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March 14, 2006

Gloria Steinem: The Playful Revolutionary

I had the pleasure of listening to Gloria Steinem talk last Wednesday evening.  I’d heard her before, but I hadn’t remembered her being so funny.  We laughed and talked together, or so it seemed, she and each of us.  There was such a quality of intimacy, of connection and lightness that came along with the details of the news and her thinking about what was going on. 

The playfulness and sense of connection made it so much easier to hear the truth of the awfulness that is going on. If our Democratic leaders were similarly light and funny and matter-of-fact about what is going on in the world as a result of the right-wing Republican hold on our government, we'd have no trouble getting the country to listen to us.

Our sense of urgency was heightened by the news from just a few days earlier of the signing of the dreadful South Dakota anti-abortion bill signed into law by governor Mike Rounds. 

So there was a lot of reason to enjoy being together.  Gloria said, early on, that we need to remind ourselves that “our hopes and dreams are indeed majority hopes and dreams.”  In these times, it is so helpful to have places where we don’t feel alone and crazy.   She urged us to make sure that we had groups to belong to where we could talk about what matters. 

Then she headed into the news of the day; she said that the danger of the South Dakota legislature is even worse than the media is reporting.  She said that the law, if upheld, would threaten doctors with five years imprisonment for performing an abortion and also provide no money for birth control.  She reiterated that in South Dakota, as in the rest of the country, about 73% of the people, including a high percentage of Republicans, are pro-choice and 85% of all Americans want their kids to have access to accurate birth control information.

We are the only modern democracy trying to impose controls on women’s bodies, she said.  Indeed, the Bush Administration so opposes birth control everywhere that it has put 1/3 of its AIDS education monies overseas into abstinence-only AIDS education courses.  Just recently that figure went up to 2/3 of all such funds everywhere – Uganda, South Africa, everywhere.

So what is happening here?  Only 30% of the country is ultra right-wing – but, here is the thing – they turn out 90% of their membership.  Meanwhile the remaining 70% only turns out at about 50%.

Seventy percent of the people in India vote.  The government makes it easy; voting lasts a week.  We in the U.S. make it harder to vote than any other democracy.  Gloria said that Tom DeLay had just said the previous week, the week of his primary race, “We need a lower turnout.”  This is voter suppression.

She said we can change these numbers.  Between sixty and eighty percent of the folks who voted for Bush thought his policies were the opposite of what they actually were.  They need to hear the truth.

Gloria went on to ask and then answer the question, “How did we get into this jam?”  She said that back in time, between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, women’s freedom was taken away as a means of controlling reproduction.  Our drive to take back that power and have control over our own lives is what is at stake here.  She talked about how much the women’s movement and gay marriage issues have risen and fallen together.  Both have to do with having control over our reproductive lives.  Women are trying to take their lives back and gays are trying to separate sex from producing children.  It is important that we remember that these movements are the same.

Gloria says that trying to deny people sex or punish them for having sex is taking away part of their humanity.  Sexuality is a mark of our humanity and is equally important whether or not it ends with procreation. 

Racism is connected as well.  The most punished race-related “crime” was that of a man of color having children with a white woman.  It is called miscegenation. 

She said that this is no way to be a feminist without being an anti-racist and without being for gay rights.  Hopefully we will see that we need to support each other.

We’ve had this foolish notion that this fight is over when in fact we’ve just begun.

Later she characterized the evening as being one of asking ourselves, “Do women matter?”  If we as a society really thought women mattered, much of the way we operate as a society would be different.  Here’s what Gloria says would change:

  1. Kids are raised better in an environment where there are a higher percentage of adults than children.  Kids just get more attention and learn better
  2. The qualities that woman have, nurturing and organizing and thinking about the family, would be human traits, not primarily female traits.  Likewise the qualities that men have, being out in the world, adventuring, would be human traits, not primarily male traits.
  3. Jobs wouldn’t be valued by who did them but by what the nature of the job was, i.e. teachers and day care providers would be paid well.
  4. Sex wouldn’t be so connected with violence.

She riffed off on the last topic, saying because domination has become sexualized, men who have become hooked on domination and can’t get it over adult women, will get it from younger women.

There have been societies in which women mattered.  Indigenous cultures that existed prior to about 5,000 years ago treated women differently.  Most of those cultures were eliminated by war and genocide and that history is not taught.  In those cultures, it was assumed that women controlled their own bodies, and had input into the big decisions that impacted the tribe or society. 

“Maybe the last 5,000-8,000 years is just a big failure in the larger history of the world, she said.

Gloria then read from a prophecy reputed to be from the Elders of the Hopi Nation (although there is some question about whether it is directly from them).  It ended with a line that she said was vital for us to take in: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Gloria ended her talk with a couple of surprises for the audience.  She said that on some level she feels sorry for George Bush.  “He must get up every morning feeling like he’s not up for the job.”

Then she told a cute story about Reese Witherspoon, who had sat near her at some function.  She said that Reese told her that she had done the movie, “Legally Blonde” because of Steinem.  (Appropriate alarm on Gloria’s face and in the audience.)  Reese then said, “You said once that women should be able to do and wear whatever they want.”

It was a lovely ending to the speech and pointed us to a time and a way of thinking - when we aren’t under siege.   

Gloria’s talk in Seattle was hosted by the UW Graduate School with money provided by the John and Jessie Danz Foundation.

Angelo Bruscas of the The Seattle PI also wrote a story on her talk that was quite different but also wonderful, focusing particularly on what she said about the South Dakota anti-abortion law. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on March 14, 2006 at 10:59 AM in National and International Politics | Permalink

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