Two leaders in the feminist movement reflect on the lessons, the losses, the wins, and the road ahead.
For centuries, the feminist movement has been dedicated to achieving equality for women. We’ve made incredible gains for women and girls here in the U.S. and around the world. We’ve also suffered heart-breaking setbacks—including the fall of Roe v. Wade; the century-long struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment; and the growing backlash of patriarchal, anti-abortion and faith-based forces that continue to hinder women’s progress.
All the while, the movement for gender equality has been sustained by a steady drumbeat of activists and leaders pushing for progress and fighting side by side. It is powerful when these feminist leaders take time to reflect together on the lessons, the losses, the wins, and the road ahead. The conversation below between Gloria Feldt and Kathy Spillar offers just that.
- Feldt is an author, speaker, advocate for women’s rights and the former CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 2013, she co-founded Take The Lead, a nonprofit with a goal to propel women to leadership parity by 2025.
- Spillar is a long-time feminist leader, the executive editor of Ms., and the co-founder and executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Feldt and Spillar, along with hundreds of other feminists, will convene on Women’s Equality Day—Saturday, Aug. 26—for the Take The Lead Conference at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center (425 Westwood Plaza) in Los Angeles. The program will be dedicated to sharing solutions to help the U.S. reach intersectional gender parity in leadership—at work, in politics, and in life. At the conference, Take The Lead will also present Ms. magazine with an award in honor of our 50-year anniversary this year. Attendees can also tune in virtually. See the full speaker lineup and RSVP here. (Ms. readers receive a 20 percent discount on the concert and conference with the code GLORIA20.)
Gloria Feldt: Hi, Kathy. It’s so great to see you and be with you.
Kathy Spillar: Yes, Gloria. We’ve known each other a long time. We’ve been fighting these fights for a long time. It’s a real pleasure.
Feldt: Yes, we have.
Ms. magazine started me on the path that ended up being my entire career and shaped my life. Somehow, when I was a desperate housewife in West Texas, with three little kids, no employable skills, just starting to college and trying to figure out who I was, I somehow happened upon Ms. magazine. At that time, the magazine would tell you who were the other subscribers in your area.
I know that I found six people in a 60-mile radius of Odessa, Texas. It really was a wonderful thing, and I am so indebted to Ms.—which is just a personal reason why I am so excited to say that Take The Lead will be honoring Ms. on your amazing 50-year anniversary.
For any media company in today’s world, to be alive in 50 years is … amazing and astonishing. We are so excited to be able to honor the magazine, you and all of the editors who have ever been part of Ms. magazine and all that it means for women.
Spillar: We are very excited and thank you for the honor.
It’s interesting, Gloria, how many times have people told us that Ms. changed their lives because they were able to find the magazine and for the first time understand that what they felt was wrong with the world was not them. It was the world. It was our institutions—practices of sex discrimination, whether it was in education or the workplace or harassment in the streets.
They finally understood how the world lacks the respect and opportunities that they see men and boys getting. We frequently would call it the click moment—and that was a term actually in the very first issue of Ms., “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.” It was a real click moment to realize that, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t fair, this division of labor, the fact that I don’t earn as much as my male colleague, that I didn’t get into Harvard Medical School or Harvard Law School because I’m a woman.’
It has been a life changer for so many people. And I agree with you: Ms. is very much a community. We’ve continued that tradition of connecting feminists with each other, not only in their own communities and across the country but even worldwide, now that the magazine can be read worldwide through msmagazine.com.
Feldt: I’m curious about your story, Kathy. How did you come to Ms. magazine?
Spillar: Well, actually, I came out of Texas—born in Houston, and lived most of my life before moving to California in Austin and San Antonio. But I think I was born a feminist. My mother and father were both physicians and in practice together. I remember, as a child, learning about the struggles that she had faced to get into medical school and even once in medical school, the way that some of the faculty had treated her and how she had to fight back. I always understood that that was not fair.
From my earliest memories, I can remember thinking it’s just not fair—but she was such a great role model that she kept marching ahead and was very involved in the community, advocating for women in the medical profession. I really was sort of born into it, but didn’t become an active reader of Ms. until the 1980s, in the wake of the stalling of the Equal Rights Amendment drive in ’82.
