You know what they say about March -- comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.
Forget that. March is Women's History Month. It should come in like a lioness, and go out like one too. Like, say, Gloria Steinem.
As a seminal figure in the American women's movement, Steinem inhabits both history and the here and now. This time "here" happened to be the Skirball Center, honoring a retiring rabbi, Sheryl Lewart.
She wore New York black, ornamented by a Native American beaded necklace that means a great deal to her -- a talisman, a gift from her friend, Wilma Mankiller, who for 10 years was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. In a just country, Steinem believes, Mankiller would be president.
As you can probably surmise, Steinem doesn't think that "just country" is this one -- not yet, anyway.
How do you pick your fights?
There are people who'd suggest that when it comes to women's liberation, it's game over, a done deal.
The first argument was, you don't need this movement, you're fighting biology, it's impossible. Then we did it anyway. Then the second argument was, it used to be necessary but it's not anymore. [That's] just obstruction, and the civil rights movement is suffering from it too, as if having an African American president has now meant that the huge disparity in health and income and employment didn't exist. It's a tactic to stop the movement.
Are the biases against women more nuanced now?
No, they're not nuanced at all. They're unequal pay, pink-collar ghettos -- 70% of women are still employed in primarily female occupations that are less well paid. A parking lot attendant who's a guy makes a lot more money than a child-care attendant who's a woman. We have moved forward from 59 cents to 70-some cents on the [male] dollar. By the fact that we value our children more than our cars, it does not make sense that a parking lot attendant who's a guy makes a lot more money than a child-care attendant who's a woman.
What about the greater numbers of women in college, in some professions?
I'm glad about that, but part of the reason that's true is because [some] male blue-collar professions pay better than female white-collar professions. You can still graduate from college with a BA degree and make less than a man with a high school education.
One place that [advances] are very important is sports and physical strength and fitness. Rich cultures, patriarchal cultures, value thin women, like ours; poor ones value fat women. But all patriarchal cultures value weak women. So for women to become physically strong is very profound. Title IX helped enormously, and sports and fitness have helped a great deal.
Must change happen from the bottom up, or the top down? Is it individual or structural?
It requires both. It also requires valuing care-giving. Raising children, taking care of invalids, helping elderly parents is about a third of the work in this country, and it's 90% done by women. [When family members do it], it could easily be given an attributed economic value: How much would it cost if you were paying? And make that tax deductible. That would be a huge difference. The big step for this coming generation is to get to a place where men raise children as much as women do.
I wonder whether you think the war on terrorism may have elevated feminist awareness in this country because of how hideously the Taliban treats women?
We don't need martyrs and we don't need examples. I think we have a bad case of first-ism in this country. We seem to think that women here are better off than they are in any other country, and that's not true. We are the only modern democracy in the whole world with no national system of child care, no national system of healthcare, no system of family-friendly workplace policies. Women are a lesser percentage of elected officials [here] than in India. We are not "first."
Where do women's issues figure in the healthcare debate?
Women tend to need the healthcare system more because we bear children. Insurance companies -- not all of them, but many of them -- "gender-rate." Women may pay 40% more for their health insurance than men do. [Companies] are not allowed to [discriminate] racially anymore, but they still do it on gender. They say the reason they get to charge more is we have children. I would say having children is a socially useful act. Being female is not a preexisting condition.
Far and away most women believe in equal pay, equal rights, equal treatment, and yet they may shrink from the word "feminist." How did it become a no-go?
Because it's been demonized by the right wing. Every time I can bear to turn on Rush Limbaugh, he's talking about femi-Nazis. It has been distorted, just as "liberal" has.
Do we need the Equal Rights Amendment?