. When she got mad, she cried so she said she just started to cry and talked through it and she said to her male colleagues, “You may think I am sad, no, I am angry. This is the way I am.” And she just talked through it.
Celeste Headlee: In recent years you have been emphasizing in-person connection and in-person communication as opposed to using hashtag activism or using social media for all of your connections. Why is this such a priority for you?
Gloria Steinem: Because as I was saying, we do not produce oxytocin—the hormone that allows us not just to learn or know but to empathize, to understand—unless we are present with all five senses. Much as I love books, it doesn’t happen on the page. I asked my friendly neurologist if we produce oxytocin other than being together in all five senses. She said, “No, actually,” and that’s why when a man or woman holds a baby, you’re flooded with oxytocin. You bond. Or when you see someone having an accident, you don’t know that person, but you feel you want to help. So without that, the human race probably wouldn’t have survived and we need to balance the hours in front of a screen with hours that we are fully present.
Celeste Headlee: You’re not saying stop using your smartphone?
Gloria Steinem: No. No, but just consider that it should be balanced. I mean, I saw a survey, I can’t believe it’s right. It said the average American spends 11 hours a day with the screen, between phone and computer and everything. That’s-
Celeste Headlee: And TVs and tablets.
Gloria Steinem: Yeah. So it’s not giving up the miracle of technology, but it’s balancing it with being… There’s a reason why solitary confinement is torture because we are communal animals. If we’re alone for long, we can barely survive.
Celeste Headlee: Can you think of a time when meeting someone in person really changed you?
Gloria Steinem: Oh yes. You know you have a picture of someone and then in person they turn out to be quite different. Or you feel a connection to them that you didn’t think. I think in this celebrity crazed moment that we’re in, it’s especially obvious because you feel differently when you actually meet the person, don’t you?
Celeste Headlee: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Gloria Steinem: I mean, when you’re interviewing people and… Yeah, right.
Celeste Headlee: Absolutely. So for young women trying to figure out what feminism is, there’s been a relatively successful campaign to turn “feminist” into an insult. And so there’s a large number of women, I can’t remember what the poll is, I think Pew research polled it, who say they don’t call themselves “feminists.” What would be your answer to those women who are afraid to use that word?
Gloria Steinem: Well, the situation you describe I think has diminished, don’t you? I mean, because the day of, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then they go through supporting all, I don’t see that now. I mean, I see much more pride and pop culture and craziness and wonderful stuff around the word feminist. And of course you can call yourself a women’s liberationist or… There’s other wonderful… I don’t-
Celeste Headlee: Gender equality?
Gloria Steinem: Yeah. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be just one word. But it’s the meaning. Sometimes I just say, “Well, you have two choices. You can be a feminist—if you’re a woman—you can be a feminist or a masochist.”
Celeste Headlee: That’s fair. What is the most impactful activity? Let’s say this is a woman with kids and also a busy job and everyone’s spending 50 to 60 hours a week at their job lately and taking their work home with them on their smartphones and work life and home life has blended to the point where people are never off work unless they’re sleeping. So what is a way that someone can really leverage their time if they can’t go to the Women’s March, if they can’t do all of these things?
Gloria Steinem: But feminism isn’t something that only happens at a march. It happens every moment of our lives. So when you speak up at work about how come the support staff is not being treated well and you’re an executive or why aren’t whatever it is….it’s interwoven into everything we do.
Suppose you’re a single mother raising kids, if you’re making sure that you have male babysitters so they know that men can be loving and nurturing just like women, that’s a feminist act. It’s just something that’s part of everything you do. It’s not a separate thing over there.
Celeste Headlee: So as we’re in this #MeToo moment. There has already been the backlash saying that #MeToo has gone too far. And one of the things that interested me is that there was this triumphant headline that said, 48% of the men taken down by #MeToo have been replaced by women. And my first thought was, “That means 52% of the men who got booted because of sexual harassment and assault were replaced by men.” So what do you make of the #MeToo movement? Whether it has achieved a milestone already? How far it still has to go?
Gloria Steinem: Well, you know, one of the good things about being old as we remember when it was worse, okay, so we have hope. I remember when women, I think at Cornell University who had been working at summer jobs, hundreds of them and they were trying to describe what happened to them and they coined the phrase “sexual harassment.” And then we did a cover story on it and got put off the new stands in supermarkets. Then Kitty MacKinnon, Catharine MacKinnon wrote it into sex discrimination law for both men and women that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination.
Gloria Steinem: Then there were four lawsuits, all brought by black women, every one, you know, to our previous argument. Then there was Anita Hill and the country got a consciousness-raising about… So it’s been a progression and now it’s just tilted over into a majority movement or consciousness anyway, that allows women who are farm workers to say what’s happening to them in the fields or who are movie stars.
It’s a truth telling in the past couple of years that I haven’t seen before in the majority, and therefore a likelihood of being believed that has increased. It still takes on campus, I think four women, it’s three or four women, accusing the same man of the same behavior before that person is stopped. But believing women has really changed in the last couple of years. Don’t you think?
Celeste Headlee: Do you see what happened with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as progress because his accuser got more respect? Or do you see it as a sign of a lack of progress, because in the end just like Clarence Thomas, he took his seat on the Supreme Court?
Gloria Steinem: Well, the votes were there on the way in, there was no real way. And of course one of the people who voted wrong was a woman. It was extremely unlikely that he was not going to be confirmed.
