I was lucky enough to be in the audience at Gloria Steinem’s lecture, a part of Columbia College’s Conversation in the Arts: Liberal Arts & Sciences. Steinem, an icon of the second wave feminism of the 1970s proved to the audience just how relevant her groundbreaking work still is, despite the backlash she weathered in the 80s. She also spoke about a more holistic approach to feminism, inviting men to join the movement, arguing that patriarchy and the cult of masculinity hurts all of society.
After being introduced by ABC 7 News anchor, Kathy Brock, Steinem rattled off a list of issues and concerns she would address in her speech. Peppering her words with quips and witticisms, she touched on current topics such as the Koman/Planned Parenthood fracas and the recent ruling on Prop 8, and reached back in history to talk about how sexism and racism functioned and how we could use those lessons in today’s world.
The Koman controversy hung heavily in the air as reproductive health and women’s health is so integral to Steinem’s vision of equality. She pointed out that the United States still lags behind other Western countries in women’s health and access to health care; like a really cool high school teacher, Steinem took her audience through various points of history, pointing out that indigenous cultures looked askance at the patriarchy that Western white woman suffered under; she also highlighted that some indigenous North American tribes referred to white women as “those who die during childbirth.”
In light of our questionable and biased education system, Steinem also shared with the audience certain facts buried by educators including the important, but oft-unsung contribution by Native Americans to the Underground Railroad (if it were up to the history books, then the Underground Railroad would be the story of Harriet Tubman and some kind-hearted Quakers and abolitionists). When discussing the Civil Rights Movement, Steinem also pointed out that Rosa Parks was more than just a “simple seamstress,” and in fact was an established civic organizer.
Along with uncloaking hidden truths, Steinem also addressed popular culture by pithily pitting “chick flicks” versus “prick flicks.” A common theme of Steinem’s speech was laughter – she never made light of her topics, but she always expressed her exasperation with a razor-sharp quip that often left the audience howling: when talking about viable white civil rights activists, she pointed out that a strong white civil rights activist would be much more effective for the cause than Clarence Thomas.
Along with feminism, Steinem also brought in the issues of race equality, the LGBT movement, environmentalism and ageism. She argued that one cannot ascribe to one social movement without being connected with the other: she doesn’t believe that someone truly committed to women’s rights can also be racist. This is especially important in light of Steinem’s own checkered past particularly with how she dealt with transgendered folks in the 1970s. For her this evolution to full acceptance and full-advocacy shows just genuine growth.
There was a Q&A and I was the first person called on: I shot my hand up so quickly Kathy Brock had no choice but to call me (I also was wearing a rather flamboyant plaid jacket). I stood up and very nervously asked my question: wringing my hands, dithering and stuttering it looked like I was doing a Diane Keaton impression. I wanted to ask about the Arab Spring, but instead my nerves got the better of me and I asked Steinem what she thought of the “Arab String.” A few tittered at my mistake but Steinem understood what I was getting at and delivered a wonderful answer about how the women’s movement and the Arab Spring were definitely united and intertwined. She also voiced concern about the power vacuum and wondered whether women will have a voice in the new governments taking over these countries.
Another person asked about the Komen controversy and Steinem talked about the problems she had with the organization even before the Planned Parenthood issue. She discussed Komen’s refusal to acknowledge the link between breast cancer and the environment as well as Komen lobbying against government funding for cancer screenings and mammograms. She then said that Komen walk for a cure but they don’t walk for prevention.
After a few more questions, Steinem was asked to leave her audience with a thought. A bit stumped she simply suggested that audience members turn to their neighbors and introduce themselves and share with them a little bit about themselves in hope of making a connection. All in all, it was a great evening – I left on a high, still super-jazzed that I got to ask a question to Gloria freaking Steinem.
I’m hoping this becomes a regular thing for me. Next person my list – I wanna see Nelson Mandela speak.