Gloria Steinem: Still a Trailblazing Flower Child by Alex Barbera
What do you do when someone calls you a bitch? According to feminist Gloria Steinem, “you say thank you.”
Gloria Steinem, a journalist-turned-activist considered to be the face of feminism since the 1960s and 70s, came to Johns Hopkins’ Shiver Hall on February 25th as the second speaker in a series entitled Chaos/Catalyst/Clarity run by the JHU Foreign Affairs Symposium.
Having attended an all-girls school in New York City for 13 years, I consider myself a feminist. Despite its regular association with the term “bitch”, which is what Steinem was responding to in her quotation above, I was raised with its more traditional definition: an advocate of the rights and equality of women. Familiar with Gloria Steinem’s name and her importance to the movement, but admittedly unfamiliar with the current status of the movement, I found myself drawn to her lecture.
I arrived to Shriver an hour early to secure a seat and was simultaneously disappointed and pleased to see that a long line of people before me was even more compelled do so. Once inside, I noticed the crowd was principally female, including students and adults alike, with a few men scattered throughout it. Regardless of age and gender, though, the entire audience erupted into a standing ovation as soon as Steinem entered the room, and got even wilder when she walked up to the podium and applauded them right back.
Steinem’s look hasn’t change much since her days as a Playboy Bunny in 1963, which were part of a covert social experiment to investigate the exploitation of women in that profession. This isn’t to say that she hasn’t aged though, because like any other human being, she has. Steinem is now eighty years old. Her classic style, sophistication, and sharp jawline, however, have rendered her timeless. Steinem stood before the audience – cool, casual, and clad in all-black – and told us her one goal was for everyone to leave the room with “a new idea; something that makes our lives more interesting, better and closer together” and therefore wanted to spend most of her lecture as an interactive conversation.
Because of the time constraint and physical set up of the room (which Steinem pointed out was a product of “patriarchal hierarchy”), the evening ended up being mostly a formal lecture beginning with a book called “Sex and World Peace” by Valerie Hudson. Steinem promised that, despite its daunting title, the book is quite readable and communicates the fact that “the biggest determinant of violence… is violence against females.” This message was the heart of Steinem’s speech and has been the essence of her activism for more than half a century. In her famous New York Magazine piece “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” (1969), Steinem wrote that “society can’t be restructured until the relationship between the sexes is restructured.”
Forty-six years later, Steinem still speaks of the unnatural, pyramidal shape of our society that is the result of a patriarchal hierarchy. Because our world has accepted the somewhat novel idea that males dominate by nature, our “genders are becoming more polarized”, which is resulting in more violence. By ignoring what Steinem calls “domestic terrorism”, or the violence against females that precedes all other violence, we are missing our opportunity to prevent global terrorism.
In order to tackle and prevent these issues, Steinem insists that our society replace the patriarchal pyramid with the organizing structure of an un-gendered and all-encompassing circle. She told us to remember that there once existed a time without the “gendered pronouns of he and she. People were people… There was not a word for nature. People were part of nature. There wasn’t a concept of separateness.” It was clear from her speech that Steinem has remained a trailblazing flower child. An admitted “hopeaholic”, she focuses on “shared humanity, but also individual uniqueness.”
Steinem continually hammered home the idea that each individual’s actions are influential and vital to the movement’s success as a whole. Appropriately connecting the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) to nature and animals, Steinem said that she once heard a great saying: “the flap of a butterfly’s wing can change the weather.” Inspired, but not satisfied by it, Steinem followed up with a more realistic analogy. Apparently, when caterpillars are transforming into butterflies, imaginal cells activate, which reduces the body into a gelatinous mass, creating friction and energy that result in positive change. Steinem concluded her lecture by saying, “This room is full of imaginal cells and together we can make one hell of a butterfly.”
Well, the energy of the imaginal cells in the room after that was something else. After listening to Steinem’s points and statistics, which not only made sense, but also seemed so simple, the crowd was electrified. People lined up for questions and declared their dedication to the cause and were hungry for ways they could participate. One woman asked if Steinem thought that our world’s new technologies facilitated or hindered the transmission of ideas about the movement. Steinem responded by saying our technology is not good or bad for spreading ideas; it’s just different. She also warned that “when we communicate with each other that way, we learn but we don’t understand. Oxytocin, the tend and befriend chemical that allows you to empathize with other people, is only produced when we’re together, like now, not when we’re looking at a screen.” I sat in my seat scribbling down every word Steinem said because I didn’t want to forget the enthusiasm I felt after listening to her.
Reading my notes now, they tell me that pressing the send button is not activism. They tell me that if I want love at the end of a revolution, I need to use love to get it. My notes tell me to get mad, do something, and have fun doing it. They tell me that if I want a Women’s Center on campus, I should occupy a building for as long as it takes. They tell me if I want to decrease sexual assault on campus, I need to get in contact with the school’s insurer and refuse to pay tuition until I am satisfied with the changes made. My notes tell me to build up the sisterhood and work together. My notes also tell me to remember that women’s liberation is men’s liberation too.
As concrete and powerful as this entire take-away was, people seemed to forget it very quickly. My generation, upon whose shoulders this movement relies, does not appear to be motivated enough to act. We criticize our society and continued sexism, but we don’t follow through.
Every day, Facebook is saturated with rants about controversial topics. But opinions soon dissipate amid debatable dress colors or cute videos of puppies walking down stairs. How can we be so bothered by something and just forget about it?
We internalize our opinions about these issues and our frustration becomes unproductive. We don’t take advantage of the changes we could make by acting as a collective. Instead, we operate alone, buried in our phones even when in each others’ company. To achieve change, we need take action. The technology that separates us can be used to bring us together— to arrange weekly get-togethers to discuss topics we find important that then will lead to creative action. If we replace singular rants with constructive collaboration, we may well generate communal energy and in this way become that beautiful butterfly Steinem envisioned.
Alex Barbera is a harsh food critic, addict of Netflix and dog enthusiast from New York City. She is an expert at getting lost and making guacamole.