I somehow ended up at a downtown rally for the Equal Rights Amendment on June 30, 1982, and found Ms. there and have been a devoted follower ever since.
At the Feminist Majority Foundation [publisher of Ms.] we’re 37 years old and we’ve been publishing Ms. for 22 years. So, it’s been a real commitment of the heart that we’ve been able to not only keep it alive but really thriving in this period when it’s so badly needed.
It’s interesting that it was the Equal Rights Amendment that called Ms. to your attention. I didn’t make that particular connection, but it was the Equal Rights Amendment that started me on my advocate path and it was 1972, the year that it was on the ballot in Texas. It was my first time to go to any kind of political fundraising event, and it was for Sissy Farenthold. But she was collecting money for the ERA and I made a 3-dollar contribution, which, for me at the time, was really big.
That hasn’t stopped since then. I haven’t looked back. It’s been in the heart, in the mind, in the motivation for so many of the things that I’ve done since then.
In my own life, I had two very different messages growing up. My father, who I don’t know if he would’ve even known what feminist meant, always said, ‘You can do anything your pretty little head desires,’ and he treated me like an adult. He took me places. He gave me experiences. He was an entrepreneur who was optimistic and always believed you could do anything with your life if you just worked hard enough. You could do anything. You could overcome any hurdle.
The message I got, however, from the women in my life was very different. I saw them not having a sense of themselves. Even though, in truth, my father could have the business idea, it was my mother who kept things running. She was always the office manager. She was the bookkeeper. She was the person who knew what the inventory was and who was who and what was what but she always felt she did not have her own life.
She always felt that her life was shaped by others. I couldn’t hear what my father said because the culture was telling me something very, very different. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and found Ms. and more that I began to get a sense of exactly what you said, which is: The problem isn’t with you. The problem is with a culture and system that is not giving you equal opportunity.
It was a huge eye-opener for me. I really found that making that mind switch is one of the most important things that I can do for women, in Take The Lead, even today. We are acculturated very differently around power and intention and autonomy over our lives, as women, than men are.
It’s better with each generation but still, you see it from the moment of birth. You see how girls are objectified, how cute they are, how pretty, how this, how that, how they get rewarded for having nice behavior, staying in line, being quiet. Boys, on the other hand, still come out of the womb knowing they own the world, because they do. They don’t have those impediments from the beginning.
They’re allowed to be noisy and messy, constructing and doing things and that’s an assumption for them. There are things in our culture that are really at the root of the research that I did that prompted me to pivot from what I was doing–a 30-year career with Planned Parenthood.
You have to own your body. You also have to have a mindset that understands you own the world. You are the CEO of your world, your life—and if I can help women do that, then Take The Lead will have fulfilled its mission in the world.
The problem isn’t with you. The problem is with a culture and system that is not giving you equal opportunity.Gloria Feldt
Spillar: That’s a wonderful and very critically needed mission and that kind of mindset shift can happen, but it’s the concerted effort that you’re making, that Ms. magazine makes and that women’s rights organizations make to shift the culture and the expectation so that women and girls have a chance to pursue their dreams and to be fully human beings and for men to be the same.
Feminism is good for everyone. That’s sort of a mantra, but it’s very critical that women do understand that they can lead because it’s the absence of women at these tables of powers that is resulting in a lot of the problems and ongoing injustices that we face.
Feldt: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it’s important to explore the whole idea that it’s actually better for everyone when there is more gender equality, when there is more equality in the home to start with.
There are so many young men now who have been raised by mothers like us. I know my son and my grandsons, they want to be part of their children’s lives, from birth. They know how to change diapers. I mean, you know, my daddy would coochie-coo the babies, but that was about it, right? But these young men want to be equal partners, and I think that’s one of the most important changes that we have brought to society because children need both parents.
We’ve seen the data—companies with more women in their leadership are more profitable. When you have more diversity around the table, you get better ideas. Women bring certain superpowers that are not hardwired, but it’s part of that acculturation that you can kind of think is negative. It’s been negative in the past, but now, it’s our superpower because we bring more empathy to the workplace.
