The PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America (airing on February 26th) shares the stories of exceptional women who have made pioneering contributions that continue to shape the world in which we live. Through the perspectives of those who lived through historic milestones, the film recounts the seminal events in the Women’s Movement, including the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the battles to end discriminatory laws and practices over the following decade, while also telling the surprising and unknown stories of women who broke barriers in their own chosen fields.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, groundbreaking writer, lecturer, editor and activist Gloria Steinem, who has been looked to as the popular face of the women’s movement for over four decades, talked about what it means to her to be a part of this documentary, when she started to realize that what she was saying and doing was really impacting a larger collective, how difficult it was for her to get comfortable with public speaking, the surprise success of Ms. Magazine (which she co-founded), the most inspiring women today, and where she sees women now, in the bigger picture. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
GLORIA STEINEM: For me, it’s like being able to share with other people a bigger, more creative, more representative version of what happens to me when I walk on the street. Accidentally, I’m recognized as part of something I care very much about. I’m just one person, and it’s obviously a movement, but because I’m recognizable, people come up to me and treat me as if I were the movement. They come up to me and say, “Thank you,” they tell me how their lives have changed, and they tell me amazing stories about how their lives have changed because of the revolutionary idea that females matter and that we’re actual human beings.
Was there a point where you really started to realize that what you were saying and doing was really impacting a larger collective?
STEINEM: Yeah. The most memorable for me are the individuals because you’re connecting person-to-person and they’re telling you how their lives changed. I see it when I work in the election and I see the huge gender gap, which means many fewer women are willing to vote against their own self-interest. I see it in the huge gender gap on guns. It’s enormous. When a gun comes into the house, women feel threatened, but men feel strengthened, in a general way. I see it especially when I travel. There are moments when you feel like the globe is very small. I was sitting on the ground by the Zambezi river (in Africa) with 20 women, and none of us spoke the same language, but it worked, like circles of women always do. One started saying something she wasn’t supposed to say, which that her husband was violent towards her, and then the others started to tell the truth and it just became like one world. I definitely feel a part of something that matters to me, enormously, and I see change. There’s no greater gift than thinking that you had some impact on the world, for the better.
Do you find it scary when you hear people today talking about how women shouldn’t have equal pay, abortion rights should be overturned and that there shouldn’t be access to contraceptives? Do you wonder what they’re thinking?
STEINEM: I know what they’re thinking. Their world view is the opposite. They’re saying that the means of reproduction, which is women’s bodies, has to be controlled, we have to have more soldiers, we have to have more cheap labor, and we have to be able to decide which race and which class enlarges and which doesn’t. I understand what they’re saying. It’s wrong, but I understand it.
Does it surprise you that there are women that share that mentality?
STEINEM: No because it is still the dominant mentality, really. There’s a big gap between public opinion polls and the vote in Washington, in Congress. There’s only the death penalty in the Republican party platform, with which most Republicans agree. The membership of the NRA doesn’t agree with the leadership of the NRA about gun control. The majority consciousness has changed, and often that has made very clear, practical changes in our daily lives, but the centers of power are still not occupied, for the most part, by this new consciousness.
STEINEM: Well, the feeling of it is like being born. You’re like, “Oh, I’m not crazy! The system is crazy. Imagine that?” It makes sense of your life. It’s irresistible. It’s a force of understanding and self-respect. You start to understand why things happen and it’s the big, “Aha!” But, the public speaking part of it was very hard for me.
Did it get any easier?
STEINEM: It’s sort of like malaria. I’m grateful that I can do it because it is a different from of communication from writing or being on the web, and you do have all five sense when you’re in a room together. You communicate and understand each other in a much deeper way. All those chemicals that create empathy only work when you are in a room together. You can’t raise a baby on a computer screen. So, I’m really grateful to have this experience in my life, all the time, of being in a room with people, talking, listening, learning and hearing what they say, and having discussions. After a lecture, somebody in the audience will stand up say things that they wouldn’t say normally, and then somebody else will stand up answer them. I’m very grateful for it, but speaking in public is not my natural form of communication. We choose to be writers because we don’t want to talk.
Once you get past the nerves about speaking in front of an audience, does it feel empowering to get that feedback from people?
STEINEM: I don’t know if it’s empowerment. It’s more like being part of a big campfire. It’s very, very moving and satisfying. I’ve learned that the most impersonal seeming audiences eventually just say such intimate, smart, wise, amazing, totally surprising, funny things. It’s empowering, in the sense of feeling like you’re a part of something really important.
When you started Ms. Magazine, you had no idea how it would be received by anyone. What was the most validating response you got, after you started it, that made you realize it was something that people needed, at the time?
STEINEM: Well, the first response was when we had printed 300,000 copies of the preview issue, but we couldn’t afford publicity. When I got to California, I was on a morning show, and they were calling up after the morning show saying, “We can’t find it.” It was about six or seven days into having it on the newsstands. We put it out in January and it was called Spring because we thought it was going to stay there and we didn’t want to embarrass the movement, but it sold out. That let me know that we really created something that was needed and wanted. Other than that, it was the letters. It’s the individual stories that you get. We were a tiny magazine in size, compared to most other magazines, but we got many more letters than any of those magazines. The early letters themselves are now at Radcliffe and Smith (in Massachusetts), as a record of the movement because it’s a populist record.
How do you see the portrayal of women on television today?
STEINEM: The worst of it are those Real Housewives shows, and I think it’s conscious. A friend of mine is writing a book on female friendship, and how female friends lengthen your life as much as stopping smoking, and she’s doing a last chapter on the Housewives shows, which I think are a slightly unconscious, or maybe conscious, backlash against women bonding with each other ‘cause all they show is hostility, competition, plastic surgery and derived power, as wives of men with power.
STEINEM: The most obvious ones are probably in political life. There are also many women in artistic endeavors, but if they’re painters, you don’t necessarily see them, or if they’re actors, you see the role they’re playing. In political life, you see Hilary Clinton or Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s my Senator from the state of New York, or Maxine Waters in California. You see women of enormous courage and smarts and humor, and that releases the talent, especially in little girls who are watching.
Where do you see women now, in the bigger picture?
STEINEM: There’s much more support and much less hostility. There’s still hostility, but it’s not nearly as common. The single greatest problem today is the effort to make this change seem over. As with the Suffragist movement, which lasted 100 years, movements have to last a century, so we have at least another 50 years to go. About 10 years into the movement, people began to say, “Oh, that used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore,” and they’re still saying that. That’s the forum the polite opposition takes. The not so polite opposition is different.
Makers: Women Who Make America airs on PBS on February 26th, and further videos can be viewed at www.Makers.com.