Life Lessons with Gloria Steinem

Feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, 81, shares what matters

Feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem. Picture / Annie Leibovitz.

The idea of being a feminist wasn’t present in the culture I grew up in. I thought I might be able to escape a female fate as an individual, but I didn’t understand it was possible to change the fate itself. That only became clear to me, thanks to other women, in the late 1960s.

My mother loved words. She knew a lot of poetry by heart. She had been a writer before I was born, though I didn’t know that till I was in my teens. Because she had given up her life to raise a family she was very depressed, often, and unable to function. In many ways, I feel I’m living out her unlived life.

I used to be a “pretty girl”, if I made an effort. But I was never considered beautiful until I was a well-known feminist. Then I became aware of the reductionist commentary on “what a feminist looks like”, and this attitude that if you were pretty enough to get a man, why would you want equal pay?

Many things touch me and make me well up with tears. I have to stop talking, or somehow feel it for a while, before I start again. With every year of higher education, a woman increasingly studies her own absence from history

When women don’t see themselves represented in culture, their confidence diminishes. Research on young male and female achievers showed that a woman’s intellectual self-esteem diminishes with every year of higher education she undertakes, because she increasingly studies women’s absence from history. If you looked at research isolating race, it would probably be the same.

Anything I can dance to makes me happy. It has to have a danceable rhythm, and I am old-fashioned enough to like understandable lyrics.

I hate conflict. It makes my stomach drop still. And I have never got over my fear of public speaking.

At least female comics exist now. There were very few until the 60s. They usually had to depend on stereotypes in order to be acceptable in their humour. The power to make people laugh is a power in and of itself. It’s absolutely crucial.

I find it extraordinary that Beyonce, in her video Formation, managed to accumulate so many profoundly different kinds of images. She didn’t only use sensuous images, or those of poverty, or high fashion. Putting them all into one song was unifying, healing. And so was admitting — not trying to conceal — the painful.

The women’s movement globally is still perceived as separate from other world events. Yet the single biggest indicator of whether a country is violent in itself, or would be violent militarily, is not poverty, access to natural resources, religion or even the degree of democracy. It’s violence against females. That’s what normalises other violence.

As a child I escaped into books. My idea of reading was that I started a book and kept going all night until I finished it. Also, there was a lake across the road from our house, and I loved the life of that water; catching turtles, seeing a storm as it approached.

I’m a night person. Definitely.

Here’s what I’d advise a teenage girl: do not listen to me — listen to yourself, the unique voice inside you. Do what you love so much you forget what time it is while you’re doing it. Trust your instincts. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and looks like a duck but you think it’s a pig, it’s a pig. To a teenage boy I’d give the same advice.”
— Told to Leah Jewett

• Gloria Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road is out now. She will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival, in conversation with Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley, on May 14. Tickets $40, from ticketmaster.co.nz

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