We bring more ability to read the room because it’s been a survival mechanism for us.I feel like this is an incredible moment for women—we can make huge strides forwards although there have been some rather big setbacks in the last couple of years.
Spillar: I think the setbacks have only awakened an even larger giant among women. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, instead of everybody becoming depressed and saying, ‘What can I do anyway?’ Women have galvanized and fought back and the men who are with us have really fought back in ways that have totally taken by surprise those who oppose full autonomy for women, who oppose abortion and who oppose contraception. Women now see that and they see not only the threat to their own lives and health but to their daughters’, to their sisters’, to their friends and they’re just not going to take it.
You know they’re not going to go back—it’s that kind of galvanized force at the ballot box and in the political arena that is going to move us forward faster. I think that our opponents made a terrible, terrible fatal error in going for an overturn of Roe v. Wade, and now we’ve got to not only fight our way back, but we’ve got to get to a better place for everybody.
The setbacks have only awakened an even larger giant among women.Kathy Spillar
Feldt: Absolutely. You know one of the leadership power tools that I learned is that I have a power tool called embrace controversy. The natural human reaction to controversy is to back away, to feel like it’s going to be bad for me—but controversy is the best thing that can happen when you’re trying to make social change or when you want to even make any kind of decision in an organization. When something is controversial, people start paying attention where they haven’t been paying attention before. Paying attention then gives you a platform and a chance to articulate your point of view and to teach. It forces people to clarify their values because they can’t avoid thinking about the issue.
Spillar: Talk about finding your community. I think it happened instantly and we’ve seen the coming together of those who want full bodily autonomy for women and girls and are willing to engage politically in the arena of public opinion to fight for those rights. It’s changed the very ground in this country on which elections are being made.
Everybody has expressed shock. Not us. I mean we know how important this issue is. It is fundamental. As you said, it’s everything. If you can’t have the control over your own body, over whether you have children and how many and when, you can’t plan your life. You can’t engage in the bigger society. To think that women were just going to accept the outcome of this—driven by predominantly male legislators and Congress and the Supreme Court—they were sorely mistaken. Every election has proven that, and we’re not done.
Feldt: Not done. No. A big part of what we’re not done doing is that once you own and control your own body, you also have to be able to own and control your own finances. You must be able to earn money, to have money, to be able to succeed in whatever profession you may choose, but that’s the other necessity for women because if you don’t have a way to support yourself, then you can’t get out of an abusive relationship.
If you don’t have a way to support yourself, then you can’t have the other half of that autonomy. You’re not in charge of your own decisions in life.
I’d love to hear you talk a bit about how you see the feminist movement and Ms. magazine taking on those economic issues beyond looking at what the disparities are.
If you can’t have the control over your own body, over whether you have children and how many and when, you can’t plan your life. You can’t engage in the bigger society.Kathy Spillar
Spillar: Well, it’s one of the things that we always say about Ms. is that it’s solutions journalism. It’s not just articulating the problem—it’s seeking out and finding solutions that are working. We’re spreading ideas and spreading strategies. That’s a very important part of what we do and we do need stronger laws to address pay inequality, violence against women, reproductive justice and autonomy. We need stronger laws.
It’s one of the reasons that Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation have been so laser-focused on the need for the Equal Rights Amendment and all that it could do. It’s not the end of the journey. It really begins a new chapter in the journey once we have constitutional equality, but it’s also getting more women elected to public office. It makes a difference that there’s women at those tables, debating that we should put more into our caregiving systems of childcare and eldercare and less into making bombs and fighter jets.
A lot of some of the work that we’ve done is to disabuse women of the notion that you have to have gotten married, had your family and raised your family before finally thinking about going into public service. Do what the guys do. If that’s what you want to do, do it, right? Get out of college and go for it.
You can’t win if you don’t run. It’s been a lot of disabusing those notions that you have to wait your turn. You don’t have to wait your turn.
Feldt: It’s your turn. It’s your turn, right now.
