Activist Gloria Steinem says 'we are linked, not ranked'
Steinem came to Duke Tuesday through the Jean Fox O'Barr distinguished speaker series, an annual event hosted by the Baldwin Scholars program. Much of Steinem's lecture focused on how making connections can allow people to "see the world more wholly." By connecting the way in which our everyday surroundings can contribute to larger societal issues, people can begin to come up with "positive, practical solutions," she said. Becoming linked to the natural world then allows people to see there is no such thing as a hierarchy or pyramid, but a circle, she added.
"There is no such thing as gender, race or class," she said. "They are cultural inventions.... We are linked, not ranked."
After graduating Smith College in 1956 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Steinem spent two years in India on a Chester Bowles Fellowship writing for Indian publications. She then helped found New York Magazine and spent several years working as a freelance writer. In 1972, Steinem also co-founded Ms. Magazine—which became the first national magazine to address domestic violence—and began a long career of feminist activism. Steinem has championed a variety of causes, such as rallying support for the Equal Rights Amendment, speaking out against animal cruelty and advocating for sexually abused children. In 1993, Steinem was inducted to the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Donna Lisker, co-director of the Baldwin Scholars and associate vice provost for undergraduate education, led the event, which was intended to commemorate the 10th year of the scholarship program. In addition to the Baldwin Scholars, the event was sponsored by the Muglia family, the women's studies program, Duke Women's Center and Omega Phi Beta sorority, Inc.
Referring to macro issues such as domestic violence, Steinem noted that change cannot be made until attention is given to the factors that contribute to these problems and their prevalence in our everyday communities. Violence, for example, is linked to a human hierarchy that normalizes control, which exists in our personal spheres, she said.
"We are never going to have a democratic society until we have democratic families," Steinem explained. "We are never going to have a nonviolent society until we have nonviolent families."
Making connections between what occurs in our everyday surroundings and larger issues is key in beginning to see the way people can find solutions, she said. Steinem added that for all the media and political attention given to the subject of an economic stimulus, for example, few connect the way equal pay for women could stimulate the economy.
"The single most important and effective economic stimulus would be equal pay for females. It would put $200 billion more in the economy every year," she said. "Women are not going to put money in Swiss bank accounts, they are going to use it and stimulate the economy."
Steinem added, however, that there is no deeper connection than that between race and sex.
"One of the great sorrows of my life was when 2008 somehow took us into a place where a common question among news reporters was, 'What is more important, sex or race?'" she said. "That’s an obscene question....It puts in competition what is actually the shared group that can only be uprooted together."Throughout the lecture, Steinem shared humorous anecdotes.
Steinem told a story in which she heard a male passenger on a flight assert he did not want to see a "chick flick." In this moment, Steinem said she realized men were missing the equivalent of a movie category that contained movies glorifying violence rather than interpersonal relationships. She decided to make a category known as "prick flicks," which would contain movies on World War II, violence against women and the classics of John Wayne.
While standing near the altar of the Duke Chapel, ironically, Steinem also deconstructed the historical modeling of churches' architecture, stating that monotheistic churches are built to resemble the female body. The outer and inner entrance resemble the labia majora and labia minora, respectively, the aisle represents the vaginal aisle and the altar represents the womb.
"In the history of religious architecture they tell you that many monotheistic buildings are meant to resemble the bodies of women because central ceremonies of patriarchal religion is one in which men take over," Steinem said. "Religion controls women’s bodies."
Following the lecture, Steinem fielded questions from the audience.
Duke activist Jacob Tobia, a senior and Duke Student Government vice president for equity and outreach, asked what "we as a culture can do to bring up boys differently" so that "sissies can be happy."
Steinem said the best thing to do is to treat those men as humans and listen to them.
"There's nothing more radical than listening," Steinem said.
She added that she knows gender is a powerful force, but in real life there is no such thing.
Senior Chelsea Pieroni asked Steinem what her thoughts were on Duke's "oppressive social system," pointing specifically to Greek life.
Steinem said people do what they see, rather than what they are told and that the best way to combat issues within Duke's social system is to lead by example.
"The more examples people see of different ways of living the more able they are to make that choice," Steinem said.
Another student asked a question regarding the adult film actress in Duke's freshman class, asking what Steinem's stance was on the pornography industry.
Steinem emphasized the difference between pornography and erotica and said the problem is the pornographic industry and not the woman. She chose not to comment on the Duke porn star, citing that she did not have enough information about the situation.
"I worry when we begin to isolate the one person who isn't in power," Steinem said.
In an interview with The Chronicle following the event, Steinem commented that the feminist movement has evolved over time.
"Its beginnings were in peoples' living rooms, and there was only one national organization and one national black feminist organization," she said. "Now that there's an organization built around each issue, it's more deep and detailed."
In the future, she believes there will be stronger connections between the different issues of feminist organizations and that these issues will have further global reach.
When asked whether she believes the Equal Rights Amendment will ever be ratified, Steinem said "yes, absolutely" and that there is a need to put women in the Constitution.
Lisker added that she hopes the event inspired people to see that they can make changes in areas important to them.
"Gloria Steinem is a fantastic example of a woman who simply keeps speaking up for social justice, year after year, and gradually over time contributes to significant social change," she wrote in an email Tuesday.
When asked what being a feminist meant to her, Steinem emphasized it meant recognizing the humanity of other human beings.
"A feminist is someone who recognizes both their own full humanity and value as well as that of others," she said.