At the beginning of Gloria Steinem's career, she filed all her stories in person. There was no email, no internet, no Google Drive. She delivered her work face-to-face.
Once, she dropped off her piece at a prominent New York-based magazine, and her editor gave her a choice: "Either I could mail his letters on the way out, or I could go to a hotel room with him in the afternoon."
Steinem bolted. And then she warned every woman she knew. It was the late 1960s, and it was a kind of induction ritual: a woman writer would move to New York, and her new female peers in the business would tell her which editors were "good." That is, which ones didn't ask you to drop off their mail or demand sexual favors or, as one editor at another magazine had when Steinem was still new, glance up from his papers after she'd come in to pitch a piece and tell her, "We don't want a pretty girl. We want a writer. Go home."
Women make sure "the word gets out," Steinem says. And when we meet on Tuesday afternoon her claim has indeed been substantiated. It's just hours after women have gotten the word out (for the third time this week) about Harvey Weinstein.
Steinem has a deep reverence for the power of public testimonies, especially as she first encountered them as a salve for trauma in talking circles in India; "those groups," she wrote in My Life on the Road, "in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time." Stories, she tells me, give consciousness and power to all social justice movements, not only in America, but around the world.
Next month, Steinem will co-host the Festival Albertine, the annual French-American cultural event, with Robin Morgan, the feminist activist who founded the Sisterhood Is Global Institute with the writer Simone de Beauvoir in 1984 and the Women's Media Center with Steinem and Jane Fonda in 2005. The theme is "Feminism Has No Boundaries," more mission statement at this point than statement of fact.
Our interview has been scheduled for weeks, but in the meantime, both the New York Times (twice) and the New Yorker have reported on over a dozen allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Weinstein. (In a statement released through his spokesperson to the New Yorker, Weinstein denies the allegations, including all allegations of non-consensual sex.) When I arrive at the Payne Whitney Mansion on the Upper East Side, where the festival will be held in November, a plate of mini madeleines is proffered, but never mind those. I came for a deeper nourishment, an assurance that despite all the bad news and the bad men, Steinem still believes in redemption. "Are you kidding!" Of course, she does. The events of the past several months and the birth of a renewed progressive movement in particular have just bolstered her convictions — that there's a kind of divine spark in all men, women, and nature, that the world is worth the trouble. (Even in her youth, when politicians would end their speeches with "God bless America," she liked to respond, with fervor, "She will!")
"When I was growing up, this would have been considered normal human behavior."
Bénédicte de Montlaur, the cultural counselor at the French Embassy in New York, tells me that Steinem's resolve is infectious. "American feminists have a lot to teach us," she says. "And I feel we have to learn from each other, and then there will be these movements back and forth, worldwide." It sounds idyllic, if well out of reach.
But Steinem shakes her head. Optimism hasn't made her naive. It's given her strength. And while she freely admits she's admired Weinstein's movies and his professional support for "talented, powerful women" like Meryl Streep and Julie Taymor, she isn't surprised by the news: "He's existed, and these people have existed forever." The difference, and the source of her hope, is the chatter, the revelations, the newsiness of it. "When I was growing up, this would have been considered normal human behavior," she says. "There was no law against it, there were no words for it; it was just the way the world was."
Donald Trump's election, the laying bare of the great divides that still exist in the United States—"it has galvanized a resistance in a very positive way and more than at any time in my life," Steinem says. "We are now 'woke,' as we say." She has witnessed and participated in the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, and second-wave feminism, and Steinem insists she's "never seen anything like it."
"It's not just women," she says, insistent. It's a revolution, "in the streets, in the classrooms," in New York and Washington and nationwide. It's people who have just decided they're "hanging in," refusing to give up. The sheer momentum of it thrills her.
And while the protest finds its most obvious mark in Donald Trump and the men that stand with him, it's not just Republicans or internet trolls with whom it takes issue. Men like Weinstein, who has supported Democrats for years and in fact recently contributed $100,000 toward the $3 million campaign to endow Rutgers University's new Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies, will not be spared. Not once the word is out.
You have written a lot and spoke a lot on the importance of language in social justice movements, and that's what this event is about — women coming together, sharing language for feminism across cultures. Why does that matter?
Words bear our meaning, and if we don't have words for our hopes, we can't make them real. Words are the first form our hopes take, so they're absolutely crucial. They're not changing reality, but they're the first step toward changing reality, because they're changing consciousness.
"If it's happening to all these unique people, it's political, and if we get together we can do something about it."
Every great social justice movement has started with consciousness, and that means, in a practical sense, people sitting around, in a circle, telling their personal stories that they think only happen to them, finally telling the truth and hearing that all these other people have similar experiences, and realizing that if it's happening to all these unique people, it's political, and if we get together we can do something about it.
Speaking out can also give people who've been denied their power a measure of it back. Throughout your career, you've exposed the fact that so much of the patriarchy and the way it works isn't really about sex; it's about power.
It's about reproduction. I'm stating the obvious, but the oppression of women starts in the body because it's all about controlling reproduction. If we did not have wombs, we'd be fine. To gain control of our own bodies, from the skin in, is fundamental to our autonomy. But to have control over them is fundamental to the patriarchy, which is why abortion and contraception are still frontline issues.
How do you make sense of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein? In those cases, isn't it about power?
He is two things: he is both probably the best in Hollywood for supporting talented, powerful women and doing great movies...and turned on by powerlessness, because male-dominant culture has told him he has to dominate. He can deal with smart women whom he sees as his equals; presumably, that's not sexualized to him. It's dominance that's been sexualized.
