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Work and Organizations

Steinem awakens young and old, encouraging ‘outrageous acts’

For Gloria Steinem, learning and laughter are intrinsically linked. Einstein, she told audiences at her Jan. 26 talk at Stanford University, supposedly took care while shaving because if he thought of something new, he would laugh and cut himself.

“You cannot compel laughter,” she said. “It comes when two things come together suddenly. There’s this kind of 'pop.' ”

During Steinem’s talk on the future of feminism to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Ms. magazine, the feminist leader harnessed the power of both learning and laughter to inspire in students, professors and community members such a “pop.” As a testament to her accessible articulation of the gender inequality of our time, Steinem’s audience was simultaneously captivated by her wisdom and tickled by her sharp wit.

As American Studies Program Director Shelley Fisher Fishkin said in her introduction, Steinem's sense of humor reminds us of the silliness of the status quo. “In Steinem’s hands,” Fisher Fishkin went on, “humor became a weapon of mass construction.”

Steinem’s lecture was the keynote event for a quarter-long symposium called “Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism.” Thirty-four groups sponsored the winter quarter events, including the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the programs in American Studies and Feminist Studies .

Clayman Institute Director Shelley Correll said the symposium was meant to “inspire conversation about the future of feminism and explore the ways feminism can help understand and solve the pressing problems of the United States and the world, especially those that impact girls and women.”

While at times referencing the past, Steinem’s talk mostly looked to the future. She spoke of “how we got in this jam,” outlining the dangers of limiting women’s reproductive rights. She highlighted various myths about feminism, the history of organizing around women’s issues, global violence against women, the economic value of caregiving and the necessity of linking social justice movements.

Breaking the ice with humor and candor

Steinem set the stage by admitting that although she has spoken in front of people most of her adult life, she was nervous. She noted that when she gets nervous she loses all her saliva and, “each tooth becomes like a tiny angora sweater.”  Her full-bodied laugh made others laugh too.

She reminded the audience that this opportunity to gather together was precious time. No matter how miraculous technology is, she said, the highest purpose of technology is bringing people together. Steinem said she was more excited for the part after the formal lecture, when the group could talk together and make organizing announcements.

“The truth of the matter is that, what we’ve learned from the Arab Spring and Occupy everything … is how important it is to be present,” she said.

Steinem disputed some of the myths of the feminist movement: That there are no young feminists; that the feminist movement is no longer needed; and that feminism was a movement for white, middle-class women.

The feminist movement has educated society on equal pay and comparable work, Steinem said, but now society needs to address the economic value of caregiving, which comprises one-third of the work in this country. Taking care of children, the disabled, AIDS patients, Steinem said, is care work that allows the country to continue.

“We’ve been counting as work what men can do or could do in our society,” she said. She offered up a suggestion, saying America could change its tax code to contribute an economic value to caregiving.

A global symptom

Steinem went on to say that the countries with the least democracy in public life are likewise the countries with the least democracy between men and women in domestic life.  She contended that the “genderized nature of academic studies” prohibits us from realizing how a working democracy relies on gender equality.

“You cannot have a democracy without democratic families,” she said. “You can't have a democracy without the female half of the country.”

Steinem thinks we fell into this rhythm when men took away women’s natural right to control their own reproduction.

“Those cults of masculinity and femininity grew,” she said.

She quoted the late Swedish political leader Olof Palme, who said gender roles are the deepest cause of violence on earth and therefore it was the job of every government to humanize those roles. The feminist movement, Steinem added, is directed at making reproductive freedom a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

“All the movements are damaged when reproductive freedom does not exist,” she said. “We should know that in this country.”

A thread that weaved through the talk was the need to link movements.  The gay and lesbian movements, the environmental movement, the feminist movement, and civil rights movements are all deeply linked, she said.

“Once we see that linkage, we become each other's allies and we become much more effective,” she said. She added that those involved in social justice movements need to take responsibility for a historic failure to emphasize the linkage among themselves.  While naming is important for any movement, she said, “categories can be the enemy of connection.”

Encourage unto others . . .

During a question-and-answer period after Steinem's lecture, former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber told Steinem that the dismal number of women in politics encouraged her to run for state Senate. A representative from the “Silver Ribbon Campaign to Trust Women” encouraged the audience to join their campaign in support of reproductive rights and respect for women. Organizers from a hotel workers union introduced two housekeepers who were recently fired after complaining to management that photos of them wearing bikinis were posted on an employee bulletin board.

A young girl -- perhaps the youngest member of the audience -- took the microphone to ask, “What is your strategy to get people to follow you?” Steinem said she thinks about what would make herself follow, and then tries to replicate that with others.

“It’s not as much follow, but join,” Steinem said. “Give them something to join that’s really interesting. Also, if you invite people, they’ll be so flattered that you invited them that they’ll quite likely join." 

Steinem said goodnight to her audience by asking that, starting at 9 a.m. the next day, each person do at least one outrageous thing for the cause of social justice.

“Only you know what it should be,” she said. “It can be deciding to run for office, it can be saying, ‘You pick it up yourself.’ What’s important is (doing it every day) … And I guarantee you two results: One is that by the weekend the world will be a better place, and the other is that you’ll have such a good time that you’ll never get up again without saying ‘What outrageous thing am I going to do today?’ ”


For over four decades Gloria Steinem has been at the forefront of the women’s movement as a journalist, publisher, author, and political activist. She is the co-founder and first editor of Ms. Magazine, and was instrumental in founding a dozen other women’s organizations including the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Action Alliance, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women, Choice USA, and the Women’s Media Center. Beyond the women’s movement, Steinem has been active internationally working for civil rights, gay rights, and animal rights; and in anti-war movements. She is the author of seven books, and the subject of two biographies.
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Lily Bixler is a Bay Area journalist and a media consultant with Stanford University’s Clayman Institute on Gender Research, writing articles for Gender News and pitching stories to media outlets.