Gloria Steinem talks feminism, Donald Trump and life on the road

At the stroke of noon, Sydney time, the phone rings. Gloria Steinem’s voice curls down the line, warm and resonant and a little hesitant: “Hel-lo?” You’re very punctual, I tell her, and there’s a small, puzzled laugh: why wouldn’t she be? Punctuality would be one of those bedrock virtues of her middle-American background, alongside a certain earnestness and good manners; indeed, she has been called the nicest feminist in the world — nicer than Germaine Greer, certainly, many quip.

Typically, she’s on the move; she’s calling from a car somewhere in Massachusetts after a speaking engagement at her old university, the prestigious liberal arts institution Smith College. “I didn’t plan it that way,” she bellows apologetically over a crackling wall of static. “But there you are.” She gives me her landline and, later, her personal email, spelling out each letter carefully in her thick drawl. “You can call me later if you like, once I get home.”

At 82, Steinem — elegant nomad, agitator, political campaigner, reporter, author, Ms magazine co-founder, former undercover Playboy bunny and CIA spook, the glamorous feminist pioneer hated equally by Richard Nixon, Hugh Hefner, evangelical Christians, men’s rights activists and anti-abortion rights supporters (she dedicates her latest book to the abortion doctor of her youth) — is as sparky as ever.

Consider her assessment of ageing and female invisibility: “I feel very, very alive and very, very happy but not sexual, thankfully,” says the woman once dubbed the ultimate pin-up girl for intellectuals. “The brain cells dedicated to sex are now free for other things.” Or the highly incendiary debate about gender and identity coalescing around prominent transsexual celebrity Caitlyn Jenner: “My question is not is she a woman; it is why is she a Republican?” Or left-wing TV host Bill Maher: a right-on progressive on everything except sexual politics: “there, he’s somewhere else, unfortunately”.

All is grist for the mill, from Twitter hysteria, online misogyny and feminist millennials — her adoring young fan base includes Emma Watson, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham — to the backlash on reproductive rights in the US to jihadi brides and Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings of schoolgirls in what she sees as the ultimate commodification of the female body (“they needed the wombs”).

Always present, for this inveterate political animal — she covered Bobby Kennedy’s run for senator in New York in 1972, stumped for Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama in 2008 — is the topic of politics. We move from the infiltration of the Republican Party by the extreme Right (she calls the GOP “the American Taliban”) to the rise and rise of The Donald.

Here, all niceness fades: Trump is a fraud and phony and a “terrible businessman”, she states baldly (in a widely shared Facebook post, she also accused him of being “a ‘birther’; anti-immigrant; a builder of buildings that look like big Dunhill cigarette lighters, going bankrupt multiple times in order to stick other people with his bad-judgment debt … and setting the hair weave industry all the way back to Rogaine”). If he wins the presidency, “you’re going to have a huge influx of American immigrants to Australia”.

Movement is in Steinem’s DNA. After more than six decades on the road as an activist and organiser, she remains in thrall with travel. In May last year, she crossed the Korean demilitarised zone into South Korea with a group of peace activists and two Nobel laureates; earlier, in March, she went on an elephant ride in Botswana as a birthday present.

Next month, after opening the Sydney Writers Festival in her first visit to Australia since the 1980s, she will head to Zambia and then, hopefully, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to visit a much-admired friend, gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, who founded the Panzi Hospital for rape survivors; Mukwege, she says, “is to sexualised violence what Mandela was to apartheid”.

This lifetime of movement forms the core of her latest book, My Life on the Road, a sprawling memoir that encourages women to find “their inner purple Harley Davidson” and that recounts a rich, wild, big travelling life seeded in a highly unusual, nomadic childhood.

Born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, Steinem was the second daughter of maverick entrepreneur Leo and his former journalist wife Ruth. Leo ran all kind of ventures to make a buck, from a lakeside dance hall in Michigan to antiques sales; for much of her early life, home for Steinem was a house trailer that carted the small family all over the country. She didn’t go to school until she was 11, learned to read from roadside signs. Her childhood cartography featured not white picket fences but endless roads, ghost towns, motels, and gas stations.

Perversely, she says, this sparked a craving for anchors and roots; she got a home, even if it was a rat-infested hovel, only after her parents split when she was a pre-teen.

