The Brief: Law School News and Events

Still a Firebrand at 75, Steinem Promotes a Less Stratified Society

When Gloria Steinem was asked if she was supporting Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary election, she had a simple answer: "Yes."

She wasn't trying to be difficult, or hide her true opinion. She simply admired both candidates, and was frustrated at always being asked to rank them.

"He was a feminist, she was a civil rights advocate. They were almost identical. It was as if an evil genie had arranged for two out groups to run in the same election," she said in an exclusive interview with the Penn Law Journal in November.

Their disparate portrayals, in her view, reflected "this hierarchical view we have of everything."

Steinem, 75, has devoted her career as an activist and organizer to challenging such views — wherever they exist in society.

Racist hierarchies, gender hierarchies and class hierarchies, she points out, all uphold one another. For that reason, Steinem says, she has never viewed the women's movement as distinct from any other civil rights movement.

"From the beginning, it was all one movement," she declares.

Steinem and her allies have made special efforts to resist domestic stratification, because "if you don't grow up believing that one person cooks, one person goes out and works, you don't experience race and class with the same alacrity."

Eventually, Steinem came out in favor of Clinton. That didn't stop her from celebrating Obama's eventual win of the presidency.

One year after the fact, however, she's beginning to grow impatient with the slow pace of change in Washington.

"Obama, in his laudable will to avoid conflict by coming down in the middle, has moved us to the right. He must have sought right-wing votes that he's been unable to get," she opined. One example of the overall rightward shift this country has taken, she thinks, is the willingness of Democratic legislators to allow into the health care bill an amendment that bans federally-financed health care plans from covering abortions.

Another type of legislation that Steinem hopes to see eliminated are parental consent laws, which require women under certain ages — varying between 16 and 18 years old, depending on the state — to obtain the consent of their parents before they have an abortion. "It's the last view of people as chattel: the idea that women are the property of their parents," she argues.

Steinem would also like to see an economic overhaul more radical than the reform efforts proposed by the administration so far.

"Our economic system only attributes a salary to work that has historically been done by men," she points out, which is good for the women who now perform those jobs, but leaves all women who perform traditionally feminine work, such as caregiving, out in the cold. Steinem's dream, she says, is to see "white men out in Central Park, wheeling carriages with interracial babies — and being fairly paid to look after them."

After all, she says, the first feminists assumed that term for themselves "so men could call themselves feminists too."

Despite the all-inclusive nature of the movement, it's often under attack from various angles. Not all critics of feminism profess ideological differences with the movement; some challenge it on more academic grounds. PLJ asked Steinem about the most recent charge levied against the movement: that women have been growing progressively unhappier since the 1970s, even as they have won increased access to educational, professional and political arenas. The article that underpins most of these claims, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," was written by two professors at Penn's Wharton School.

But Steinem scornfully dismisses the claim that the women's liberation movement has made women sadder, noting that similar, specious arguments have been made many times before.

"There's always a study proving that equality is bad for women," she argues, recalling studies that claimed women were getting more diseases because of feminism — until it turned out that they were getting more diseases simply because they were living longer.

"The myth of the happy housewife decreed that women had to be happy. If we're now more honest about being unhappy, that's great."