An interview with Gloria Steinem, the legendary feminist icon, sheds light on the structural and cultural barriers that have held women back and shares her advice on how to tap into your own inner leader.
Marianne Schnall (MS): Why do you think it is that we have not yet had a woman president? Gloria Steinem?
Gloria Steinem (GS): One reason is that women weren’t citizens from 1776 through the constitutional amendment [in 1920]. We were possessions, like tables and chairs. So there was not the opportunity [for women] to own property, to have the right to one’s own earnings, to have the right to your own children. And since then, we have been overcoming legal barriers. For instance, women couldn’t sit on juries, law schools didn’t accept women, or accepted a small percentage of women when I was growing up. When I would have gone to law school, Harvard accepted no women and Columbia accepted 5 percent. So those are just symbolic areas, but they’re illustrative, real, powerful barriers.
MS: I feel like this whole conversation sometimes gets reframed incorrectly as a men versus women conversation, that it’s some type of competition. Why would electing a woman as president be important?
GS: It’s important because we need the talent of the whole country, not just a small percentage of it. Once at Ms. Magazine we tried to figure out the talent pool from which we were choosing presidents. First you eliminated half the country, the females. Then you eliminated by class, race—because obviously Obama had not yet been elected. Anyway, we ended up with 6 percent. So it’s important for the whole country that we are able to choose from all of our talent, otherwise we lower our standards.
MS: What do other countries, with elected female heads of state, know that we don’t, and why is the United States lagging so far behind?
GS: There are a variety of reasons and they all function in different ways. One is there’s more power in this country. It’s still the dominant power in the world, so there’s more competition for these jobs. One is that we are multi-racial, and racism always increases sexism because you have to maintain control of women and reproduction in order to maintain racial difference. So one-race countries, generally speaking, as the Scandinavian example, for instance, have slightly less motivation to remain sexist.
MS: What advice would you give on having the courage to honor your voice and to speak out and contribute your influence, even though sometimes society is pushing against that?
GS: Hang out with people who make you feel smart, not dumb. That’s crucial. Because if they make you feel dumb, they’re not supporting you and they’re not helping you. It isn’t that we’re right or wrong. It doesn’t have to do with being right all the time, but if you have consistency of support from people who value your opinion, it will help you to value your opinion. We’re communal people. You can’t do it by yourself.
MS: Do you feel hopeful that we will have a woman president?
GS: I feel hopeful, because I feel hopeful that you and I and the people reading this will act.
Gloria Steinem is a best-selling author, lecturer, editor, and feminist activist. She travels in the United States and other countries as an organizer and lecturer and is a frequent media spokeswoman on issues of equality. She is particularly interested in the shared origins of sex and race caste systems, gender roles and child abuse as roots of violence, non-violent conflict resolution, the cultures of indigenous peoples, and organizing across boundaries for peace and justice.
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