There is much poignancy in Steinem’s depiction of her larger-than-life, perennially restless father (“he was a sailor, not a sail-maker”) and depressed, if loving, mother (Ruth ended up in a sanatorium suffering mental illness). Journeys of all kinds are charted, from those early childhood peregrinations across small-town America to her first, life-transforming overseas trip after college to India to the Badlands of South Dakota and America’s sprawling industrial cities as a travelling organiser and activist.

The road has its own sexual politics, she says: traditionally, it has been the province of men — think Hemingway, Kerouac, Bruce Chatwin. It has spawned its own literature of self-transformation and identity from The Odyssey to Songlines. Historically, women have largely had their movements circumscribed — except for a rich, small vein of transgressive female travellers such as Alexandra David-Neel, Isabelle Eberhardt, Freya Stark and Mary Kingsley.

The tide has turned in recent times, with the likes of Cheryl Strayed, whose wilderness memoir Wild was made into a film, and the explosion in women, dubbed “wander women”, pinning solo travel ideas (Pinterest reported a 350 per cent rise this year). Steinem is delighted. “I think it’s a direct outcome of … the women’s movement.” Women are warned of the dangers of travel but “statistically speaking, it is more dangerous for women to stay at home … you’re more likely to be killed by a man you know”.

Steinem believes powerfully in the physical and present, the engagement of “all five senses”. In her book, she speculates that “perhaps our need to escape into media is a misplaced desire for the journey”. While a strong advocate of online forums as a way of allowing women to engage in public life, social media is no substitute. “The web is valuable, obviously, but there is a kind of ability to hide behind the web, and because you are not present you can’t empathise.”

Those early speaking engagements on the road taught her a key value of travel: its power to spark a communal sense of fellowship. “I discovered that something happens in a room full of people that cannot happen on the printed page — as much as I love books — or on the internet, or any screen.”

My Life on the Road charts not just those countless kilometres and stories gleaned from fellow travellers — air hostesses, bus and cab drivers, long-distance truckies — but seminal moments in a big public life.

Since rising to prominence after going undercover as a Playboy bunny to investigate work conditions in Hefner’s sex empire as a freelance reporter in 1963, Steinem has been present at some of the great moments of American history, from watching Martin Luther King speak at the march on Washington in 1963 to standing in White House speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s office as John F. Kennedy bid farewell before his fateful trip to Dallas.

Hers has been a big life. In 1968 Steinem joined the founding staff of New York magazine and became a contributing editor. In 1969, her article “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” catapulted her to national fame as a feminist leader. In 1971, she helped found Ms magazine, America’s first feminist glossy, and also helped launch the National Women’s Political Caucus.

She says the 1977 National Conference of Women in Texas she helped organise was one of the turning points of her life. Her tireless advocacy as one of the second-wave pioneers of feminism in America has been directed at everything from equal pay, labour rights and domestic violence to reproductive rights and the equal rights amendment. “We were basically 12 crazy ladies,” she quips of those early days.

Looking back, there is much to be proud of. There’s Ms magazine itself, still standing and fighting the good fight (when the then radical magazine appeared, critics sneered that it would fold in six months). Under Steinem’s editorship, the magazine addressed then groundbreaking issues such as domestic violence. Ms became the first national publication to feature the subject on its cover in 1976.

But her biggest source of satisfaction stems from knowing now “that we’re not crazy. Individually, you see injustices and violence and discrimination and you may well think it’s your fault or its hopeless … you feel so alone. But one of the many purposes of the movement was to say, ‘see the same thing is happening to very different people, it’s political, and if you get together, you can do something about it. That’s our single biggest accomplishment — that change in that state of mind, from being isolated to feeling angry, active, empowered and communal.”

But there remains much to tackle — Steinem cites everything from the rollback of reproductive rights through right-wing activism in US state legislatures, to the rise of fundamentalism in the US and the Middle East. Domestic violence, too, remains a scourge.

“Also, forced marriage, child marriage, sexualised violence in war zones, FGM (female genital mutilation). For the first time, we now have fewer females on earth than men and that’s due [to this preference] for male babies, which has created a son surplus and a daughter deficit in Asia and other countries.”

I put to her that there seems to be two growing camps among millennial women. One is the progressive, activist, fiercely feminist group typified by the likes of Schumer, Watson and Dunham. The other appears almost regressive in contrast, featuring young women stepping away from careers, giving up their surnames upon marriage, and who say they are not feminist.

