Equality: Lecture Summary by Mark Shannon

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem visited the city on behalf of the Pittsburgh Speakers Series.  For this event the format was changed from the standard lecture to a discussion between her and host Larry Richert. Before they sat down together she spoke to the audience about what she hoped would happen that night.  She spoke of the recent tragedy in Squirrel Hill and said that this night was one in which we could all figuratively gather in a circle and learn together. She encouraged everyone to introduce themselves to three or four other people around them.  Who knew what could come of these introductions, she said. Maybe a new job, or a new romance, or finding someone who shared your interests becoming a new friend would be the result. Who knew what could happen?

When Larry joined her onstage he began the presentation by asking her what she knew about Pittsburgh.

She said that she has been to the city a few times throughout the years and she noted that she has always come away from Pittsburgh with good feelings about the city.  That’s something that she can’t say about other places she’s visited. She recognized the tremendous progress made in this area, from a smoke-filled industrial region to a center of medical and technological research.

When prompted, she talked about her childhood in Toledo.  Her father was a man who liked to follow the sun. They travelled in a camper year-round down South and out West as far as California.  He worked at a number of amusement parks during the season and they sold antiques and other items out of their camper. Her father was proud of the fact that he never wore a hat, which was a sign of having “made it” in his generation.  He also was glad he never held down a job, rather he worked for himself.

During those early years she didn’t attend public school.  On the road she learned to read and enjoyed doing so. She said she realized later on in life that she was glad she hadn’t gone through the public school system because she avoided learning to think the way students are taught to view the world and each other in the classroom.

She became a writer and worked as a journalist.  Her stories appeared in major publications of the ‘60s such as the New York Times, Esquire, and many others.

In those days she was frequently the only woman in the newsroom and so she was handed the fashion stories and other puff pieces.   She recalled that the work environment of those publications was typically sexist. An editor who worked for the New York Times told her that she could go to a hotel with him one afternoon for sex or she could take out his mail.  She thought a moment and then told him that she would take out his mail on the way out. She walked out the door and bought an ice cream cone, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was then she understood her father’s aversion to the rat race and she felt closer to him.

One of her biggest stories in those years was when she wrote an expose about what it was like for a woman to work at the Playboy Club.  She had to wear the bunny outfit and demonstrated the way she had to serve drinks. This was done in a sideways motion so that the waitress wouldn’t fall over in front of the customer.  

She was glad that this story prompted changes in the way women were paid in the food and hospitality sector and she is also glad that they’ve closed most of the Playboy Clubs—although she did note that one just recently opened in Manhattan and that concerns her.  She said that even Hugh Hefner said in his later years that the bunny motif was passé.

Larry mentioned that when the entourage from Robert Morris University sat down to dinner with her earlier that evening, the waitress that served them mentioned that Steinem was her hero.  She was touched to hear that but hoped that the waitress was being paid a fair amount since the food service industry does not pay very much. She said, somewhat jokingly that she should go back and talk to that waitress to see if they could organize the workers.

One of the turning points in her life occurred when she worked with a young woman named Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a social services organization.  The future Supreme Court justice assigned her and another staff member to interview a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a black woman who vividly recalled for them how she was sterilized on a routine visit to the hospital—just because of her race.  This was a common practice in the middle years of the twentieth century and her story opened Steinem’s eyes to the problems faced by women.

Larry related that the wife of the president of Robert Morris University—Barbara Howard—recalled growing up in South Africa and seeing Steinem protesting against apartheid on television.  She said this experience moved her tremendously and she was glad to know that people outside her country knew about the problems she faced. Steinem replied that she remembered that the television networks in South Africa blocked out the faces of white protesters because the government didn’t want the people to know that other nations opposed their policies.

When asked about the results of the recent mid-term elections she cautiously said that on a scale of 1 to 10 she gives the final totals a 7.  She was disappointed that Florida and Georgia remain in limbo with regard to the governor’s races in those states, but she was pleased to see that the senator from New York was a woman.

