When an audience member in Boston Symphony Hall asked American feminist, journalist, and social activist Gloria Steinem how to “shake sense” into a 20-year-old who doesn’t want to call herself a feminist, she responded, “Send her to a dictionary,” before adding that, nevertheless, it’s the content more than the word that counts.
Ms. Steinem’s 90-minute talk took place on November 19 as part of the Boston Speaker Series presented by Lesley University and regularly attended by a rotating roster of five Upper School (US) community members, thanks to an Urban Connections grant secured by US English Teacher Allison Kornet.
Sophie Collins Arroyo ’19, in the audience alongside Vanguard editor Claire Pingitore ’20 and fellow Speechwriting and Public Speaking students Laila Shadid and Klara Kuemmerle (both ’19), said she agreed with Ms. Steinem’s approach to the “feminist” label.
“At the end of the day, who cares if you want to call yourself a feminist or not,” Sophie said. “As long as you’re fighting for all the same issues, then I don’t think it really makes a difference.”
Ms. Steinem began the night by sharing stories from her nomadic childhood, noting that she did not attend school until she was 11 years old.
“I missed out on a lot of brainwashing, the whole Dick and Jane thing,” she said.
Among a variety of current topics, Ms. Steinem discussed the allegations of sexual assault against Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh and, specifically, what she referred to as his meltdown on national television.
“If he had been a woman, he would’ve been called ‘hysterical,’” she said. “It is a tragedy that [he] and Clarence Thomas are on the Supreme Court.”
Addressing the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade—the 1973 case that affirmed the constitutional right to access safe, legal abortion—due to Mr. Kavanaugh’s appointment, Steinem said if that happened, “We’d have to absolutely disobey the law.”
Later, she said, “There’s no more reason why everybody with a uterus should be a mother than everyone with vocal chords should be an opera singer.”
After the talk, Ms. Kornet called out this comment as just one of many that made her laugh and think.
“What struck me most about [Ms. Steinem] is what a naturally good communicator she was,” she said. “She was bold and funny and clear, and I wanted to write down every other line she said. You could see how she became a leader of a movement.”
For her part, Ms. Steinem shared support for the #MeToo movement, a global campaign fighting sexual violence that she said has been around online for 15 years.
“Men who have been in prison understand #MeToo the best [because] men in prison are treated like women in the absence of them,” she said. “We own our own bodies. No one can touch us, male or female, without our permission. [Sex] should not be a dictation—it should be a conversation.”
Sophie said she thought Ms. Steinem’s take on men’s victimization in prison was interesting.
“Even though I knew that there are severe problems with sexual assault in many prisons, I had never considered the perspective that that is in part due to ‘men being treated like women in the absence of them,’” she said.
Ms. Steinem said such behavior begins with how we raise boys, whom we ought to treat like little people, not little men.
“Boys do what they see,” she said. “If they see the men in their lives treating women like people and vice versa, they won’t feel the need to dominate to be masculine.”
Being raised primarily by women also sends children messages about gender roles and dominance, Ms. Steinem said. She stated that associating female authority with childhood leads to feeling regressed by female authority and, problematically, seeing it as inappropriate for the leadership demands of adulthood.
Claire said she had never thought of early childhood as the root of distrust in female authority.
“I thought children learned that later, when exposed to lack of female representation in leadership positions at schools and workplaces,” she said. “I was glad that [Ms. Steinem] then proposed solutions, like having a gender balance in early education and encouraging parents to equally share authority throughout their child’s life.”
Asked whether the U.S. is ready for a woman president, Ms. Steinem said the idea of feeling regressed by female authority is going to take time to change.
In conversation after the talk, Klara said she is frustrated by the misogynistic environment that Trump has created and that many women have internalized.
“Having a female president will equal the gender balance of power for once, and it will hopefully also empower other women and young girls,” she said.
Klara also reflected on Ms. Steinem’s definition of a feminist, according to the Huffington Post as someone who believes in complete social and economic equality between men and women.
“There are definitely a lot of people at BB&N who do understand what feminism is, but there are a lot of people who don’t,” she said. “The essence of the word itself relates to women, and therefore, some people equate feminism to ‘women being more powerful than men,’ but that’s not what it is. Feminism is just gender equality.”
Ms. Steinem said the greatest progress for gender equality has happened in our consciousness, and the least progress has been in the economy.
“We don’t say that equal pay for women would be the greatest possible stimulus we could ever have,” she said, suggesting that we should.
At 84 years old, Ms. Steinem said she hopes to be remembered as someone who was kind and tried to leave the world a more peaceful and just place. Fielding a question about who next should take up her torch as an activist, she responded with energy.
“Number one, I’m not giving up my torch,” she said. “I’m using my torch to light the torches of other people. If we’re looking at one torch, no wonder we don’t know where the hell we’re going.”