“Yes I do see this. Obviously there are way, way more young feminists now than in any time of history, but it is also true that younger women have not yet experienced the same discrimination, they haven’t been in the labour force or ... they haven’t had children, so they haven’t seen how unequal parenting is, how difficult it is to get childcare. We all respond to our experiences.”

Is complacency an issue? If it is, little wonder, she says — look at the powerful message being given to young women that the battle has been fought and won, spread, she says, by the very same people who opposed the feminist movement, “who once said to us, you can’t do this, it’s unnatural, it’s going against biology, Freud, God. Now they say, well it’s over, it’s finished, you’ve already succeeded, we’re in the post-feminist era.” There’s a genteel snort. “It’s the new obstructionism.”

Author and former White House adviser Anne-Marie Slaughter has said the revolution has “stuck” because there had not been a men’s revolution. Steinem agrees. “It’s not going to work otherwise.”

On transgender issues, I ask her whether she regards Jenner as a woman. There’s a long pause. “I think we have to accept each other’s self-definition.”

Talk turns to politics. In February this year, she was blasted by young women nationwide after appearing on Bill Maher’s show and saying the reason Democratic young women were supporting presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders more than Clinton was that “when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’ ”

Steinem later apologised and said that her comments had been misinterpreted. Asked about the furore, she says: “I thought it was more evident if you watched the show that I was talking about power and not about sex … what happened on Twitter was that suddenly, half a sentence became a whole thought.”

For the record, she can see why Sanders’s grand radicalism — “he likes to state a goal” — may prove a more attractive lure than Clinton’s moderate pragmatism for a generation of young women struggling with huge college debts (among his proposals is free college tuition paid for by a tax on Wall Street).

She wasn’t impressed by Maher’s smirking conduct either — she says she finally slapped him down when she was chatting with environmentalist and fellow guest Erin Brokovich. “We were saying how great it was to meet each other, and he said, ‘Why don’t you two get a room.’ I finally got angry, and I said, ‘Why, do you want to watch?’ ”

It’s her firm belief that sexism is more pervasive than racism that led her to believe that Clinton did not have a chance against Obama in 2008 — Americans then weren’t ready for a female president, she says.

“Otherwise very smart men in the media were saying such ridiculous things like ‘I cross my legs when I see her, she reminds me of my ex-wife.’ I thought that we associate female power with childhood, so when we see a powerful woman we regress to childhood.”

Now, she is cautiously hopeful. “Back then, we had seen so few very powerful women in those high positions, so it hadn’t been normalised. Now I hope and believe there have been enough women, including Hillary herself, that it has changed … but it’s still going to be very difficult.”

Gloria Steinem appears at the Brisbane Powerhouse on May 15, Melbourne Town Hall on May 16 and the Sydney Writers Festival on May 20.

More from The Australian
  • Five words spoken by counsel assisting Rowena Orr QC should strike fear into the heart of any witness.
  • exclusive
    Plastic packaging will be banned within seven years to cope with a Chinese ban on Australian recyclables.
  • Media Watch Dog
    ABC presenter Jon Faine classifies the royal baby as a threat to democracy as The Age surrenders Anzac Day to the left.
  • Amazon is No 1 in the Management Top 250 ranking of effective firms.
  • Updated
    Ex-Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella recorded a conversation with Ken Wyatt where he told her ‘you didn’t push me’.
  • The Buzz: From Fashion Revolution Week to new additions at Australian Fashion Week.

Reader comments on this site are moderated before publication to promote lively and civil debate. We encourage your comments but submitting one does not guarantee publication. We publish hundreds of comments daily, and if a comment is rejected it is likely because it does not meet with our comment guidelines, which you can read here. No correspondence will be entered into if a comment is declined.

5 people listening
Brian avatarS avatarPAUL avatarGuy avatar


Avatar for Guy

I feel sorry for all the women who delayed motherhood for travel, career etc and then found out it was too late to conceive.... all because of feminism..

Avatar for Brian

Arguably feminism has been a very destructive ideology that has destroyed many relationships and left the lives of many women empty and meaningless. Steinem & Greer were/are false prophets and history will so judge.

Avatar for S

@Brian  er...I differ, because 50 years ago my professional career options were very limited: nurse, teacher, typist, hairdresser. No chance at all of being a pilot or submarine captain; and little chance of becoming an architect, a bank manager, or geologist. Have a family : yes but in combination with satisfying work? Not unless riches bought servants.