Feminist icon Gloria Steinem remembers the moment she realized women needed a movement.
It was 1968 (pre-Roe v. Wade) and a then-recent New York state legislature hearing on whether or not to liberalize the state’s abortion law was being roundly criticized for including only one woman among its ten witnesses. And that woman happened to be a nun. A group of women held a protest hearing in a downtown New York church. Steinem, a reporter at the time, covered the event for New York Magazine.
“For the first time in my life, I saw women standing up and telling the truth about something that was not supposed to be spoken of in public. The stories were moving, and I realized that one in three American women — then and now — needs an abortion at some time in her life. So why was it illegal and unsafe?” Steinem said. “I had an abortion when I was newly graduated from college and never told anyone. [This meeting] was a great moment of revelation.”
Steinem soon became a trailblazer for women’s equality and reproductive rights, eventually founding the feminist-themed Ms. magazine, one of the few women’s magazines still in circulation that’s female-owned. Steinem has traveled the globe organizing and lecturing on women’s equality, and she recently published a book — My Life on the Road — about those travels and the impact they’ve had on her life.
She’ll be traveling to Memphis this month to speak at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region’s (PPGMR) annual James Award ceremony, which will also serve as the local health service provider’s 75th anniversary event. It’s fitting that Steinem, who was first awakened to activism through other women’s stories, will be speaking at the PPGMR event in a year when that organization has made a concerted effort to publicize abortion stories from consenting women statewide through their Tennessee Stories Project. That website aims to normalize abortion and offer women, who may be emotionally recovering from the procedure or preparing to have one, a safe space where they won’t feel alone.
The James Awards will be held on September 15th at the Hilton Memphis (939 Ridge Lake). Steinem took a few minutes to speak with Memphis magazine about the future of reproductive rights in the U.S., sexism in American politics, her thoughts on gender identity in the feminist movement, and more.
Tennessee’s Planned Parenthood organizations jointly launched the Tennessee Stories Project this year to give women a safe space to share their abortion stories online. That sounds like a virtual version of that meeting you attended in 1968. How important do you think these safe spaces are?
There’s nothing like the truth to help us realize that we are not alone, and it is crucial for women to be able to decide when and whether to have children. Whether or not we can make that decision is the biggest factor in whether we are educated or not, healthy or not, able to work outside the home or not, and determines how long we live. It’s a human right.
Abortion rights are being challenged in states across the country. Do you worry that Roe v. Wade could be overturned?
We’ve been worrying about that ever since the decision. It would only take a couple of right-wing presidents appointing anti-choice Supreme Court justices to make that happen. There’s a lot of resistance, even though the majority of Americans clearly believe that reproductive freedom is a fundamental human right.
Sexism has played a large role in this presidential election. Are we moving backward?
[The equality movement] has been winning quite a lot, so there are waves of backlash. It’s probably peaking in part because, in short order, this country will no longer be a majority European-American or white country. For people who were born into a system that told them that men were superior, white people were superior, and Christians were superior, it’s very upsetting to understand that they are no longer in the majority, and they’re fighting back.
Do you think America is ready for its first female president?
It’s going to be very difficult, but it’s been very difficult for President Obama, too. The right wing has been so hostile to him. If the right wing had cancer and he had the cure, they wouldn’t accept it. They’re just dead-set against him. Similarly, the idea that a female human being should be the head of arguably the most powerful nation on Earth is offensive to people who believe in the hierarchy. I did not think in 2008 that this country could elect a woman. I do think we can and must now, but it’s going to be hell.
You founded Ms. in 1972. How needed, at that time, was that resource for women? And how relevant is it today, when so many women’s magazines are filled with articles about how to please men?
Ms. magazine is the only national magazine for women that is controlled by women. There are other feminist magazines, like Bust and a few others. But the magazines you find on newsstands are not controlled by women. They are controlled by ads. So even if the individual women editors are trying to put a [pro-female] article or two into this magazine that’s mostly about clothes and makeup and cooking and sex, the advertisers won’t advertise unless there is editorial coverage of their product.
Women have come a long way toward reaching equality, but gender norms are still prevalent, especially in parenting, where women still bear the brunt of the work of child-rearing. Is that changing?
The way women become whole people is through having a life not only in the home but outside the home. The way men become whole people is the same way. So it’s crucial that boys are raised to raise children, whether or not they ever have children. They need to be raised to have the qualities — patience, flexibility, empathy — to take care of children.
What young women inspire you?
There are so many more feminists today than there were in my generation or the one that came afterwards. Think about the three young women who started Black Lives Matter [Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi] or Lena Dunham or America Ferrera. Sometimes I think I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born.
Where do trans women and non-binary women fit into the struggle for women’s rights?
It seems to me to be all the same struggle. We invented the idea of gender. It doesn’t exist. The old languages — Cherokee, Bengali, the oldest African languages — do not have he or she. They don’t even have gendered pronouns. We’re all trying to achieve a world where you are a unique individual and a human being.