There are some days you know you will remember forever. I recently had one of those when I got the opportunity to hear Gloria Steinem speak at the West Cork Literary Festival. It was one of the highlights of the year for me. Everyone knows Gloria Steinem as a feminist icon. However she is also a prolific writer, editor and a keen social and political activist. From a very young age I thought of myself as a feminist. I grew up with strong female role models like my mother, sisters, aunts and friends who taught me that men and women had as much value as each other. In spite of identifying as a feminist I was often made to feel as though I shouldn’t call myself one. There seemed to be a kind of stigma attached to the word, as if it somehow meant you were angry or anti-men. I was influenced by this attitude at first but then I was introduced to Gloria Steinem. Gloria made me feel proud to call myself a feminist and now I wear it as a badge of honour. I am a feminist hear me roar and so on. In truth all it really means is that you believe in equality for everyone. Because the older I get the more I realise that if we hold one group in society down it holds us all down. Gloria is 82 years old, now I don’t mention that figure so we can put it next to a picture of her in order to dissect her image like they do in the magazines. I say it because Gloria has spent over five decades fighting for women’s rights and there is no sign that she is slowing down. Her career has spanned nearly 60 years. She is also the furthest thing from anti-men or angry either.
She was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1934 but never really settled there as her father’s career involved a lot of traveling around. Steinem attributes her attitude to women’s rights to the fact that she had no formal schooling until she was thirteen. So she missed much of the “indoctrination” as she puts it, that occurs at such a young age. At that time girls learned that their role in society was to be a wife and mother. There seemed to be no other path on offer. Steinem always had an interest in social justice. She went to Smith college and studied government. She began her career as a journalist in New York City. At first she struggled to get any serious pieces published. Her editor didn’t think women should write articles about politics and other important issues. In 1963 Steinem went under cover as a Playboy Bunny and wrote an expose on the New York City Playboy Club. This piece won her a lot of attention. She helped to start New York Magazine and is also the Co-Founder of Ms. Magazine, an American liberal feminist magazine. Her experiences as a freelance journalist allowed her to see the inequality and injustices women were facing everyday. This encouraged her to get more involved in the women’s movement. She has campaigned for a women’s right to vote and reproductive rights. She has also fought against domestic violence and sexual harassment.
Steinem has always been very vocal about the issues facing women. She talks about these topics and many more at her various speaking events around the world. While traveling in a cab in Boston in the late 1970’s an Irish taxi driver turned to her and said “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” These words became a regular feature of Steinem’s speeches. They even made it into her latest book “My life on the Road“. Yet in spite of that it still took her all these years to travel to Ireland. The talk at the West Cork Literary Festival marked her very first visit. I must admit that waking up that day felt a little bit like Christmas morning. I was nervous and excited at the prospect of coming face to face with one of my idols. After all they say never meet your heroes. We set off from home early that morning and traveled the 57 miles to Bantry in West Cork. It seemed very fitting that I was making the trip with one of the women that has inspired me and thought me the most about what it means to be a women, my mom. I was thrilled that we could do this together.
When we reached the hotel it was still early so we sat having coffee and watching the people milling in and out. It was easy to spot the ones who were there to see Gloria. Some of them even had her book tucked under their arm. They looked armed and ready to drink it all in. As we took our seats in the hall a little while later I looked around at the crowd. There were a lot of women and about a dozen men from all walks of life in attendance. I wondered what it was about this women that had brought them all together . There was a lot of energy and expectancy in the room as we waited for her to arrive. The chatter began to die down as she entered the room and took to the stage. She was elegant and unassuming in her usual black clothing. She smiled graciously at the audience and instantly put everyone at ease. The interviewee chatted to Gloria about her memoir for about ten minutes before opening it up to the floor. Steinem believes that these events should be an exchange and so she told the audience “I don’t learn when I’m talking, I learn when you’re talking.” She prefers talking circles instead of the usual one on one interview format. She learned about them in India. In a funny way she is an unusual candidate for public speaking. On the one hand she seems quite and shy and on the other she comes across as a rebel who is urging everyone to go out and cause more trouble. No matter which way you look at it her passion for women’s rights is plain to see.
People began to stand up and share their own personal stories one by one. Many of them spoke about how much her work had meant to them. It turned out she was right everyone does learn more by listening. The combination of the dedication in her latest book to the doctor who performed her illegal abortion in 1957 and the interviewee wearing a Repeal the Eight jumper meant that talk quickly turned to the issue of abortion in Ireland. In her touching tribute Gloria writes,
“he said, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you. Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road
Of course this is a sensitive issue that illicit’s a strong emotional reaction from people. Women began to share their stories. In spite of high emotions Steinem kept her composure at all times. Her responses were kind and thoughtful in the face of opposing opinions. She was asked for her views and so she gave them in a very clear and calm manner. She told the audience “We all have a right to control our own physical bodies. The government does not control from the skin in” When challenged by a member of the audience who discounted her opinion because she wasn’t a mother herself she simply said, “The principle of reproductive freedom protects your right to have children just as it protects other women’s right not to. I respect your power and I hope you respect mine.” The crowds disapproval of this women’s comments was palpable. They erupted into applause upon hearing Gloria’s response but instead of revelling in it she remained calm and dignified. She was very still. It I was asked Power is the word I would associate most with Gloria. She radiates power but in an embodied, urbane way that is neither angry nor hostile.
