Gloria Steinem Says the Sexual Caste System Must Go!
She figures is will take a feminine revolution and “we should be able to do it in a couple of hundred years.”
The Washington Daily News, March 23, 1975
This is a Question and Answer Interview
Question: Do you see the progress women have made continuing at the accelerated pace of the past five years?
Steinem: I think that what we sense round us is more exhilaration than acceleration. It’s a change in consciousness, a great surge of self-confidence and an understanding among women, finally, that there is not something wrong with us because we are unhappy with being treated not as full human beings, but rather that there’s something wrong with the system. That surge forward is very exhilarating and very positive and very moving. But we can’t deceive ourselves about our economic situation. It really is not getting better. In fact, I suppose, the current status of the movement — and by the movement I mean potentially every woman in the country — is raising expectations versus lowering reality, which is a pre-condition for revolution.
Q: Is it going to take a real revolution to change some of this?
A: I used to say revolution because it made my male colleagues on the left take me more seriously. But then it occurred to me that what they meant by revolution was just taking over the army and the radio stations and that’s nothing. Women really mean something much deeper than that.
Q: What do women mean by revolution?
A: I think I mean something that involves a change of head as well as a structural change so that not only are we talking about an almost total redistribution of wealth and services and goods and properties but in addition we are talking about a very deep attitudinal change. If we are talking about doing away with the sexual caste system and the racial caste system — which certainly are twins — then we’re talking about doing away with the deepest ways we’ve been divided and the deepest sets of assumptions that have been given to us in order to keep us in those roles. That’s very important.
Q: Do you really see that happening?
A: I think now that we are really living together on a spaceship here and communications are very much better. We should be able to do it in a couple of hundred years. But I do not want to give a false idea of our patience. It’s only an idea of the depth of the change that we’re talking about.
Q: Critics of the women’s movement are crowing about setbacks to women’s equality. Do you think there has been a negative reaction to the women’s movement that may be detrimental to its future?
A: I think there’s clearly been a formation of an anti-feminist lobby. It concentrated at first only on the abortion question but expanded to cover the Equal Rights Amendment and other issues as well. It’s composed of fundamentalist religious groups, conservative political groups and a number of business interests. It doesn’t represent the popular option at all. In fact it’s only a very small minority of the popular opinion and one can see that in any public opinion poll. But it has a great deal of cash and a great deal of force. We’re going to be dealing with that for a very long time. We have to be careful not to let a well-financed minority dictate to us.
Q: Do you think ERA is going to pass?
A: Yes. I think many women feel anger that we have had to spend more than a half a century struggling and spending our energies and our money trying to see to it that the Constitution of the United States applies to women. I think that within the time limit allowed we certainly will have won it.
Q: What do you think the consequences will be if it doesn’t pass?
A: Then I think we better think about the consequences in terms of the country. What we will have said is that the country, the Constitution of the United States, does not apply to half of its citizens, women of every race. It will be the clearest admission that this is not and never has been a democracy.
Q: Does it surprise you that the wife of a conservative Republican president is going out on the battlefront for Equal Rights Amendment?
A: No, I think there are a lot of wives with strong opinions which, if they are able to voice them, would turn out to be quite different than their husbands’. The President also has at least voiced support for the rights amendment, but I’m very glad to see what Betty Ford is doing. I guess the real question is: why didn’t Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Kennedy and others do the same thing? But it does make Betty Ford the first woman in the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt who has declared her support for the Constitution of the United States and the fact that it applies to every citizen.
Q: Do you think male attitudes have changed at all?
A: I think male attitudes have changed somewhat. But I think that women, especially of the left, understand how important it is to change heads and personal behavior at the same time that you change structure. Certainly a look at any socialist country helps us to understand why. Having a government person manage a national industry on government pay as opposed to being a private capitalist may or may not change the work patterns and the structure. It depends on how that person thinks and not on where the paycheck comes from. Women in socialist countries are having a very difficult time and have a very strong feminist movement as well because they are still faced with patriarchy.
Q: How long do you think it is going to take before any real progress is made?
A: Well, the last time we changed over from female superiority systems to patriarchy I guess it took maybe 3,000 years.
Q: International Women’s Year has gotten off to a slow start and looks like it might be turning into a real fizzle. Why do you think this is?
A: International Women’s Year is somewhat in the same vein as having National Book Week or National Pickle Week or Mother’s Day. But since the United Nations did make the gesture toward women by naming 1975 International Women’s Year, it has been taken up as a kind of signal by women in many different countries. There are a lot of activities going on. I would not want to see us, as a movement, spending too much time and money on symbolic efforts. But I think to the degree that we can use this year as a way of communicating with women in other countries, it’s very important because revolutionary feminism is clearly an international force.
Q: How threatening is the economic crisis to women’s gains in equality on jobs? Women and blacks, having been last hired, seem to be the first fired in many of these layoffs.
A: Well, it’s important to say that the gains themselves have been symbolic, that is the distance between female wages and male wages has increased slightly rather than decreased. We have made important symbolic gains; women have entered atypical professions; we have won important lawsuits. The principle of determinant actions has entered the minds of the country although perverted into quotas, thanks to Vice President Agnew and others. Now with this economic crunch we see more and more situations in which one of two things happens: either the economic situation is used as an excuse to knock out all affirmative action or the divide and conquer tactic is used in order to divide us who are pressing for jobs. That is: black men are told that white women are taking their jobs away. Or Spanish-speaking men are told that black men are taking their jobs away and I guess all of us are told that minority women are taking our jobs away.
Q: Somewhere along the line you have emerged as the head of what was billed as the “leaderless” women’s movement. Do you think there has been some advantages in having a “leader”?
A: Well, first of all we wouldn’t say it was meant to be leaderless, we would say every women is a leader. I think we mean that literally and regardless of how the press regards me or other people regard me as an individual person. The way we function here in the office and the way more women’s groups function is quite different than the male organizations that I have worked in. Women have been told what to do for much too long. We have no intention of now having women telling other women what to do. Even the decision to do this interview was really made by Elissa Krauss and not by me. So, in a sense, I am not an I, but the use of a public image. It is an organizing tool and sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s not. It’s always difficult to decide whether you’re using the press or the press is using you.