Spillar: Absolutely—and as Shirley Chisholm always used to say, if they haven’t invited you to the table, bring your own chair and pull it up and get on that table. That’s the attitude that we wanted to shine through in Ms.
Feldt: Now, I hear this all the time, but women are not always nice to other women and you can’t count on women. Just because you have more women at the table, that doesn’t mean that they are going to support these measures that you’ve just been talking about.
How do you address that question?
Spillar: Decisively. The more women at the table, the more likely you’ll have more feminists at the table with the values that the feminist movement represents, which is to fight for women. It’s to fight for a more just and peaceful society, but all the research shows that whether it’s in business or in politics, in every profession, the women who got through the door first have been the ones to help the women that come in next.
There’s women who are rewarded for slamming the door behind them, but the great preponderance feel they have a responsibility to help the next generation of women and other women. Women, in fact, are their own best friends, not their own worst enemies. That’s the patriarchy speaking.
Feldt: I want to pivot to the upcoming Power Up Concert and Conference, at which Ms. magazine will be honored for its 50 years of incredible service to humanity. We have it deliberately on Women’s Equality Day, August 26.
It’s been interesting to me, as I have been talking with potential sponsors and potential participants, even some of my own board members don’t know about Women’s Equality Day. So, I’m finding it’s important to educate people about the source of Women’s Equality Day. It was ultimately created to call attention to the inequalities that still existed. It was 1973 when it initially went through Congress. It’s the anniversary of the day when the women’s right to vote was officially written into the Constitution.
It is also true that while voting was a big step forward, not all women were included in that suffrage amendment at the time. It’s taken many years to make sure that every woman of every race and every whatever their gender identity might be has the opportunity to vote fairly.
We still have lots of pushback to keep people from voting, and in fact, I wrote an article for Ms. about the connection between attacks on voting rights, attacks on reproductive rights and attacks on democracy itself. Those are so intertwined and the more I think we can help people see that bigger picture, I just think the more people understand how they can personally have an impact on what happens in their society and not be cynical about politics, because you have to be engaged.
The fact that the whole origin of Women’s Equality Day tends to have fallen into an area where the majority of people don’t even know what it is makes it doubly important for us to host the Power Up Conference on Women’s Equality Day as a way of reminding people of how far we have come and we still have a long way to go.
So, what are you seeing, Kathy, as being the big agenda items for the next three years? At Take The Lead, we say we’re going to reach parity in leadership by 2025. We need all the time we can get—but to carry this forward what do you see and what are the issues that Ms. magazine is focusing on to get there?
Spillar: I couldn’t agree more about the interconnection between voting rights, democracy and women’s rights, which, of course, also includes access to reproductive health. You can’t have a functioning democracy without the full participation of all its citizens. To restrict access for the Black community or the Latino community or young people, is to diminish your ability to have a functioning democracy.
Women’s rights are essential to democracy. Where we see rising authoritarianism around the world and in our own country, women are the canaries in the coal mine.
You know the most obvious example is Afghanistan. Women and girls are the absolute target of the Taliban’s oppressive regime, and that is to get total control over people. It’s total authoritarianism, but you see it in Hungary. You see it here in the United States.
It is so important for people to understand that abortion is critical to women’s rights, and therefore, abortion is critical to democracy.
You see cutoffs to abortion in places like Poland and its rising authoritarianism. For people to understand those connections is very important.
We’re seeing that in these states that have tried to outlaw abortion on their state ballots, or in places that are putting abortion rights measures on the ballot. You’ve seen tremendous participation and success. We have yet to lose one of those referendums. That just is so powerful that you’re able to go to the voting booth and cast your ballot along with your community and make a real difference. It could not be more critical.
The next thing from that is running for office yourself. You’ve got to step up—whether it’s the school board and the city council or the water district or state government or federal government. Since 2016, when we were all shocked at the result of that election, you have seen a flooding in of women candidates of all backgrounds and we’ve seen this tremendous surge in interest in running for office.
We now are a majority of the state legislatures in Nevada and Colorado.
Feldt: Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine? Would you have ever imagined that when you were a girl?