But what's the recourse against that kind of behavior? How do we root that out?
We do whatever we can do. We say, "Fuck you, I'm not taking your job." We bring charges against him. We tell all our friends, "Watch out for this guy." We support each other. When I see someone else who's telling the truth, I try to support her and say thank you.
Some of these women, who've made these accusations against him, have said they missed out on professional opportunities because they resisted or because they spoke out. Did you ever feel that you were in that position, that you were denied opportunities because you came forward or "made a fuss" about an issue?
I have been, yes, but the good thing about being a freelance writer is that no one can fire you permanently. I've been able to say just, "Fuck you." Or, "I'm not doing it."
You said that you've warned women about men with whom you've had bad experiences; that's the women's "whisper network," right?
It just makes sense. We use whatever power we have to support each other and to oppose the injustice. I remember there used to be a big movie person who'd produced a lot of big movies, and everybody used to say, "Never sit on a banquette with him at lunch."
And you knew, because women told you?
"Never sit on a bench with him." Never, never. It's like when women would arrive in New York as freelance writers, and we would always tell each other who the good editors were to work with. It gets out, eventually. The word gets out.
In the aftermath of these reports, a piece came out that suggested that recent, very public sexual harassment allegations might have an unindented consequence for women at work, since men now say they're reluctant to meet with women alone, for fear of how it will look. First, that's insane. Second, how do we combat that?
We say, "We will notice the absence of women, thank you very much."
We need men to want to dismantle a patriarchal culture that privileges them. We need them in the movement. What's the matter with them? And what will it take?
Look, think about race. I do not want to live in a white neighborhood, and be deprived of the richness of the world. There's, like, 12 white people in the world. Men are deprived of their full spectrum of human qualities—patience, empathy, attention to detail, expressiveness. Those are all human qualities, and men are made to suppress them because they're "feminine." I believe men have their whole selves to gain, and they have their lives to gain, too, because the masculine is killing them. Really, their lives are shorter on average.
"Men are suffering from sexism, because it affects them too. Of course, their prison has wall-to-wall carpeting, people to serve them coffee, all the amenities, but it's still a prison."
I think you can show both that people of color are suffering of racism, and white people are suffering from racism. Not in the same way, but a lot. Men are suffering from sexism, because it affects them too. Of course, their prison has wall-to-wall carpeting, people to serve them coffee, all the amenities, but it's still a prison. They didn't invent the system.
But they benefit from it, in many ways, because it values them.
I think often people do what they see at home, so good, if you've had a democratic family where the father looked after the children as much as the mother and the mother was as active outside the home as the father, then you know it's possible. As a society, we need to attribute an economic value to the work in the home and make it tax deductible, to show that it's not women who work and women who don't, but women or men who work outside and women or men who work at home.
That sounds like a more generous tax plan than the one Ivanka Trump has proposed.
She's hopeless. She didn't give maternity leave to her own employees at her own company! A good step here would be for us to attribute a value at replacement level to cleaning, raising children, looking after the home. What would it cost to replace that? Then we make that tax deductible. And if people are too poor to pay taxes, then we make it tax refundable. We could do that. It's not rocket science. We would just have to change the tax law.
When you say it like that, it feels almost imminent, but we know there's a long way to go. With the news about Weinstein and the death of Hugh Hefner at Playboy, are we now in this the last gasp of this kind of toxic masculinity?
Hugh Hefner—what a jerk he was. Sure, he advocated for birth control and abortion, and we know why, don't we? He was the least secure person. He was hopeless. I think that's the great secret of men like Hugh Hefner. They're insecure because they're made to feel they must dominate, and nobody can dominate all the time, so naturally they're insecure. It's not the last gasp, but it is a step on the way to it, because the popular opinion is: This is wrong. There are words for it. There are laws for it. You get punished for it. You get fired for it. It's a step on the way.
The fact is we have a president who is a sexual harasser and was clearly [recorded] on tape admitting that; it shows that a third of the country still thinks this is either inevitable or okay, including 51 percent of white women [with college degrees]. I don't want to overgeneralize, but these are women who are dependent on a man's income and men's identities, and they think there's no choice. They think all men are like this. And their fathers were like this, probably. I think they looked at Hillary and said, "How dare she? She's just a woman like me. How dare she aspire?"
Are you hopeful that in our next election we could elect a woman?
I think we could, sure.
Well, there's tons of women, an obvious one is [Sen. Kirsten] Gillibrand. She's an obvious person. She's our representative! She's very gifted as an explainer of complex issues in terms that we all understand. She's authentic. She's courageous. She's stood up for sexual harassment in the military and on campus. She would be a good candidate. Maxine Waters would have been, too, but she was too early. That's how it is.
And all by herself, Shirley Chisholm took the "white males only" sign off the White House door in the public imagination. She was only on the ballot in 14 states when she ran for president, because she didn't have the money to get on the ballot nationwide, but she was nonetheless a national candidate at the convention. I ran as her delegate here, and I lost, of course, but still.
When you were campaigning for her back then, did you ever dream it would take this long to see a woman sworn in?
Yes, I did. Women have become president in India or Israel or in other nations because they were part of a family that was the ruling family and they happened not to have a brother. If Indira Gandhi had had a brother, it would have been all over. And it's still true. Michelle Obama could do anything now. She could be a senator from Illinois. She could run for president. But again, we came to know her because of her husband.
This interview has been edited and condensed.