I once got myself in trouble with my peers in a class at the College of Santa Fe by declaring, “I am by no means a feminist.” The next day I walked into the room to find written anonymously on the board in red marker: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes;” the definition of “feminist” from the dictionary. I felt a little stupid and apologized to the class, the anonymous board-writer among them. I'd perhaps meant Feminazi. Foot, meet mouth.
It's slips of the tongue and lapses of judgment – as well as the kinds of people who get really mad about them – that came to mind as I made my way through the hordes of people at Saturday, March 7's lecture by Gloria Steinem, as part of the Women of Distinction series from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. The Santa Fe Community Convention Center was absolutely jam-packed; it was later announced that 1,600 people (according to Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, the crowd consisted of “1,400 women and 200 really smart men”) were there that evening. With only one ticket window, it was pretty hairy.
I squeezed my way toward the will-call line. To begin with, I was unsure of what to expect that evening; I admittedly didn't know much about Gloria Steinem, other than that she was important. The crowd at this particular event didn't help my mood.
I'll tell you, I have never been run into by so many middle-aged women, and NOT apologized to, in my entire life. It was a crowded place, and there was bound to be some bumpings-into. No big deal. But even when someone would blatantly run into me, I'd turn and apologize, only to have them not even turn my way, a “sorry” apparently being completely out of the question. I was absolutely baffled at just how many rude women had been gathered in one place at one time. If this was feminism at its finest in Santa Fe, I'd have none of it, thank you very much.
It was with this mindset that I sat down in my little seat to the extreme left of the stage. I thankfully had a view between two heads so I could actually see the lectern at which Steinem would stand. I settled in for the long haul. Maybe I'll duck out halfway through, I thought.
Pretty soon, though, my mood started to change. When first Denish, then Marilyn Mason (chair of the Women of Distinction Series Committee), then Elizabeth Sackler – an old friend of Steinem's and a revolutionary feminist in her own right – each in turn announced each other and ultimately announced Steinem, the energy and anticipation kept building. I was reminded of the high school plays I took part in as a student, the months of rehearsal and sweat and effort that had all been poured into this one night, and this was your one shot to show everyone what you could do. “Giddy” would perhaps be a good word to describe the energy. Denish declared that Steinem taught her, at 40, “not to be ashamed to be a feminist.” It didn't take long before I was sold on the idea of Gloria Steinem, and I hadn't even heard her speak.
When Sackler finally introduced Steinem, the woman who walked onstage was nothing like what I expected. The sleepy-eyed photo of Steinem on the evening's program looked bulbous and old and couldn't even begin to do the woman justice. She was dressed all in form-fitting black with a big shiny concha belt, cowboy boots on her feet, smiling from under a beautiful hairdo that I immediately envied. I knew she was a Playboy Bunny at one time and all, but man. The woman looks damn good for going on 75. She'd look damn good for going on 50.
While Steinem was addressing, and knew she was addressing, a room containing mostly women who were old enough to remember Roe v. Wade in real time, she was well aware that she was not speaking to only baby boomers. She spoke to everyone.
She began with stories about women we may not have known. Did we know, she inquired, that Mozart had a sister that he called “The Talented One?” She too was paraded around as a child virtuoso; unlike Wolfgang Amadeus, however, once she reached her late teens she was sent home to marry. Brother and sister kept up a lifelong correspondence, and Steinem suggests that perhaps some of Mozart's compositions were actually his “more talented” sister's.
Steinem urged the audience to look further; whether it is from Mozart to his sister, or if it's at news stories to find the underlying message. She cited (via the Women's Media Center website) that admittances to emergency rooms across the country have risen in recent months; what the news does not tell you, however, is that more than 50 percent of women admitted to ERs are there for domestic violence. She says that a recent news item has stated that men are laid off more often than their wives, and that women are safer in their jobs; what this doesn't tell you is that many families are now dependent solely on the mother, who, as it were, makes only 78 cents to the dollar of her husband's salary. It is these things we do not hear.