Spillar: No, but then, on the other hand, on many of the Deep South states, we’re not even at 20 percent. those states are coming out with some of the worst laws on voting suppression, on silencing book bans and silencing the teaching of gender studies and race studies.
The importance of having women in those state legislatures can’t be overstated. It’s beyond important. Those are the kinds of things that if we can keep making progress over the next three years, we’ll be a lot closer to a society where women and girls have equality and opportunities that to this day are not what they should.
Feldt: Let’s talk about the role of the media in making those changes happen. We haven’t really touched on that, but I mean, why Ms. magazine? What role does the media play in the advancement of women whether it’s public policy, corporate policy, whether it’s women, knowing who we are, finding out who we are? Talk about it from the macrocosm of media and the impact of media, and why is Ms. magazine important?
Spillar: Ms. magazine is as important 50 years later as it was when it was launched by Gloria Steinem and her other cofounders in 1972. There’s simply not enough deep analysis and reporting around the issues that so impact our lives and getting to why inequality exists, who benefits, what are the strategies for fighting back?
Often, even to this day, the media is still dominated by men—in the decision-making rooms, the editors and the publishers are still overwhelmingly men. They just don’t see the world the same. They don’t assign the same importance to some of these issues that Ms. does.
We have a real obligation to bring new issues to the forefront, to bring our own analysis of these issues to the forefront and influence how other media is reported.
This is the most recent example I can give you: Last fall, leading into the 2022 elections, every media pundit, every polling pundit was saying that abortion had receded as a key issue in the elections and it was really all about inflation and the economy, that that was going to be the issues that voters made their decisions on when they went to the ballot box.
Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation commissioned a poll across the battleground states, where it was going to matter—nine battleground states—and we had a huge sample of younger women and men and then an overall sample of the populations. We found that for young women, under the age of 30, abortion was the only issue, in effect, that mattered.
It so overwhelmed any concern about inflation and the economy, for example. It was women’s rights and abortion rights. That’s why they were going to go vote. For all women, abortion rights tied with inflation. We were reporting, wait a minute, this is a critical issue, it is going to motivate voters, it’s going to make the difference. We were right, and all those other pundits woke up the next day in total surprise that abortion played such a major role.
Even to this day, they’re trying to downplay how important this issue is in determining voters’ attitudes. We were right and we keep pounding away at that because you got to know your own power as you go in to cast these ballots.
For young women, under the age of 30, abortion was the only issue, in effect, that mattered.Kathy Spillar
Feldt: That’s our message, right there.
Spillar: Even on the pay gap, we go deeper. In fact, it’s much larger than anybody in the popular press is reporting. It’s not 80 percent or 85 or 70, or whatever, all the different numbers depending on if you’re a Black woman, or a Latina, or Asian, or white.
It’s worse because you have to take into account not only pay, but also account benefits, retirement programs. Men’s jobs tend to come with a lot more benefits, where women are mostly working part-time positions, no benefits.
So, when you take all that into account, the wage gap is still around 55 percent. You’ve got to know that because that affects, then, how you go out and fight for progress. How are we going to change the workplace rules and the laws so that that gap closes? You can’t think that we’re at 90 percent or almost at 90 percent and things are going to be okay.
That’s the kind of reporting that Ms. does. And it’s critical because it does impact other media, but most importantly, it impacts the feminist community. You got the facts. You can now fight back when someone says something that the reporting shows is not correct. It gives you the ability to think strategies for yourself and for your community, but also to fight back.
Feldt: You’ve used that term, “fight back,” quite a few times. I just want to weigh in here and say that I believe we have to fight forward. I think you have to know how to respond, but I think one of the reasons why we got pushed back as far as we did and have made as little progress as we have is that we have tended to see it as a reactive thing that we have to do and that’s what mobilizes people much more easily.
You can mobilize people much more easily around a need to react. What we need to be doing is setting the agenda. Another one of the leadership power tools that I learned the hard way, which is you must set the agenda before somebody else does. You define your own terms first before somebody else defines you, because you’re going to be defined. You’re going to be framed. You know the media is going to see you and represent you as something unless you tell them who you are.
