Gloria Steinem: Black Women Drove the Feminist Movement
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one of feminism’s iconic figures knows firsthand the backlash against social progress.
By Nick Fouriezos
Gloria Steinem, one of America’s premier feminists, political activists and journalists, sat down for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation.
On the mistake of making history into a ‘catfight’
Carlos Watson: Let me start with what was a really interesting TV show for me during this COVID time, which is Mrs. America on Hulu. Did you watch that show at all, which obviously prominently featured you, and did you enjoy it? I know you’ve been portrayed so many times, so you probably have comparisons, but what did you think?
Gloria Steinem: The showrunners knew, because they had got in touch with us beforehand, that the fundamental premise is wrong. The idea of the show is that Phyllis Schlafly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, but in fact she was window dressing for the economic interests, the insurance industry, for instance. That’s what defeated the ERA. As far as we could determine, she never changed one vote.
So, what disturbed me about the series was that it made it seem that history is a catfight, women against women, and though, yes, there were a minority of women against the Equal Rights Amendment, the huge majority … I mean, now it’s 90 percent of women in favor of it, [and] we still don’t have it. It’s the economic interests that are against it, and I regret that the premise of the show was wrong.
Watson: What was the perspective of the insurance industry?
Steinem: Well, they had to race equalize their actuarial tables. If they also had to sex equalize their actuarial tables, then they would have to stop … for instance, a woman who doesn’t smoke may pay a higher premium than a man who does smoke because she might live longer, all right? They would have to stop doing that.
The whole Mrs. America show, however, seemed to be based on the idea that women were each other’s problem, and that is unfortunate because it doesn’t tell us who our adversary really is.
On joining the nascent feminist movement
Watson: You grew up in Ohio as I recall, and so not in the heart of a movement, or am I making that up? How did you come to the movement?
Steinem: Well, there was no movement. I mean, it wasn’t around, so it’s like the civil rights movement. I guess I, like many other women, was rebelling secretly, but hoping no one would notice. And then it became a contagion, so it was a blessing that we had companionship, and we realized that we didn’t have to pretend or rebel individually, that we could actually change the system.
Watson: Was there a lot of strong collaboration between Black women and white women at that time? Did it take longer to congeal than you’d hoped?
Steinem: One of the ways in which the history is not so accurate about the women’s movement is that it’s made to seem as if white women were the center of the women’s movement, when in fact Black women were always disproportionately present in the leaders of the women’s movement. Perhaps being discriminated against for one reason makes you understand another, but it’s always been the case. And if you look at the vote for Trump in the past election, you will see that something like … I mean, more than 90 percent of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, and something like half of white women voted for Trump. So, it has ever been thus.
For instance, just speaking personally, do you know who Flo Kennedy is?
Watson: I don’t think I do.
Steinem: A civil rights lawyer, older than me, outrageous, wonderful, funny, smart. She was my speaking partner for years. She was my teacher in many ways. I’m working with two friends to write a history of the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s, for exactly the reason you’re talking about: It’s not understood as it really was with Black women [in leadership].
Watson: In the pre-internet era, how did it become, as you called it, a contagion?
Steinem: With marches. I mean, I think it was in 1970, the great huge march down Fifth Avenue from Columbus Circle to Bryant Park. Thousands of women flooded Fifth Avenue. People were hanging out of office buildings. We were saying, “Join us, join us,” and they came. Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke, Bella Abzug spoke. I introduced people. It was huge, huge, in Bryant Park.
On the impact of the civil rights movement
Steinem: I’m amazed to see that it’s now a majority movement, that is, the basic ideas of the women’s movement are now majority opinions in public opinion polls. That’s huge and very heartening. And it’s also heartening that it’s so global. I had lived in India when I first graduated from college, so I was aware that the women’s movement there, because of the national liberation struggle, was in advance of ours.
However, what I think I was less smart about was the backlash … something like a third of the country that disagrees and feels robbed of an old hierarchy and in various ways is upset by this. And also I think it’s probably key that we are becoming a majority-nonwhite country. The first generation of babies who are majority babies of color has already been born. This seems to me great. We’re going to look more like the rest of the world.
But it doesn’t seem so great to a percentage of the country and that percentage of the country is deeply attached to Trump, the virus in the White House, as I think of him. But what we need to learn, I think, is that after a victory comes a backlash. Sometimes after a victory, we relax. But we shouldn’t.