She doesn’t know what to make of Florida and its recent election record.  She recalled the morning after the 2000 presidential election when she was speaking at a community college in Palm Beach.  No one knew at that point who the president would be but plans were being formed for tabulation verification and recounts. There were approximately 700 people in the audience and she was surprised to hear several people remark about how difficult it was to cast a vote.  Whether it was the location of the polling stations or the unintended vote for a candidate when the opposing nominee was actually selected, she said she was stunned to learn about the amount of improprieties in the system.

Someone asked if Hillary Clinton’s gender was a significant factor in her losing the election.  Steinem believed that to be the case. She said from an early age men see women as mothers or other nurturing figures and it is hardwired into them to keep this idea into adulthood.  They find it too difficult to envision a woman in charge of the affairs of state and the military.

But, she said, the ideas of gender bias in American society were not always so prevalent.  She took a journey down the Nile and along its banks she saw how early temples and statuary depicted women on an equal playing field with men.  When certain pharaohs declare monotheism the statuary starts to depict women in subservient positions. Some statues are of men seated on the backs of kneeling women.  

This idea was perpetuated when the Biblical record began to take place in history.  Patriarchal societies began to be the norm. This scenario also subjugates the natural world as man begins to take dominion over nature.

Even the ancestors of Native Americans had no words to differentiate between men and women.  Instead everyone was referred to as the People and there was equality between the sexes.

She did not know if Clinton would run again for the presidency but she did not think she would.

When asked to name some of the women who inspired her she answered that Shirley Chisholm came to mind immediately.  She was the first black woman in Congress and Steinem said she literally took the “White Men Only” sign off the door of the White House.

Another name that she thought of instantly was Wilma Mankiller.  The first female chief of the Cherokee nation is a good friend and a wise counselor.  When Steinem was considering getting married during a visit to a Cherokee festival in Oklahoma she consulted the chief.  She was told that the matter would be considered overnight. The chief went out in her front yard and spent the night thinking about the question.  In the morning she assured Steinem that it would be all right, and the wedding proceeded.

The third woman she named was Bella Abzug.  Steinem said Abzug was much more widely known on the international scene than she was in the United States.  She remembered meeting a woman from overseas who declared that she was the Bella Abzug of Afghanistan.

She doesn’t have any children but her stepson is the actor Christian Bale.  She quickly noted that she had nothing to do with his upbringing. He was already an adult when she married his father.  But they remain close.

She does not regret not having any children.  She said that motherhood is a gift and there are many women who have clearly received that gift and used it well.  She has other gifts to share.

When asked about the one incident that she most treasures that had the most impact for women in her life she said there are literally too many to isolate or count.  She recalled a visit she made to Texas for a speaking engagement. One woman approached her and said that her bank was not treating her to all the services due male customers.  She told the woman that banks have a history of treating women unfairly and that she should join a credit union since they are traditionally more equitable. Several years later Steinem returned to Texas and found out that the woman she had spoken to had started her own credit union.  Stories like that warm her heart and she knows of many incidents like that.

She was asked to speak about the problem of pornography in society.  She actively protested porn throughout her career. She replied that the word “pornography” means to write about prostitutes.  “Erotica” means the act of making love. Porn is all about dominating women and putting them in weakened positions. Erotica is more concerned with each person in a sexual encounter receiving and giving pleasure.  She assured those present that the latter is much more satisfying.

Someone asked her who she would pass the torch of feminism to in the next few years.  She replied firmly that she will keep her torch to herself thank you very much and who says there is only one torch to bestow?  Many women are inspiring younger women to take the lead in the equality movement and she does not claim to have the sole authority to do that.  

She said she is very encouraged to hear about progress being made by women today.  She noted that many of these women are younger than her blue jeans and that her best friends in the movement were not even born during her most active years.

She remarked that she sees her role in the movement today as one that gives hope to others.  It is the role of the young people to be on fire with anger about the current state of affairs and with passion to make changes.  It is the role of the older people to give them hope, to remind them of how far women have come in their lifetimes and to shine a light on how to blaze a trail for the future.