Spillar: You need a strategy for moving forward even as you are fighting the backlash. You have to do both.
We don’t spend enough time visioning what a world of gender equality would be and when you’re in such a mode of being attacked and backlashed, it sort of takes over, but I agree with you. It’s something Ms. has always tried to do, to present ideas for how we move forward and for what life would be in a better world, a more equal world, as well as strategies for fighting back.
Feldt: Let’s talk about that, that world. What is that vision? What is the vision that Ms. puts forward?
Spillar: It’s so that your sex that you’re born with shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter in your ability to be safe and free from violence, in your ability to control your own life, in your ability to pursue whatever course you want in your life, education, jobs, the arts, popular culture.
You know one of the best stories that Ms. ran in the ’70s was “The Story of X,” and it was the story of a baby. It was an experiment that nobody but the parents knew its sex, and it’s a wonderful story about how Baby X was raised and the impact Baby X had on the world.
And we have it in the new book that celebrates the 50 years of these kinds of groundbreaking stories and reports in Ms., and that’s one that we just had to have in there because it makes such a difference if you don’t know the sex of a person. It just doesn’t matter what they do with their lives and how they live their lives.
If we could all have that, it would be such a sense of freedom for men, who are straightjacketed and they must become the heads of household. They must earn the money. They have to go into this, they have to use violence, they have to be gun owners. How free they would be if they could pursue whatever they wanted, if they wanted to be stay at home dads or go into nursing.
Feldt: Last night, I finally went to see the Barbie movie and I had read so many things about it and even written some things about it without having had the advantage of seeing it myself.
I was prepared for the story of Barbie figuring out that she wanted to be in the real world despite all of its warts and challenges. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the way the film also shows the boxes that Ken was in, the boxes that men were in, that made them really unable to engage. The stereotypes that men have and the boxes they’re put in are just as confining as the boxes that women are put in, and I felt a lot of empathy for that.
To your point of how the world will be better when there is more gender equality, it does free both men and women from artificial constraints that are socially constructed. There’s hardly a gender role in one society that isn’t seen as the opposite gender’s role in another society. You get punished if you don’t adhere to your gender roles. You literally get emotionally and psychologically punished, and sometimes worse.
Spillar: It’s a contribution that feminism has made to understanding the world and that very concept is born out of feminism: Gender is socially constructed.
Feldt: And you know, I was just feeling this tremendous empathy for what men go through to try to live up to or down to the expectations that are put on them. And no wonder they may get toxic at some point because that’s as unfair as unequal pay. So, we can address all of that by having a greater amount of gender equality—whether it’s pay, whether it’s position, whether it’s power, whether it’s politics, whether it’s business, or whatever it might be.
It’s not that there would not be any problems. There will always be some problems because we’re human beings, but I couldn’t agree with you more that the world will be better and I want to thank you and Ms. magazine for helping to create that better world. Is there anything else that you would like to share about Ms. and your amazing 50 years?
Spillar: I just want to thank you, Gloria, for the Leading Media award that Ms. is going to get at your conference because I do feel that Ms. has been leading and has made other media step up often in terms of its coverage of these issues and its understanding of these issues. We’re still not where I think the original founders had hoped we would be at this point, but putting this book together, we can celebrate the progress.
It’s as much about the future and a roadmap for the future as it is about the 50 years that Ms. has existed. We’ve tried to select articles and letters to the editor and other aspects of what Ms. has done to help formulate a roadmap for moving forward. I think we’ve done that and I hope that people will get the book and absorb its message and keep fighting forward, because that’s what we’ve got to do.
Feldt: I am very much looking forward to seeing Ms. magazine rightly receive this honor at Take The Lead’s Women’s Equality Day Power up Concert and Conference on August 26, at UCLA’s Luskin Center and also virtually. They can find out more about the rest of the amazing program that we have set for people at ThePowerUpConference.com. People need to hear it.
I mean, 50 years? What an amazing accomplishment. So, we’re so excited and honored to be able to honor you and thank you for everything you have done.
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