This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
The following is excerpted from a talk given by Gloria Steinem in November 2013, the night before she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The full text appears in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. Click here to get a copy!
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 is that the need for a movement is over, and we are now in a post- feminist and post-racist age.
From the beginning, the first myth was the opposite of fact. For instance, a 1972 poll by Louis Harris and Associates—the first to survey U.S. women on issues of our own equality—showed that black women were almost twice as likely as white women to support these issues. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The same could be learned from listening to Shirley Chisholm, or reading Alice Walker or, later, reading Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks or blogs and websites by girls and women of color who are on the cutting edge. That “white, middle-class” claim turned out to be mostly a way of turning women off change. So was its global version: that feminism was a luxury of rich Western countries. As we now see, women’s movements for equality are global and basic, from New Delhi to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Liberia to Liberation Square.
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. Even equal pay for women who do the same jobs as white men is still in the future, and parenthood and housework aren’t equal either, to put it mildly. There is also a powerful backlash to the victories won, with right-wing extremists passing misogynist, racist, immigrant-fearing laws in state legislatures, and redistricting their way into control of Congress. This country still profiteers on the underpaid or unpaid work of females, comes near the bottom of modern democracies in electing women to political office and is at the bottom when it comes to child care or family-friendly work policies.
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. In fact, public opinion polls show the majority of young women voters self-identify as feminist. Yet I fear that my age—and that of all of us who started this work in 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. Each is crucial, so there is no order of importance. Take up the one that’s part of your life, or you care about most. 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.
As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research documents, equal pay for equal work would put $200 billion more into the economy every year. That’s an average of $148 more per woman per week, more for most women of color since they are likely to be doubly discriminated against. Not only would this money be injected where it’s needed most—for instance, helping the poorest kids who depend on a single mother’s income, and reducing government money spent on food stamps and other parts of the safety net—but it would reward work and prevent employers from profiteering from discrimination. Also, these women are not going to put their money into a Swiss bank account or invest it in China. They’ll spend it here, thus creating jobs. Yet how often do you see “economic stimulus” and “equal pay” in the same sentence?
Besides revaluing work, we also need to redefine it. Almost two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are caregivers—which includes those raising children and caring for the ill and the growing population of the elderly—yet caregiving is economically invisible. A woman or man who does it full time at home is still called someone who “doesn’t work.” But it’s in the national interest to reward caregiving, which is often higher quality and far less expensive at home than in institutions. So why not value caregiving at replacement level—not the current tiny exemptions—and make that amount tax deductible? Or tax refundable for those too poor to pay taxes? This would require only a change in tax policy, not a piece of legislation. It has been championed for years by Theresa Funiciello, the brilliant economic strategist on poverty, but it will only become a reality when women, who are still the majority of full-time home caregivers, demand it.
— 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. Nonetheless, as I write this, Pope Francis is being praised for his stance on “economic issues,” and forgiven for being no help at all on contraception and abortion. Yet for the female half of the world, reproductive freedom is the biggest economic issue.
In this country, we don’t yet have reproductive freedom. The U.S. has the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies, teenage pregnancies and medically complicated births in the developed world. It also has inadequate sex education, so pornography on the Web often attracts the curiosity that ought to go to sex education—and pornography is about sexualized violence and domination, not sex. It’s even present in the words: Porne means female slaves; eros means love and mutual pleasure. Though the women’s movement has shown that rape is about violence, not sex, we’re a very long way from understanding that pornography is not erotica. The result is a distortion of human sexuality that endangers women’s lives—and children’s lives, too. Since pornography focuses on dominance and power and requires submission and helplessness, it often sexualizes children.
— Women with children are less likely to get hired and fairly paid, while men with children are more likely to get hired and well paid. This is just the tip of the iceberg. 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. This is huge. Discomfort with a woman who is powerful has cost this country untold amounts of talent. Read The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein to discover that men raising children—also participating in childbirth, as in many original societies—is the key to world peace. I think we’re finally ready for her.
— 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, which has produced a son surplus and a daughter deficit in China and other countries, to the lethal results of female genital cutting, domestic violence, sex trafficking, sexualized violence in war zones, honor killings, child marriage and much more. For instance, child marriage contributes to the fact that the biggest cause of death among teenage girls world- wide is pregnancy and childbirth. Also, consider what happens to the spirit of a mother who must withhold food and medical care from her female child, the child whose body is most like hers.
Before we think these causes of violence are distant, let me remind you that, even by conservative FBI statistics, if you add up all the women in the U.S. who have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/1—and then add up all the Americans killed in 9/11 plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—many more women have been killed by their husbands and boyfriends. Yet we put much more thought and money into ending foreign terrorism than into ending domestic terrorism.
As for those so-called senseless crimes—mass shootings in our schools, workplaces and movie theaters—they are almost always committed by males, and by males who are white and non-poor, exactly the group most likely to be addicted to supremacy and control. Indeed, those crimes should be called “supremacy crimes.” Though we’ve had the courage to raise our daughters more like our sons, we’ve rarely had the courage to raise our sons like our daughters. Some brave members of a long-running men’s movement are challenging the prison called masculinity, but it is not yet in the national consciousness. Even in daily life, we’re far more likely to pay attention to the bullied than to address the reasons for bullying.
Thanks to a landmark book by Valerie Hudson and other scholars called Sex and World Peace, we now can prove that the biggest indicator of whether a country is violent within itself, or will use military violence against another country, is not poverty, or natural resources, or even degree of democracy: It’s violence against females. That’s what normalizes all other violence.
How different would our domestic and foreign policy be if we acted on this?
Okay, those are just a few of the adventures ahead. They require making connections—between race and sex and among all our movements that are part of a new world view; between democracy in the family and democracy in public life; between the so-called masculine acts of conquering women and conquering nature; between religions with a male God and cultures of male dominance—and much more. As Bella Abzug would say, our movement started with dependence, is now working toward independence and can envision interdependence. As she put it, we need a declaration of “interdependence.”
How do we move forward? It’s not rocket science. We need to worry less about doing what is most important, and more about doing whatever we can. Those of us who are used to power need to learn to listen as much as we talk, and those with less power need to learn to talk as much as we listen. The truth is that we can’t know which act in the present will make the most difference in the future, but we can behave as if everything we do matters.
Even the presence or absence of adjectives can challenge ranking. For instance, everybody except heterosexual white men still tends to require an adjective—as in women writers, black physicians and gay or lesbian candidates. The powerful only need the noun. Though we may still need adjectives to make “out” groups visible, we can underline the politics of words by, say, using adjectives for the powerful, too. Thus, Philip Roth is not a novelist, but a man novelist, and Donald Trump is not a real estate developer but a white real estate developer. Since Hollywood belittles some movies about daily life as “chick flicks,” why not call those about daily death “prick flicks.”
Nothing is too small—or too big—to change consciousness.
All together, we are changing from a society whose organizing principle is the pyramid or hierarchy to one whose image is the circle. Humans are linked, not ranked. Humans and the environment are linked, not ranked.
And remember, the end doesn’t justify the means; the means are the ends. If we want dancing and laughter and friendship and kindness in the future, we must have dancing and laughter and friendship and kindness along the way.
That is the small and the big of it.
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.