Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay about the women’s movement appearing in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. magazine, which itself was adapted from Steinem’s talk at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2013.
If I had to pick a couple of myths about the women’s movement that are most wrong, I think two might be tied for worst place. One is that this movement—also known as women’s liberation, feminism, womanism, mujerista!, grrrls and more—is only for white middle-class women.
The second myth is that women of the ’70s did all that could or should be done, and young women can now relax; feminism was their mothers’ movement. Even the abolitionist and suffragist era shows how ridiculous this is. If it took more than a century for black men and all women to gain a legal identity as citizens instead of chattel, it’s likely to take at least a century to gain a legal and social equality as everything from workers to candidates to parents.
Let’s face it, such deep changes take time. That’s why I’m glad that, as I travel, I see more diverse and determined young feminists than ever before in history. Yet I fear that my age— and that of all of us who started this work in the women’s movement of the ’70s—is an excuse to focus on the past.
So I’m listing here a few of the adventures that lie ahead of us. These are reminders that we’re not even halfway there.
—In political campaigns and the media, “women’s issues” are mysteriously separated from “economic issues.” This conceals solutions. In the last financial crisis, for instance, the government propped up banks, Detroit, mortgage profiteers and other powers that are overwhelmingly white and male, and rewarded greed or error in the name of economic stimulus. However, the most effective economic stimulus would have been—and would still be—paying women equally for comparable work done by white men.
—A woman’s ability to decide when and whether to bear a child is not a “social issue”; it is a human right. Like freedom of speech, it affects everything else in life—whether a woman is educated or not, works outside the home or not, is healthy or not and how long she lives.
—Nothing else is going to be equal in a deep sense until men are raising children as much as women are. Children will continue to grow up believing males can’t be loving and nurturing, and girls will keep believing they must do that by themselves. Women will go on choosing cold and distant men because those men feel like home. Also, we voters will go on associating female authority with childhood—the main time it was experienced—and thus be uncomfortable with women who lead in public and political life.
—The U.S. is the only modern democracy without some form of a national child care system. The average cost of child care here has surpassed the average cost of a college education. I rest my case.
—We’re the only advanced country that saddles its college students with debt at the exact time when they should be most free to explore. Also, women pay the same tuition as men, yet are paid an average of $1 million less over their lifetimes, making it harder to repay those loans.
—The Digital Divide is a pretty good proxy for world power. It also tells us something here at home. Though men and women are only about 2 percent apart in computer use, 67 percent of white non-Hispanic households use the Internet while only 45 percent of black households have access.
—While we’re celebrating victories for marriage equality, let’s not forget that just 51 percent of people in the U.S. say that “homosexuality should be accepted by society,” while 69 percent of people in Canada do, and so do 83 percent of people in Germany.
—Do enough people understand that racism and sexism are intertwined, and can only be uprooted together? Think about it: To maintain racial difference, you have to control female bodies. Women of the so-called superior racial group tend to be restricted to maintain “purity”—or at least visible difference—while women of the so-called inferior group are often exploited to produce cheap labor.
—Here’s a final shocker: Violence against females in the world has reached such heights that, for what may be the first time in history, females are no longer half the human race. There are now 100 women per 101.3 men on this Spaceship Earth. The causes are everything from son preference to the lethal results of female genital cutting, domestic violence, sex trafficking, sexualized violence in war zones, honor killings, child marriage and much more.
How do we move forward? It’s not rocket science. We need to worry less about doing what’s most important for the women’s movement, and more about doing whatever we can. And remember, the end doesn’t justify the means; the means are the ends.
At my age, in this still hierarchical time, people often ask me if I’m “passing the torch.” I explain that I’m keeping my torch, thank you very much—and I’m using it to light the torches of others.
Because only if each of us has a torch will there be enough light.