So her courage in coming forward, I think like Anita Hill’s courage in coming forward, has been a big step forward, even though the institutional loss is huge.
Celeste Headlee: Though they did say that the Kavanaugh hearings had a bigger impact in terms of motivating Republican women than Democratic, and I wondered if you had any idea why that was? More conservative women were encouraged to go to the polls, they said, than liberal?
Gloria Steinem: In what sense? I mean, to vote in-
Celeste Headlee: In other words that they were going to go to the polls and were choosing to vote because of the Kavanaugh hearing. There was a larger number-
Gloria Steinem: Because they believed Kavanaugh or they-
Celeste Headlee: Yes, they believed Kavanaugh and they saw what happened to him as a threat, a real danger.
Gloria Steinem: I see. First of all, there are not many Republican women… So it’s a percentage of a smaller group. But I do think that we as women have been trained to protect the male ego and to feel dependent on it. That’s where our income comes from. That’s where our identity comes from. We’re more worried about them than we are… We’re more worried about our sons than our daughters. Some women are. And they are more likely to be in the Republican party in the first place.
Celeste Headlee: You’ve talked about how you waited until later in life to get married because when you were young, marriage was akin to slavery. So clearly-
Gloria Steinem: I wouldn’t say that… I wouldn’t toss around slavery as a word….
Celeste Headlee: Without using that word. Servitude, servitude.
Gloria Steinem: Well, I just would’ve lost all my civil rights in a sense, because I would have lost my name, my legal domicile, my credit rating, my ability to get a loan. I mean, you know, it’s amazing, right?
Even to have authority over my own body, if I wanted to get sterilized, for instance, I would have to have three children and my husband’s permission. I mean, it was insane. It was insane. That wasn’t the only reason I didn’t get married, but later in life we had changed all those laws. They were all gone. You could actually make an equal marriage. And when I got married, the one remaining step was same genders, same sex marriage, which was clearly on the way, but it hadn’t quite happened yet. Right.
So the reason… I mean we loved each other and we want it to be together, but the reason we got married was he needed a green card. Right, so, and I thought, okay, you know-
Celeste Headlee: “I can do this for him.”
Gloria Steinem: Yeah, why not? We’re going to be together anyway. And also Wilma offered us a-
Celeste Headlee: Wilma Mankiller.
Gloria Steinem: Yeah, Wilma Mankiller offered us a Cherokee ceremony, so who could resist that?
Celeste Headlee: So before we end this grand conversation, I really want to talk about abortion. One of your books was dedicated to the doctor who performed your abortion. And I wonder if there was any sense after Roe v. Wade that it had been settled.
Gloria Steinem: I mean Ruth Bader Ginsburg always said that we should have gone state by state rather than have a Supreme Court federal ruling. I don’t know if we could have done that, but I think we’ve always known that reproduction is the rock bottom. I mean, look, we only have one thing that men don’t have, a womb. Right? So it’s all about controlling reproduction, so resistance to abortion and contraception and control of our own bodies is not going to go… You know, people who say, “Oh I can’t believe we’re still fighting this issue,” I think would be helped by understanding that this is the issue, that reproduction is-
Celeste Headlee: You’ve even linked this issue to global warming?
Gloria Steinem: Well of course, yes. Because overpopulation is a fundamental huge cause of global warming. If you let women decide when and whether to have children, it levels off, it’s something a little above replacement level because some women have one and some have six and some have none. And it kind of works out, partly because it’s our physical welfare at stake. It’s kind of naturally self-limiting, right? But women have for centuries been forced to have children we would not otherwise have had and much younger with child marriage. You know, teenage pregnancy is the biggest cause of teenage death in the world because our bodies are not ready yet to have children.
Celeste Headlee: So do you think that the next step, the most powerful step that can be taken on abortion is another Supreme Court decision? Or do you think as Justice Ginsburg has said, it’s time to go state to state?
Gloria Steinem: Well, the opposition is going state to state in any case, you know, because they’re closing down clinics as in Texas where people have to travel hundreds of miles.
Celeste Headlee: In Mississippi.
Gloria Steinem: Their first tactic was, if you’ll remember, bombing and killing people. And they murdered eight abortion doctors or personnel, I think, as well as bombing a lot of clinics. They seemed surprised this did not make them popular.
Celeste Headlee: Eric Rudolph. People forget, they only remember him for bombing the Olympics in Atlanta, but he actually was an abortion activist and killed a doctor. Yeah.
Gloria Steinem: Oh, I’d forgotten that, too.
Gloria Steinem: So the tactic has turned, as we can see from… It’s been quite a few years since a clinic has been bombed or an abortion doctor has been shot. But rather they have turned to state legislatures in making impossible regulations to close clinics.
Celeste Headlee: So before we go… I don’t want to end on that note. What’s your biggest bright star on the horizon in these issues?
Gloria Steinem: Well, because I wander around as I do, I get to see the level of activism that is just like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
And I do feel about the young women as I always say to them, “I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born. I’m so glad you’re here.” You know, right. I don’t know that it’s enough. I don’t know, but it is more than I’ve ever seen before in my life. It is now a majority, and that’s why I think we should learn that the worst time, most dangerous time is right after a success. I mean, lynching did not happen during slavery, it happened after abolition.
The majority opinions have changed. We had eight years of Obama. The third of the country that’s mad as hell is in control now, right? Nowhere is it written that the backlash might not win, but it is amazing that it is no longer the majority. It is no longer, it really is about a third.
Celeste Headlee: Thank you very much.