It is clear that Steinem believes in the idea of strength in numbers. She continues to be optimistic about the future of women’s rights but says there is still much to do. She reminded the audience that together we have real power to affect change. We do not have to accept the status quo. After all she would know. She has watched women’s lives transform radically over the years. In fact not only has she seen it, she has participated in much of it. However she did assure us that you don’t always recognise change when it’s happening. It is often much later that you finally realise it has actually occurred.
The stories that were told about abortion, sexual harassment and domestic violence were both terrible and beautiful at the same time. I was continually moved by people’s strength and tenacity. Their ability to survive in the face of such struggle was startling to me. Gloria implored us all to support one another in spite of our different opinions. I know that there are those who don’t agree with Gloria or myself on the issue of abortion but the fact that we are both Pro-Choice shouldn’t mean that we cannot talk or listen to stories with those who don’t share our views. There is always value in hearing both sides. Everyone deserves a chance to share their story as long as its done in a respectful way.
“We are communal. We only empathise with each other when we are together. The internet is great and, much as I love books, you don’t create the oxytocin that is the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone unless you’re together with all five senses.”
Gloria also told some of her own personal stories to the audience. When asked about her views on the upcoming election she said, “Donald Trump should not be elected he should be hospitalised.” Of course she is an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and has been campaigning on her behalf for years. She assured the audience that she was working hard to make sure she would be elected in November, not because of her gender but because of her ability and experience. One audience member asked Steinem how she remains so calm through it all. At first she joked that it might be low blood pressure or her mid-western genes but then her expression suddenly changed and she explained that when she hears people’s stories she knows she isn’t crazy, it’s the system that’s crazy. This she remarked, makes her feel less alone. She also said getting to do what she dearly loves to do with her life gives her strength and gratitude. Women of her mother’s generation were not so fortunate.
Steinem’s mother suffered from mental illness which her daughter insists was caused by her lack of choice and opportunity in life. She too had been a journalist but could not pursue her dream due to her gender. Gloria often had to care for her mother. This helped her to see that motherhood wasn’t for her. She had already had someone be completely dependent on her and she knew she didn’t want to do it again. Society did not support this view. She was made to feel like something was wrong with her for not wanting to be a mother. Her involvement with the women’s movement made her realise the power of choice. No matter what our gender we should all have the right to choose.
Over the years I have continued to be inspired by Steinem’s message of equality and this event only strengthened my admiration for her. She reminded the women in the room that their bodies were instruments not objects for people to look at. Her message was one of inclusion. She believes that if it doesn’t include everyone then it isn’t really feminism. In truth we are all more similar then we are different. Yet we must be able to choose our own path and not feel as though we have to subscribe to a certain way of life just because of our gender. Gender is really just a construct invented by society anyway. As Gloria puts it “we are linked not ranked.” Earlier this week president Obama wrote a wonderful essay for Glamour magazine on the topic of feminism. In it he writes it was important that he be a feminist, because now that’s what his daughters expect of all men. We must all fight for gender equality because in the end it affect us all.
As a female and a person with a disability my body is regularly the subject of public opinion and discussion. Gloria showed me how important it is to claim ownership of it no matter what its shape or size. I left the event feeling energised and hopeful. My mother and I spent the rest of that beautiful sunny day looking out over Bantry bay laughing and discussing the event for hours and hours. We were both so inspired and delighted by Gloria’s intelligence and humour. It gave us the opportunity to talk about how we felt towards the issues that were raised in that room. That is really what Gloria does, she opens up the channel and allows people to have these important, sometimes difficult conversations.
In the days after the event I thought about how this is a pretty good time in history to be a women. We have more freedom than ever before. Sure we still have our problems but we mustn’t forget that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to women like Gloria Steinem who fought for all of us. It’s because of them we get to live out these expansive lives. I realise now that it is possible to be both grateful and mad as hell. Perhaps that is what will keep us moving forward.
During the event I found myself raising my hand not really knowing what I would say if they called on me to speak. Luckily time ran out before I could but all these weeks later I realise why I put my hand up. I would have just liked to thank Gloria for all she has done for me. Maybe next time I will get the opportunity. I sincerely hope that her first visit to Ireland won’t be her last!