Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives. This week, we highlight a 1987 profile of feminist writer Gloria Steinem, who is one of the high-profile speakers at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. In it, she discussed how Canadian and American feminists can work together, and what the future holds.
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One of feminism's most glamorous leading lights, journalist Gloria Steinem, worked briefly as a “bunny"—complete with cantilevered cleavage and fluffy tail—at a Playboy nightclub in 1963. But Steinem was really working as a journalist—assessing first-hand whether the so-called philosophy of the high-profile men's magazine was degrading to women. Nine years later Steinem launched her own forum for women's issues—Ms.Magazine, which now has almost half-a-million readers— and as observers began to detect a more strident note in her voice, she had a ready answer. “Women," she commented, “become more radical with age." At 53, Steinem is more outspoken than ever. Recently she discussed feminist issues with Maclean’s correspondent Janice Davis.
Maclean’s: Do you think we are living in a postfeminist era?
Steinem: No. We have had a first wave of feminism that established a legal identity as citizens for women. That took between 100 and 150 years, depending on how one counts. We are now in the second wave, which seeks legal and social equality, and I would say that by historical precedent we are about 15 or 20 years into it.
Maclean’s: Are any differences between Canada and the United States reflected in the current wave of feminism?
Steinem: We are having the same trouble. In both of our countries, we have majority support for equal or comparable pay, but we don’t have equal pay yet. We have majority support for the idea of women in high political office, but women do not occupy 50 per cent of the political offices. We have majority support for the idea of shared parenthood, but we don’t have the institutional change to make that possible. On the other hand, your social policy and laws are sometimes more advanced than ours, and our autonomous women’s organizations are sometimes stronger. We each could help the other from reinventing the wheel.
Maclean’s: But many women in this country say that they are not feminists.
Steinem: One problem with the word feminist is that people don’t know what it means. While it’s simple justice that we’re talking about, the world operates in such a different way that if you say, for example, 'I believe in equal pay for me,’ that’s a minor reform. It may get you a little shit but not nearly as much as saying you’re a feminist—which means you believe in equal pay for all women.
Maclean’s: Women in high schools and universities seem to be becoming more traditional, saying that they want to stay home, taking care of the family, and then they will have a career.
Steinem: That’s already different from 15 or 20 years ago when they weren’t thinking about a career at all. The same women will be more activist later.They have their dreams, which is step one, and life will radicalize them soon enough. It took me 25 years to get over the brainwashing I got in college. Every textbook told me that women didn’t do anything, and I believed all that. It’s a little better now. If you want to really measure change, you would have to take women 30 and up, because that’s the most changed group.
Maclean’s: Where do you see the greatest difficulty, the most resistant section of society?
Steinem: It’s men. There is no doubt in the world.
Maclean’s: But many men do want their women to work.
Steinem: Yes, but are they willing to cook as much, clean as much, take equal responsibility for the children? Some are, but many are still not doing that. As one woman said to me once, ‘Men want their wives to have a jobette.’
Maclean’s: Is it possible for women to assert themselves with men, without being adversaries?
Steinem: Definitely. What I try to do is to treat men the way I would want to be treated. In a strange way, AIDS is an equalizing factor. Culturally, men have been encouraged to go to bed with people they would not have lunch with. Women, on the contrary, have always felt a little bit more endangered by sex, both because of pregnancy and potential social censure. Now, men feel endangered by sex. Men are more cautious.
Maclean’s: Where do you see the movement heading in the next 15 to 20 years?
Steinem: First of all, nothing is automatic. This notion of historical forces that take women’s lives out of our hands is just another way of making us passive. For instance, the idea that the pill produced the women’s movement is total bullshit. Secondly, now that there is at least a critical mass of the population that supports equality, we are ready to make—and are beginning to make—structural changes.
Maclean’s: Obviously you are optimistic that, eventually, complete equality will be achieved.
Steinem: Not in my lifetime, but some time.
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