The Fight For Equality: An Interview with Gloria Steinem

The Fight For Equality: An Interview with Gloria Steinem
The picture above is credited to the photographer, Katie Lyman.

The Fight For Equality: An Interview with Gloria Steinem

GRI sat down with the inspirational activist and feminist pioneer, Gloria Steinem, to discuss her exceptionally influential life and the advice she has for the next generation of civic leaders.


Gloria Steinem is an American political activist, feminist, journalist and editor who has dedicated her life to advocating for women’s rights and advancing the women’s liberation movement. Steinem helped to found New York magazine in 1968 and in 1972, co-founded Ms. magazine – the first national American feminist magazine. Throughout her career, she has acted as an incredibly influential public advocate on a variety of important political issues, particularly in her well-known leadership in campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed the US Congress in March 1972. For her critical work in advancing the American feminist movement and causes of equality, Steinem has received numerous awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom–the highest civilian honour–presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2013.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GRI: What would be the one piece of advice you would give to your younger self before you entered into an inspiring life of activism?

Steinem: I would say spend as much time doing what you love to do, not what you think you should do. In my younger years, I had a case of the “should” – I thought I should follow a path set out by academia or by a particular profession. But I think actually, each of us is born with a unique set of talents and interests and the more we can follow that the more excited and effective we will be.

Which social or human rights causes do you believe are perhaps being most overlooked by the media and wider society and deserves more attention?

Steinem: Reproductive freedom is understood but not necessarily as a human right. This is perhaps because the human rights dialogue has been more about what men share and although men share a need for reproductive freedom, it is not quite as of the same magnitude as it is for women. Ultimately, if we do not have the right to make decisions over our own physical selves, then we do not have democracy.

How important was it to have media platforms such as your own at Ms. and as a columnist at New York Magazine, from which you advocated for and advanced causes of equality, human rights and empowerment?

Steinem: This has always been a question, ever since we were all sitting in a circle around a campfire, passing around a talking stick, so that each person had a turn at speaking while everyone else listened. That was perhaps the earliest form of media and we have continued to advance that. Yet, the earliest lesson is still the same – that is to democratise the media so that people who are affected by an issue or decision have a chance to influence that issue or decision.

Communicating through media platforms had a huge influence. It also had a progression to it – first I was writing essays and articles for existing magazines. And then because of response to those articles and columns, I had a column of my own and then because of response to that, I began to go out and speak, which is something I never expected that I would do. To some extent, I would say we become writers because we do not want to talk and I was absolutely terrified of speaking in public! Because the articles and columns were part of a social justice movement that was exploding, I began to get a series of invitations to speak. I could not do it by myself, so I spoke with a friend and we travelled together around the country to give talks, which turned out to be a good thing, because accidentally, we were one white American and one black American, so we got more diverse audiences than we would have drawn by ourselves. If you follow the logic of the subject you are talking about and the hopes you have for change, it will lead you to unexpected places.

What are the two most important qualities or skills that a young person can develop in order to hopefully succeed as an activist?

Steinem: A sense of humour. That is crucial! It is primordial. In the Native American culture here in the US, long before Europeans showed up, there was always a figure known in English sometimes as the ‘jokester’, who said that laughter broke into the unknown and therefore you could not pray unless you could laugh. I am not sure that we appreciate how important laughter is right now.

Does laughter and humour help you put things in perspective and provide you with the energy to adapt to difficult obstacles along the way?

Steinem: Yes. Laughter is every bit as important as every other human emotion. We too often become consumed by the big change that has to be made and we get discouraged as a result. We tend to forget that every revolution or social change is like a tree – it grows from the bottom up, not the top down. However small it may seem to begin, that does not matter because it will grow.

How did you deal with the frustrations when social change was slower than you might have expected?

Steinem: That is the purpose of a movement. You cannot do it by yourself. In the presence of other people, you have community and different points of view. We are social animals. We need each other and it is very important not to be alone.

How do you see civil society today as compared to the 60’s / 70s?

Steinem: I think what was seen as a movement demand is now more likely to be seen as a social norm. But I do think we could still use a set of guidelines. If the group making decisions does not look like the group about which the decisions are being made, then the decisions are being made for us. There will probably be something wrong with these decisions. It is good to remember these simple rules and principles. It is also important to remember that education is not necessarily correlated with wisdom. Whether or not someone is educated, does not always indicate their level of understanding and wisdom about these issues.

What would be your single proudest achievement?

Steinem: I think speaking in public, because it was the thing I least wanted to do and was the most afraid to do. We tend to count perhaps as most personally important that which was the most difficult for us individually, and public speaking was certainly the most difficult for me. I was lucky to be speaking with a friend from the beginning so I did not do it totally by myself. I used to think that I would die between the beginning and end of a sentence – that is how nervous I was! We also both left a lot of time for the audience to discuss and ask questions. So, if one person in the audience asked a question, somebody else in the audience would get up and answer it. By facilitating more of a discussion, participants would benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of many people.

How important was it to inspire people through public speaking?

Steinem: There are different forms of communication and writing has the virtue of being portable and permanent. But speaking in a group has the great virtue of multiplying the sources of wisdom because people on one side of the room can ask the question, and somebody on the other side answers it in a way that probably would not have been thought of by only one other person.

While recognising the enormous progress that has been made on causes of equality, do you feel that there could have been more progress made and do you feel that society is ready now to take those challenges on board?

Steinem: Progress does not necessarily happen in a steady way. It is often a step forward, and then a backlash and another step forward, followed by another backlash. For example, the US just experienced a big backlash that manifested itself in the presidency of Donald Trump. It was extremely difficult seeing Trump in office. He was representing the backlash of about a third of the country and none of his views had majority support. You have to be prepared for unexpected backlash and have the belief that you should keep moving forward, and remind yourself that these obstacles are temporary.

This reminds me of a story from when I was living in India. When I first got out of college, there was a woman called Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay – she was a great advocate of non-violence. I remember that a friend of mine in India and I were trying to write about Mahatma Gandhi, and we went to interview her, and she listened patiently as she was rocking on her porch, and finally said, ‘Yes, of course, my dear, we taught Gandhi everything he knew.’ She was talking about the women’s movement, which led the first marches to the sea to make their own salt (in defiance of the British colonial tax on salt in India) and were leaders in the non-violent movement in India – we only get all of history when we listen democratically.

– Edited by Rachael Rhoades, Editor in Chief

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