Writer and activist Gloria Steinem has been involved in feminist and social justice movements for over 40 years. She talks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, on NDTV 24X7’s Walk the Talk, about what set her off on her path, why categorisation into masculine and feminine is essentially dehumanising, and her relationship with India that began nearly half a century ago.
Gloria Steinem — the pioneer of women’s movement in the whole world. I know you don’t like the term, but really you are an icon when it comes to fighting for equality and also teaching all the world’s women and, most importantly, the men the definition of equality.
That’s a high compliment, but it’s a movement, so it doesn’t happen from one individual, you know, at least in this country. But I feel very lucky to be a part of it. I get to do what I love and care about the most.
Sometimes the individual is an activist and sometimes the individual is a victim, like in Delhi’s December 16 gangrape.
That was a moment of learning, and feeling, the world over. We and the rest of the world are grateful to everyone in India who came out on the streets and demonstrated and made this a moment of learning for people far outside this country.
And see the difference it has made. We now have an eminent editor in jail on charges of alleged rape and we have two former Supreme Court judges under a shadow. All three complainants are women in their 20s.
Women are feeling empowered, in the sense that women have been colonised — in the way countries were colonised. Our bodies were colonised by abuse or assault or unwanted pregnancies, our mind was colonised by patriarchy. So we ourselves sometimes believed that we were inferior… And now there is a big anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal movement, and I think that the good news is that men are liberated by this too, because the masculine role may be superior but it dehumanises men. It keeps men from developing all of their qualities.
There’s a line you spoke in an interview, which I wish every Indian family would frame. I think it went something like, ‘We have had the courage to bring up our daughters like our sons, but not yet the courage to bring up our sons like our daughters’.
Yes, absolutely, because we are all humans. What binds us as human beings is infinitely more than what separates us. In fact, for all purposes except reproduction, the differences between two women or between two men are more. So we are dehumanised by these masculine and feminine roles, both of us, and it wasn’t always so. In the old cultures of my country, most of the languages seem not to have even had ‘he’ and ‘she’. People were people. And governance was done by groups, by reaching consent. It was a very different kind of culture. We should know that the way we live now is not inevitable. Hierarchy is not inevitable; masculine, feminine, polarisation is not inevitable.
How would it help if we brought up our sons like our daughters?
If we listen to the unique person inside this child, then it’s possible that that child who is a male child wants to do something else — play the violin, be a dancer — something that is not considered properly masculine. He cries, he expresses emotion, he bonds with other people. So if we just kind of try to forget about the roles, and make sure that kids have the same advantage… the girl has the same education, the boy is not criticised, nobody says to him ‘boys don’t cry’, or ‘don’t run like girls’, or say ‘sissy’, or ‘tomboy’ — all these judgmental words — they are much more likely to find their voice.
I remember when we played cricket in small towns, and somebody couldn’t throw the ball in from the boundary, one would say, ‘Oye, you got a lady’s throw’.
Well, at that point you could say, to break the stereotyping, ‘thank you’.
But prejudices run deep in the workplace. I remember when women came into our newsroom in large numbers, a veteran HR manager told me we should not hire so many women because they can’t work for part of the month.
The idea that somehow only women have a lunar cycle when everything has a lunar cycle (men, women, carrots, trees, flowers), that we are supposed to be incapacitated….
Men do as well?
All living things have a lunar cycle. I once wrote an essay which, I think, has been republished here now. I called it ‘If Men Could Menstruate’, on the principle that the superior group is considered superior. So if men could menstruate, it would be suddenly terrific. People would be saying of course only men could be mathematicians because only men have this inbuilt sense of measure of time; only men can be astronomers because only men have this connection to the movements of the moon and the universe. They would become a superior thing. It makes people laugh.
Do men actually have good days and bad days in a month, tough days in a month, like women?
Apparently in Japan, where they have a high-speed and sometimes dangerous transportation system, it did cause men to be aware of their lunar cycles. And it did profoundly help their accident rates because men became more aware. The idea that men are like rocks that never change, that’s part of affliction.
Tell us about yourself. What made you an activist? Was it just becoming aware of what needed to be done? Was it personal experience?
My mother loved Franklin Roosevelt. So every time she heard the word Roosevelt, tears would roll down her cheeks. Because of how poor we were in the Depression and how Roosevelt said to help the country get out of it. So I always had a sense that politics was somehow connected to my ordinary life. Also it may have helped that I didn’t go to school very much until I was about 12, so I think I didn’t get brainwashed so much.
But it’s just that I found myself identifying with every other group who was in trouble, identifying with racial groups in the US. I didn’t understand why. It took me a long time to understand that women were also in trouble and that’s why this sense of identity with other outsiders came along. And I began to talk about it, and then it just suddenly fell into place. It just made sense of my experience, of what I had seen in the world. And it became really exciting, so I wanted to write about it, but nobody wanted to publish it. So that turned me into a speaker, which I wasn’t at all. I mean I had devoted many years of my life to never speak in public. But that was the only way to do it — to go out on the road as a speaker. And because I was afraid to do it by myself, I asked a friend of mine to come with me because she was fearless. And it happened that she was an African-American. So we were one white woman, one black woman, speaking together, which turned out to be a good thing.
What’s the nicest thing somebody said as you were starting?
People generally say the same kind of thing, which is ‘Thank you so much, it changed my life’.
And what’s the nastiest thing?
I remember a guy who stopped me on the street, saying he recognised me. He said, ‘I have 30 women employees and I pay all less than men’. I said well, you have just committed an illegal act.
You came to India for the first time in 1957. You came on a $1,000 scholarship, to discover India, to discover yourself. You were very young at the time.
