FEMINISM’S ORIGINAL REBEL
With everyone from Miley to Malala subscribing to the third wave of feminism, has the movement lost the run of itself? And if so, why then are we still harking back to the theories of the original bra-burners? Gloria Steinem has a thing or two to say about it.
Meeting Gloria Steinem at the press preview of the Annie Leibovitz exhibition Women: New Portraits is a surreal experience. Against the backdrop of the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station in London, Steinem is sitting among Leibovitz’ new portraits of women from the Queen of England, Elizabeth II to Las Vegas showgirls and ‘women of achievement’ like Aung San Suu Kyi, Adele and Jane Goodall. The background of the disused power station, replete with red brick and the usual crudely exposed accoutrements including an engine and boiler house, accumulator tower and reservoir only magnifies the resplendent beauty of the 82 year old feminist whose presence is both electrifying and understated – if such a flagrant paradox can be imagined. What immediately strikes me about the octogenarian is her ethereal beauty – her self-awareness and low-key confidence is sobering and comforting all at once. I find myself self-flagellating, as a staunch feminist, for immediately noticing her looks. But at 82 years of age, Steinem is striking, something for which she was heavily criticized at the beginning of her career as an activist. ‘I had been called a “pretty girl” before I was identified as a feminist in my mid-thirties. Then suddenly, I found myself being called “beautiful.” Not only was I described by my appearance more than ever before but I was told that how I looked was the only reason I got any attention at all. In 1971, The St. Petersburg Times headlined “Gloria’s Beauty Belies Her Purpose.” I was being measured against the expectation that any feminist had to be unattractive in a conventional sense – and then described in contrast to that stereotype. The subtext was: If you could get a man, why would you need equal pay?’
It’s this very subject that precipitates our next topic; the gender pay gap and gender bias at work, most prolifically highlighted by Sheryl Sandberg in her controversial best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Deckle Edge). The gender pay gap stretches across all sectors and in Ireland, according to the latest figures, women are paid more than 14% less than men at work. In fact, the gap appears to be widening, with women essentially working two months for free every year when compared to their male counterparts. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook suggests in her seminal book that women hold themselves back from actualising their full potential at work because ‘we lower our expectations of what we can achieve.’ When I ask Steinem about Sandberg, she immediately quells the myths that surround the major critiques of Sandberg’s work – that women are traditionally conditioned to be submissive and that we have to become more like men to get ahead. ‘Leaning in doesn’t mean being aggressive. That’s not what it’s about. She’s [Sandberg] just saying don’t anticipate the worst or take a slow career track. Do what you want to do and do what you have to do.’ Sandberg’s recent graduation speech at the University College of California, Berkeley tells of the pain she suffered as a result of her husband’s sudden death and the strength it took to bounce back from that downward spiral of grief that ensued. Urging her audience to be resilient in the face of adversity, her address proved that Steinem’s interpretation couldn’t be more accurate.
Despite Gloria never having had children (in fact, her new book My Life on The Road is dedicated to her abortionist), she feels strongly about women’s reproductive rights and the rights of pregnant women while at work. Last year, the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman came under fire for her inflammatory comments about maternity leave. Shulman, who described returning to work 15 weeks after the birth of her son as ‘a relief’ told the The Times Magazine; ‘I think it’s frustrating for offices. I can’t pretend I think that’s wonderful. I know I’m meant to. Office life has to go on. People don’t just leave your job, your role, the you-ness of it, in aspic, waiting for you to come back and refill it.’ This attitude is present, albeit insidiously, in the Irish workplace but has not been heavily documented. The only survey of its kind, Pregnancy At Work: A National Survey was undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in 2011 and found that 30% of women working while pregnant experienced discrimination in some shape or form.
When questioned about this phenomenon, Steinem laughs but it is a co-conspirators laugh – a ‘know-it-all-too-well’ sort of laugh that goes to show she has been down this road before. ‘It’s wrong but it still happens,’ I proffer to which she simply replies; ‘Tell them – you’re breaking the law, I’m turning you in. No but they are breaking law. You’re in the European Union, there’s [sic] laws.’ In the UK, it is estimated that over 60,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Although Steinem is overwhelmingly low-key, her voice may be quiet but it commands universal attention and she demands that as feminists, we fight to have our voices heard. ‘Well we can be who we are and name unfairness when we see it.’
The Second Sex
I’m very curious as to whether Steinem feels as if the definition of feminism has changed but she has rigidly stuck with her original interpretation that feminism is simply ‘the full humanity and equality of women and men.’ And when asked about Germaine Greer, again she laughs, but this time it is a very different kind of laughter. Whereas Greer has rejected the transgender community on the grounds that pigeonholing of men and women into binary forms is anti-feminist, Steinem embraces the transgender community and women of all races, creeds and abilities; in fact, she attributes much of her success as an activist to being billed on the same lecture circuit as women of colour and disadvantage such as Florynce Kennedy, Dolores Huerta and Margaret Sloan. ‘There’s more than two sides to anything. We’re complicated people. On the human nature front, I would say we once knew for most of human history that people were people. Languages didn’t have gender, they didn’t have gendered pronouns. We weren’t divided into two types of people, those who divide everything into two and those who don’t. The whole idea of gender has restricted everybody, everybody and excluded a lot of human qualities, more from women than from men.’
