Gloria Steinem: Her words as relevant today as ever
Last week, a group of JWA staffers gathered on our lunch break to watch the HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words. While some of the senior staffers were quite familiar with Gloria Steinem’s legacy, either having witnessed it in the 1970s or interviewed her for JWA’s online exhibit Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution in 2005, I didn’t actually know that much about her. Having never taken a Women’s Studies or Women’s History course, I knew very little about Gloria beyond the fact that she was an important feminist icon, a Playboy bunny, a founder of Ms. Magazine, and known for her good looks. After watching Gloria: In Her Own Words, I feel like I know her -- personally -- and that our stories are connected.
In the beginning of the film, Gloria discussed her feminist "click" moment and what led up to it. She explained the pervasive understanding amongst women that since they had already achieved the right to vote, any other problems they were having as women must be their own fault. This stopped me cold. Despite the inroads and significant progress made by Gloria and her contemporaries, we still blame ourselves for the problems we face as women today.
Thanks to Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and all the women of the Feminist Revolution, girls of my generation grew up encouraged and expected to have fulfilling, professional careers. We grew up believing that all doors were open to us, that we were full and equal citizens, and that we had “girl power” (whatever that means). Sexism was over. So, just like Gloria, young women of my generation find themselves in situations where they feel powerless and they assume it’s because they’re doing something wrong.
Today, when a woman is passed over for a promotion or a raise, she’s likely to blame herself for not working hard enough. When a woman is paid less than her male counterpart for the doing the same work, she is likely to tell herself that due to her age or her experience or the fact that she sometimes needs to leave the office to pick up her kids, she deserves a smaller paycheck. Working mothers blame themselves for failing to be supermoms instead of questioning the idea that the “second shift” of childcare and housework should fall to mothers and not fathers.
Today, when a woman is harassed on the street she is likely to blame herself for dressing too provocatively. When a woman reports a sexual assault and the investigating officer asks her what she was wearing, she is likely to accept that this is a valid question and assume that the attack may have been partially her own fault for dressing “slutty” or getting drunk.
When women don’t look like the images they see in advertisements, they blame themselves – even when they know the images are photoshopped. If a woman is hurt or made uncomfortable by a sexist ad or commercial, she laughs along because she knows that only “feminazis” without a sense of humor would be offended by such a thing. Because young women too often believe that the work of feminism is over, they blame themselves for the sexism, violence, and inequality that women today still face.
Gloria Steinem’s feminist awakening was very different from mine. Her “click” moment came from her struggle to be independent and join the workforce in an overtly sexist time. Mine came from reading snarky feminist blogs on the internet. But despite the generation gap, we both face the challenge of consciousness-raising. In Gloria’s case it was about getting women to recognize that the work was just beginning. In my case, it’s about getting women to realize that the work is far from done.
Towards the end of the film, it is evident that Gloria is ready and comfortable passing the torch to feminists of my generation. This is no small thing considering the hand-wringing that goes on over the so-called “apathy” of my generation. From op-eds asking “Where is the new generation of feminists?” (hint: the internet) to articles criticizing and/or misinterpreting our tactics (Slutwalks), young feminists don’t often feel they have the support of their foremothers. It’s gratifying and energizing to know that one of them trusts us to carry on her life's work.