I sat, for lack of a better word, entranced. Steinem was a hundred feet away and I could only barely make out her features (unless I looked at the screen above her), but I felt like she was talking to me. We were sitting at a coffee shop or in someone's living room and she was just telling me stories. She was talking to me. She was educating me and it seemed like she wasn't even trying to sound brilliant. She was not the self-righteous, perhaps slightly pompous tubby woman draped in scarves I'd expected to encounter. She was real, and she was right in front of me, and I could feel her standing there.
I realized: If Gloria Steinem had bumped into me in the lobby, she would have apologized.
“We are each a product of a long line of environment and heredity that has never happened before and will never happen again,” Steinem said. “It is the individual that matters.” Somehow, just these few words made me begin to treasure myself. I began then to think about myself; about my own life. I thought about my own experiences as living in what is not a post-Steinem world, but perhaps a Steinem AD – the world that she has affected and continues to affect.
I, and other women in my age group, never had to fight for our right to have an abortion. Steinem told the story of when she “came” to feminism – she was covering abortion hearings for New York Magazine and was so blown away by the women testifying, telling their stories of illegal and dangerous abortions, that she knew she had to do something. When asked what she would have done differently throughout her career, Steinem said, “I wouldn't have done anything differently. I just would have done everything much faster.”
Since I was small my parents would take me to Take Your Daughter to Work Day. I would go into school with my dad, who taught high school physics in New Jersey. For my middle-school self it was a day to skip school, to wake up at the crack of dawn and hobnob with high schoolers. Every year it was just something that happened, a day I could look forward to.
Steinem was one of the creators of Take Your Daughter to Work Day. It was to help little girls see that they could do whatever they wanted; for some of them it was perhaps the first inkling that they could work at all. In recent years some people have gotten up in arms and have insisted it be changed to Take Your Child to Work Day. This infuriated my mother. My mother, who has a son and a daughter and never petitioned to be able to take him out of school for a day. Even now, she sighs into the receiver when I tell her over the phone about Steinem's lecture, and she brings up the gender-neutral holiday. “Most sons don't need to be told that they can do anything. They just can. It's the girls that need it,” she says.
The more I thought, the more I realized how much Steinem's work has played into every last corner of my life. Since I was very young I would get into arguments as often as I possibly could about how girls are just as tough, as smart, as useful as boys – and I never thought anything of it. I was just telling the truth, after all. When my 8th grade Home Economics teacher suggested that the boys of the class could probably eat two bowls of cereal for breakfast, and the girls only one, I immediately jumped up and claimed that I could eat three. When, on a road trip, my grandmother insisted to 11-year-old me that the man should always be smarter than the woman in a marriage because that's just the way it should be, I fought with her for about 200 miles as to why she was wrong. (For the record, when I asked her who was smarter – her, or my recently deceased grandfather – she insisted that they were equal, and that that was okay too.) When I was 7 and saw that my uncle's pool pass to the Elks Club said “ELK” and that my aunt's said “WIFE,” I knew something was wrong but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
Now I can. Steinem has given me the words. It's ownership. When women couldn't vote, when women make 78 cents to the dollar, when astronaut John Glenn said that women could be useful for “the regular duties” on long space missions (someone's gotta cook all that space food, right?) – it's ownership. It's not being fully human. It's being lesser than. “If you belong to a devalued group, you devalue everything you do,” Steinem says of women who are ashamed, perhaps, to admit that they are “just” stay-at-home moms or housewives.
The longer Steinem talked, the fuller I felt. The more whole I was. I realized why it was that I, all my life, have been proud to be a girl and have never ever once wished I could be anything else for convenience's sake. She forged the path so that young women like me could follow along easily.
After the award for being a Woman of Distinction was given, and it was announced that, in honor of Steinem's 75th birthday (which is happening March 25, 2009) the Gloria Steinem Fund for Organizing was established through Ms. Magazine, the entire audience broke out into “Happy Birthday.” Steinem stood, hands clasped in front of her, smiling, the one in the spotlight on the stage and holding the award but somehow utterly humble.
“Distinction is not about what one does, but who one is,” as was said during the award ceremony. After the event, Steinem immediately went forward to the front of the stage and knelt on the edge, smiling and talking and reaching out to autograph programs and books. Women gathered around ten deep and pulled out their cell phones and took countless pictures of Steinem as she leaned toward them, offering of herself.
Because, really, what else would she have done?