In our current climate, the rise of rape culture seems to be meteoric: Allegations are constantly emerging about revenge porn and songs like Blurred Lines are acceptable in the mainstream and Steinem feels that now, more than ever, the biggest threat towards women is violence. Louise O’Neill’s sophomore novel Asking for It has been something of a conversation starter in Ireland but we’re only getting the ball rolling, in a very small way. I tell Steinem of my experience teaching feminist poetry to a group of sixteen year old boys in a secondary school. The poem in question was Marge Piercy’s Barbie Doll in which a young woman who excelled in academia and sports mutilated and ultimately killed herself as a result of the intense scrutiny under which she was placed by her peers. Despite a fundamental lack of understanding, comments were made about the poet’s speaker probably ‘looking like a dog’ and how her fat thighs were probably ‘gross’ – the phrases ‘bitches in bikinis’ and ‘nothing but a pair of tits’ were made. Policing women’s bodies is nothing new. When I asked Steinem’s advice on how to fight this attitude, she appeals to my compassion. ‘I would try to point out to those boys that they are suffering. Their humanity is being restricted. They are taught to feel estranged in order to suppress their own feminine qualities. We all have the same feminine qualities. It [machismo] shortens their lives. If you backed out of the statistics, took everything that could be attributed to the masculine role out… men would live longer. What other movement [than feminism] would offer them more life than to see their enlightened self interest? We need to get rid of this idea that boys have to be superior.’
Our Own Worst Enemies
With the American elections looming, Steinem has been heavily criticised for her comments about women who are ‘feeling the Bern’. An avid supporter of the Hillary Clinton campaign since 2008, she said in an interview with Bill Maher that young female voters were placing their trust in Bernie Sanders because ‘the boys are with Bernie.’ Despite explaining that she ‘misspoke’ and apologising for the statement, Steinem was heavily criticised by young feminists. Steinem is no stranger to being called ‘un-sisterly,’ in fact, it is a common occurrence. The common perception still prevails that women are bitchy towards one another. But Steinem is not buying it. As women, from an early age, we are conditioned to pit ourselves against other women, she believes, to be, as she puts it in her book, ‘our own worst enemies.’ ‘Women are trained to do that. It’s called internalised oppression. The same thing happens with race, with class, you are made to feel that there is something wrong with your group. So if you see someone else from your group doing well, you think, ‘oh, how dare that person do that.’ Steinem believes patriarchal society is to blame because in this system, passivity in females is rewarded and dominance in males is heralded. ‘You see it in computerized hyper-masculine games, full of hostility and violence. It’s a real response or backlash – saying men are superior; actually it is the complete predictor of warfare. There was a survey done recently – it took [findings from] hundreds of countries and demonstrated the biggest predictor of violence is not poverty, not access to natural resources, it’s violence against women. It [computer games] normalises violence.’ Talking about computer games ignites a serious debate about a new problem that has emerged since the release of Grand Theft Auto V; the manipulation of coding that some call a ‘cheat’ which allows the player to bend over another player, make them ‘cower’ and repeatedly thrust into them, looking very much like rape. She has heard of the game but asks me to elaborate on what I know. That’s what I love about her – we’re having a conversation. At the beginning of the exhibition, she mentions that we’ve been ‘sitting around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years’ and today I feel as if I am at a campfire with Steinem. It is a conversation of give and take. I explain that in addition to this cheat, GTA V also gives players an option to beat up prostitutes with machetes and rewards them with health points afterwards. The game that is perennially popular with teens and young adults, in particular and almost exclusively, boys, allows players to kill prostitutes after sex and steal their money back. Steinem is completely taken aback and rushes to get a pen – she has never heard of this and wants to record it so she can return to it at a future date. ‘The problem with this is the normalisation,’ says Steinem. ‘Do they want to be raped?’ she asks. ‘Body invasion is even worse than being beaten up.’
On the one-size-fits-all theory that feminism can be claimed by anyone and everyone, Steinem’s philosophy is very much inclusive. Unlike Germaine Greer who claimed that Caitlyn Jenner cannot be considered a woman because ‘lopping off your d**k and wearing a dress doesn’t make you a f***king woman,’ Steinem feels that this debate of ‘what is a woman’ is only sidetracking the real issue – how women can achieve full equality. In a culture where songs like Blurred Lines can make the charts, does the flesh-baring Miley Cyrus have just as much right to call herself a feminist as someone say, as ‘worthy’ as Malala Yousafzai? Steinem feels strongly about not judging the authenticity of feminists. ‘Sure. It’s great. What’s not to be great? Fine. There is no brand of feminism. It just means you believe in the full humanity of women and men.’
How Do You See Us
The representation of all kinds of women is something Steinem feels will bring about change. ‘We women have often only been photographed in certain ways and in certain years of their [sic] lives, in certain poses and feminine ways and this is complete, this is the whole full circle so yes, of course that’s feminist.’ She is of course, talking about Annie Leibovitz’ exhibition which shows women in all their humanity – it’s exhibited as a kind of work-in-progress – with yellow post-its on the exhibition wall – the names Malala and Marina Abramovic appearing on the post-its as they are yet to be photographed and added to the exhibition at a later date. It certainly seems as if the male gaze is beginning to turn towards aspects other than the female body. In fact, the commissioning of Annie Leibovitz to shoot the Pirelli 2016 calendar which usually features supermodels in various states of undress was monumental: Women from all ages were depicted from Patti Smith to Tavi Gevinson, Yoko Ono and Amy Schumer, almost all fully dressed. Using art as an agenda to promote gender discussion is nothing new and historically, artists like Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman have been propagating feminist ideals in their art for decades. With the constant campaigning for abolition of Page Three and the emergence of exhibitions such as Leibovitz’, does this mean that the death toll is finally knelling for the systematic objectification of women? Steinem used to think there were only two options. One was that equality between ‘males and females was impossible.’ The other was that equality would ‘be possible in the future.’ Now she’s beginning to think there’s a third option. That in some cultures, there existed a balance between male and females and that this balance could be achieved again.
And I think she might be right.