Globe-Trotting Feminism

On January 17, 500,000 attendees at the Washington D.C. Women’s March cheered wildly for Gloria Steinem, a feminist icon since the seventies. Steinem, who has been railing against the symptoms of patriarchal society for the past 50 years, is now being honored with the Ban Ki-moon Award For Women’s Empowerment—fitting for the woman whose work has always transcended boundaries of nation, class and race. Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary General of the UN, will return to New York in October to confer this award to Gloria Steinem, Eva Haller and Yue-Sai Kan at the Asia Initiatives Gala.

Steinem’s life as an activist is a case study in how the fight for women’s rights is and has always been transnational. She developed much of the political philosophies that guide her career while traveling in India. As a young college graduate, Steinem traveled there on an assignment from Pan Am to “write something that would make people want to go to India.” There she met Oxford student and researcher for the Gandhian cooperative union, Devaki Jain. The two quickly became friends.

While in India, Steinem traveled on third class train carriages—often bringing nothing but her sari, a bowl and a comb—and chatted with the women she met there, sharing stories and food. Steinem’s experiences deeply shaped her approach to organizing. “[It was] the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of talking circles,” she wrote, “those groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.” Since then, Steinem has traveled to speak with Native American women in Alaska, endorsed the Black Panthers in the nineties and participated as a member in the Beyond Racism initiative to compare racial dynamics in the United States, Brazil and South Africa.

When you approach feminism from a transnational perspective like Steinem does, you realize that empowering women means different types of action for women in different parts of the world. In the United States, women fight for legislation to close the gender wage gap. In India and in other parts of the world, women fight for basic infrastructure such as water, sanitation and public transportation—as well as for enforcement of their constitutional right to own property and productive assets in the face of gender and caste discrimination.

“We are here and around the world for a deep democracy that says we will not be quiet,” Steinem said at the Women’s March. “We will not be controlled, we will work for a world in which all countries are connected. God may be in the details, but the goddess is in connections.”

The association between Ban Ki-moon and Gloria Steinem represents the vital importance of sustainable development to the struggle to empower women and vice versa. This knowledge can and should guide us in the work that is to come.

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Natalie Friedberg is an intern at Asia Initiatives and a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where she majored in History.