Hit and Ms.
Activist Gloria Steinem argues that Americans overwhelming support abortion rights, women need a bigger role in the media, and Lady Gaga should stop doing drugs
It’s been 40 years since Gloria Steinem co-founded Ms., the feminist magazine famed for its coverage of the women’s rights movement and issues such as abortion, education and job equality. In the years since, Steinem, who remains on the magazine’s board of directors, has remained active, working as a political organizer, lecturer and writer on subjects including female genital mutilation, same-sex marriage and abortion.
In 2005, Steinem, along with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, co-founded the Women’s Media Center, which, in addition to producing original editorial content, trains women in the art of media representation.
In a recent interview, Steinem, who speaks at Folsom Lake College’s Three Stages this Monday, discussed abortion rights, media fairness and the radical notion of aging.
It’s Women’s History Month. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women today?
The issues cluster first around the reasons why women have second-class status: Our bodies are the means to reproduction, and any effort to control that reproduction is always dangerous to women, [such as] instances you see in Congress of planning to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood. Efforts to control women—to own women to some extent, to take away from them a fundamental human right—that’s the biggest area of focus.
Is it difficult to address because it’s such a polarizing issue?
It’s not a polarizing issue; the majority of Americans support reproductive freedom, but because one of the two big political parties is in control of the minority of this country, that attempt to control is the basic issue. Thirty or 40 years ago, a woman couldn’t get a sterilization without her husband’s consent in writing and unless she’d already had several children—men never had that problem getting a vasectomy—so there have been many advancements, but the issues continue.
Are you concerned about Roe v. Wade being overturned?
It’s already been overturned for poor women and young women, if a woman is depending on government funding. Now they’re trying to also erode women’s rights to health-care coverage. Also, 85 percent of U.S. counties offer no place for a woman to have a safe and legal abortion, and many states require parental or judicial consent for a minor to have an abortion. Young women, poor women and women in geographically isolated areas have already lost Roe v. Wade.
You don’t believe this country is polarized when it comes to abortion?
Absolutely not. The public-opinion polls show something quite different than the outcome of the election. If you look at Americans across the board, they tend to be more progressive on issues, [but] the voting is skewed because too few people vote and we frequently don’t know what issues we’re voting for. The actual opinions of people are quite progressive. Much of this problem began when [President Ronald] Reagan deregulated the media [in the ’80s]. When he did away with the Fairness Doctrine [that kept] the ownership of the media concentrated in just a few hands. [Now] it’s very difficult for people watching Fox News to be informed—they don’t know that they’re watching the Pravda of the right wing. Most people don’t have the time to do their own research. Even though we have the Web, it’s not easy to find all the information you need.
The glut of information on the Internet actually makes it more difficult to find the truth.
Yes, and we tend to just cocoon—people look for information that they agree with and don’t necessarily get objectivity [when] an outlet like The Huffington Post doesn’t pay its writers.
What’s your opinion on The Huffington Post—especially now that they’re in a deal with AOL?
I’d never write for them.
Why is that?
Because they don’t pay their writers. Even The Daily Beast pays its writers. Even the Women’s Media Center with its infinitesimally small budget pays its writers. The Huffington Post doesn’t pay its writers and they aggregate their news, which is another word for stealing. I think they’re a part of the bigger problem.
What’s the purpose behind the Women’s Media Center?
We have original editorial material on our website, covering stories that aren’t getting covered by the mainstream media. We also train women to be media spokeswomen—women who have great experiences or expertise in different areas.
How does it work?
Women come from different areas—immigrant rights are an area of great interest right now—and we help them get trained. We get them bookings [on TV] and teach them how to write Op-Ed pieces. Their knowledge is important. In the past, we [were] so busy doing the work that we thought that certainly the newspapers would cover [the women’s movement], but now we have understanding that there has to be a media movement just like there’s a health-care movement.
What do you think of current media depictions of women?
The general decision making about what is in the media, women occupy only 3 percent of those positions, which is not to say that there aren’t some good men making those decisions. Then there is the problem of age—the average woman on camera is 15 years younger than the average man. Just as you get the experiences, you’re banished [from the camera] because you’re too old. Then there’s the issue of diversity—the standard of beauty is racially tinged. Instead of having women who look like the country, who come in different shades and races, you have a disproportionate number of blondes out there—real or artificial.
What about pop-culture depiction of women? Lady Gaga has been compared to Madonna but, unlike Madonna, she’s also been open about her continued use of cocaine and heavy drinking.
You could see the politics of it with Madonna—she was imitating Marilyn Monroe, who was a child-woman, a victim in her roles, and to some extent, her life. Madonna was interesting because she took the symbols of Marilyn Monroe and said, “I’m going to be in control of those symbols. I’m not going to be the victim.” As a result, her public was mainly younger women, whereas with Marilyn Monroe, it was mainly older men.
I don’t know a lot about Lady Gaga except that she did stand up for gays in the military; she’s not totally without activism. But if she’s doing drugs, that’s a huge problem. At least it’s a huge problem for her, because she’ll have a short career.
You once said that “Women get more radical as they age.” You’re almost 77—is that true for you?
Here’s what it’s about: When you’re 9 or 10, before the feminine role appears in your life, then you’re often very radical in a very common-sense way. Little kids are always saying, “It’s not fair, you’re not the boss of me.”
Then the gender roles come along and convince many females that they’re supposed to be passive, submissive and look for approval and take care of people. That can last as long as up until your child-bearing years are over—up until age 50.
Then you start to get radical again. The greatest indicator of who a woman [will be] when she’s 60 is who she was when she was 9 or 10.
Now you’re the same person who was climbing those trees, but now you’re older with your own apartment and the freedom to do what you want.