I didn’t understand at the time how much my two years here would be influencing my life. I was 22. I had no idea what I was doing. And only each year after that would I gradually realise what difference these years had made because here, for the first time, I saw a massive social justice movement, a massive Independence movement, and also one that started at the grassroots. Not change imported from above, as with my mother and Roosevelt, which made me feel as if it could only happen up there.
It so happened that I was taking a journey from Calcutta down the coast and I was in an all-woman railway carriage, which was an education in itself. It was like a dormitory. And I was just walking around. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went to the Vinoba Bhave Centre in Ramnad. There were caste riots there at the time. They had sent teams of men and women to walk through this area in order to say that the outside world knew what was going on and was trying to help. But they had run out of women. So they asked me if I would go. I asked won’t it be strange because I am a foreigner. They said you are no more a foreigner than somebody from this village. So I did that. You know, walking with a comb, a cup and a sari, and being taken care of by the villagers. Because the Vinoba Bhave people said that if the villagers want peace, they will help you, take care of you, and if they don’t, then it won’t work anyway.
Of course, they looked after us, fed us. I was just observing, but it was important that there was a woman because otherwise other women were less likely to come to the meetings. We would just have these meetings at night so that people could say what was happening to them, what their fears were and understand that people outside this area of rioting cared. It had such an impact on me, because the Bhave people kept saying that if you want to know how people live, you have to go where they live; if you want them to listen to you, you have to listen to them. These are very basic organising principles. Of all the many transforming experiences in India, I suspect that was the one that was the deepest.
It’s fascinating that what influenced you deepest in India had to do with caste and gender and, frankly, more caste.
Yes, here with caste, and in my country with race, it’s intertwined with sex. A major reason that women of the powerful group are restricted and women of the less powerful group exploited is to keep the visible differences of race or caste alive. They can only be uprooted together.
We have a case going on that involves all three — gender, caste and class. This is the case of the Indian diplomat in New York, underpaying her domestic help. She was strip-searched by US Marshals, and she is a Dalit. So who is the victim — the diplomat, or the help? Is caste the problem, is it gender, or class?
It’s all a problem because all hierarchy is a problem. This case is helpful because it calls attention to the fact that in both our countries, household workers, domestic workers are poorly treated. We are struggling in the US now, state by state, to cover household workers with minimum wage. Migrant workers weren’t covered too, and we had to struggle to get it for them. So it calls attention to something that is unjust, per se, by function. Forget about caste and class. Human beings who work deserve to be paid.
Are you on some side in this argument?
I don’t want to plunge into it. I can understand that India’s pride might be hurt because one of its diplomats has been poorly treated.
One of its domestic helps has been poorly paid and treated.
No, one of its diplomats… And in this there was a hierarchy and the person at the bottom was a household worker, and because her passport was taken away, because she wasn’t being paid, was being sent to her family here, it seems to me that justice is on her side. But we should also be respectful of the person who is the employer here.
Something is wrong with the American police system, in terms of how to treat a suspect depending on the kind of case.
That I don’t know about. Because, according to what I have read, she was not treated differently from anyone else, and that was the objection — that she should have been (given special treatment).
Immigration seems to be your new area of interest and focus. How do you relate that work with the work on gender, equality?
People who are anti-immigration portray immigrants as terrorists, drug dealers at worst, migrant workers at best, and job-stealers and always male — which is mostly not true because they are doing jobs which otherwise would not get done. Also, the reality of undocumented immigrants is that they are overwhelmingly women and children. So we are trying to say that this public stereotype of immigrants is not only wrong, but wrong about who immigrants are. And when Americans see undocumented immigrants as women and children, they feel very differently than they do when they are portrayed as male criminals… Most of the immigrants come because they need work and they often want to go home, and if you close the borders, you keep them from going back and forth.
You said somewhere that India does a great job of adding but not subtracting.
I don’t know how you do it, it’s amazing. I come in here and what was here a half-a-century ago is still here… and yet there is everything else. It’s just amazing to me. There are movie complexes that Los Angeles would be jealous about. All these modern things and yet you don’t give up the old things either, and I don’t know how you do it, but I admire it. It seems to be magic.
And what is it that we could have subtracted, say socially?
Socially, I think, more people are subtracting. Male dominance, caste dominance, trying very hard now to subtract violence. I am talking physically, about how things look. And the wonderful thing about India sometimes is that it’s so crowded, so enormous that nothing should work. But it works…
If it hadn’t been for India, I wouldn’t have understood that change starts at the bottom, that it changes like a tree — it goes up. Without the roots, nothing changes.
You can have any amount of good laws, but it’s not helpful if people don’t use them. And I am not sure I would have understood that in a deep sense had it not been for coming here, not too long after the Independence movement, and walking in the villages and seeing, in this case, the land reform movement. I didn’t realise it for a while after I went home. It wasn’t until the women’s movement started, the civil rights movement, that I understood that I was seeing the same thing in my own country.
You said once that America has done a great job by improving consciousness, India has done a great job by changing policy. I will tell you why I ask. Sometimes we choose a policy short-cut, I call it ‘India’s lollipop politics’. For example, the new rape law that we passed in a hurry after December 16, some provisions of it should have been debated further. It can be misused.
Any law can be misused, and that’s what due process is for. It can change over time, but I do think that India is better at changing policy because you are a younger democracy than we are and you still have the habits of being newly independent and being able to change more from the top than we can.
Could it also be because we don’t take our law that seriously and we think in the entitled class that the law does not apply to us anyway? That’s where class and caste comes in.
But then it’s a joke on them because it matters to them, these people at the top. But you know the problem with laws that both of our countries carried from England was that first of all, these are mostly about property. Secondly, these treated women especially as property. So we are having to take a set of rules of behaviour that treated private property as more sacred than our bodies.
Transcribed by Prashant Dixit