Listen to this article
Gloria Steinem does not drive. Indeed, a whole chapter in her latest book, My Life on the Road, is dedicated to the reasons why she does not. So it seems appropriate I am interviewing this self-described “modern nomad” on a rush-hour train travelling from London to Cambridge, during her UK promotional tour.
In Cambridge, Ms Steinem is due to speak at an event with Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project. The day before, she was interviewed on stage by Emma Watson, the actress and UN goodwill ambassador for women. In the past, the political activist and organiser has written that “if young women have a problem, it’s only that they think there’s no problem”. Does she feel today’s feminists are different from the pioneers of the 1970s movement?
“The contrast for me from the past is how activist young women, how radical they are, how pissed off they are,” she says. “They are way, way ahead of anything in my generation at the same age.”
Ms Steinem says she did not become a feminist until her 30s and she argues that, notwithstanding the Emma Watsons and Laura Bateses of today, women are the only group that becomes more radical with age. In her 1983 essay collection, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she says this is because young women “outgrow the limited power allotted to them as sex objects and child bearers . . . [they] haven’t yet experienced the injustices of inequality in the paid labour force, the unequal burden of child rearing and work in the home, and the double standard of ageing”.
Ms Steinem says she has become “angrier” since her 30s (“I’m hopping mad that more progress has not been made”), although she has certainly packed in myriad achievements in the 50 years since, founding the Women’s National Political Caucus and Ms. magazine, as well as writing eight books and leading activism across the globe. One of the initiatives in which she is currently involved is fundraising for a radio station run by moderate Syrian women.
She may be angrier, but she speaks softly and emanates warmth and down-to-earth elegance. At nearly 82, she is beautifully groomed, with perfect make-up and long manicured nails. Despite her disquiet over the years with commentators referring to her striking looks, Ms Steinem has never resembled the parody of the dungaree-wearing bra-less activists of the Vietnam war era. Nevertheless, she is still fighting many of the battles of that time.
The day we meet, Lands’ End, the clothing retailer, had just removed an interview with her from its website and apologised for publishing it, after customers voiced their outrage at the featuring of the pro-abortion activist. One customer wrote: “Are you anti-child? You want to kill off possible future customers?”
Ms Steinem has been on the receiving end of such hostility for half a century. In 1978, as she relates in My Life on the Road, she was invited to speak at a church in Minnesota. When she arrived there, “cars are circling St Joan of Arc with huge blow-ups of foetuses mounted on their roofs, and loudspeakers are blasting, ‘Gloria Steinem is a murderer! Gloria Steinem is a baby killer!’” Today she is understanding rather than angry, although she says she will object to Lands’ End’s “censorship”.
“I think they have never had this experience before, so I think they are kind of freaked out. The only reason [the interview] happened at all was because there’s a new woman heading the company [Federica Marchionni], who is Italian and perhaps . . . [the people running the website] are in a more reactionary part of the company.”
The decades of hostility have not affected her commitment to women’s freedom of choice on abortion. She continues to feel as strongly as ever that control of reproduction is a key indicator of women’s equality in any society and her latest book is dedicated to Dr John Sharpe, a London-based practitioner who performed an abortion on Ms Steinem in 1957, when she was 22.
Given such personal details, it is perhaps surprising that My Life on the Road has been criticised for including so little about her personal life. It does not mention, for example, her marriage in her 60s to the father of actor Christian Bale, or her brush with cancer in the 1980s.
But there are many deeply personal moments in the book, including a long essay about her father, a cheerful, loving itinerant, who “worried about my fate as an overeducated woman”, sent her adverts for jobs as a dancer in a Las Vegas chorus line, and was absent for much of her childhood, leaving her to care for a severely depressed mother.
Despite his obvious failings as a parent, she has only generous appreciation for his qualities — “because of my father, only kindness felt like home” — and she recognises how much his itchy feet influenced her own suspicion of the “siren song of home”.
The book also details many of her experiences on the campaign trail, from Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1968 to Hillary Clinton’s competition with Barack Obama to win the Democratic nomination in 2008. Then she felt frustrated that interviewers always wanted her to choose between two — as she felt — impressive candidates. For Ms Steinem, racism and sexism have always been inextricably linked and the battle is against both.
She is also horrified at the hostility Mrs Clinton continues to face, particularly from women. “I don’t know how she stands it,” she says.
“In living rooms from Dallas to Chicago,” she writes, “I noticed that the Hillary Haters often turned out to be the women most like her: white, well educated, and married to or linked with powerful men . . . they hadn’t objected to sons, brothers and sons-in-law using family connections and political names to further careers — say, the Bushes or the Rockefellers or the Kennedys — yet they objected to Hillary doing the same”.
But she dismisses concerns that many younger women, in particular, have supported Bernie Sanders, Mrs Clinton’s rival in the current Democratic presidential candidate selection race, instead of supporting a fellow woman.
“I’m glad they are being drawn into activism by Senator Sanders,” she says. “It isn’t about getting a job for one woman, it’s about making life better for all women.
“I wouldn’t [have supported] Sarah Palin [Republican 2008 vice-presidential candidate] if my life depended on it. You don’t want to see another woman humiliated because of being a woman. But that does not mean that I would not fiercely oppose her at every turn.”
She believes, though, that Mrs Clinton is a better candidate than Mr Sanders. The latter, she believes, “appeals to unrealistic hopes”, while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump offers “the politics of fear”.
Ms Steinem believes a society’s attitude to women says much about its politics and that it is no coincidence that many of today’s terrorists have come from the world’s most sexist environments. She writes in My Life on the Road that “the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself — or will use military violence against another country — is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalises all other violence”.
She acknowledges that much has improved for women since she became an activist, although she says — albeit laughingly — that there are “many” events she would have played differently during her long career.
In the 1960s she wrote about becoming a Playboy bunny at one of Hugh Hefner’s clubs. She says the article made her feel even more excluded from “serious” political journalism than she had been before. But the essay is still pertinent 50 years on. New Playboy Clubs are opening in India, where a book of Ms Steinem’s work has just been published, including A Bunny’s Tale.
While Ms Steinem says she does not know whether “to celebrate or mourn” the fact that her message is still so relevant today, there is no doubt that its power is undimmed.
Be alerted on Gloria Steinem