Gloria Steinem takes heat from Millennials.
It’s a name synonymous with feminism. Those of us coming of age in the 70s and 80s were as familiar with her name–maybe more so–than any name of men in the halls of power.
Steinem was, and is, a legend.
I first met Steinem as a college student attending a conference on violence against women in New York City. At one point in the awe-inspiring event which included other second-wave notables like Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan and Adrienne Rich, I sat literally at Steinem’s feet as she talked to a small group of us. I was struck by her hands as she gesticulated–her long, tapered fingers ended in amazingly long, but unpolished, nails.
So much for the lesbian rumors, I couldn’t help thinking.
A decade later I met Steinem again. This time I was at a dinner party with about 20 other women at the home of Phyllis Chesler, another famous second-waver. I had been invited as the plus-one of an older woman I was seeing and the 20something me was in awe of these women, Steinem included, all feminists whose books I had devoured in college. I danced with Audre Lorde that night, chatted with Betty Dodson. I felt like Cinderella at the ball–a young lesbian feminist writer in the presence of some of the great voices of my mother’s generation.
Steinem has been in the news a lot recently. She’s been on tour with her latest book, a memoir, “My Life on the Road,” which is dedicated to the doctor who gave her an abortion decades ago, before it was legal. The cover is a photo of the young and sexy Steinem–lean, long-haired, glasses perched on her head, attired in a T-shirt and jeans. She looks like that era but many young millennials look the same now.
I admit Steinem was never one of my touchstones. Those women were/are her compatriots: Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin. I respected Steinem’s accomplishments, I admired her work, but for me she never felt radical enough.
Fast forward to now and I am at a loss over what transpired last week. This has been the most contentious presidential primary of my lifetime–something I had not thought possible after 2008. Perhaps it is the omnipresence of social media, especially the politically charged Twitter. Perhaps it is that some of us, having broken ground for race in America with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, now want to break that same ground for women in 2016.
But the talking points from the sidelines are just all wrong. As I write this, the day has been fraught with attacks on veteran civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis by Bernie Sanders supporters after Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton. Last week the attacks were on Steinem and America’s first female Secretary of State and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright.
The 82-year-old Steinem and 79-year-old Albright were stumping for Clinton in the contentious New Hampshire primary. Both made remarks interpreted as slamming millennial women who support Sanders instead of Clinton. Albright used a line she has used for decades: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
Albright has said the line for so many years, it’s been on a Starbucks coffee cup for more than a decade. Albright had preceded that line with “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done. It’s not done.”
Steinem’s remarks raised far more outrage. Talking to HBO host Bill Maher on Feb. 5, just a few days before the New Hampshire primary, Steinem said when Maher asked why millennial women were voting for Sanders three to one over Clinton, “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”
Steinem later apologized for her comments and said they had been “misinterpreted,” but they were still said and watching the interview it’s hard to see how she was misinterpreted. Not only did her comment erase lesbians by making all millennial women heterosexual–something Steinem has done in the past–but they situated young women’s politics reflexively, making them followers, not leaders, in their own political thinking.
A month shy of her 82nd birthday Steinem has a lifetime of political fights behind her. But those long nails I saw as a teenaged college student on the then-40-something Steinem were her own commitment to the rules of compulsory heterosexuality, which perhaps she was unconsciously projecting onto young women supporting Sanders instead of Clinton.
On her Facebook page Steinem addressed the controversy, writing, “I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics,” Steinem said. “What I had just said on the same show was the opposite: young women are active, mad as hell about what’s happening to them, graduating in debt, but averaging a million dollars less over their lifetimes to pay it back,” she continued. “Whether they gravitate to Bernie or Hillary, young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.”
Albright’s remarks don’t offend me. She’s 100% right about the work for women’s rights not being done and five years older than Sanders, she’s still doing that work daily, especially in the arena of trafficking of women and girls. If you think she’s out of line for stating the obvious, then perhaps feminism is not for you. But unlike Steinem, Albright was speaking to the stunning lack of privilege women still labor under–literally, as Steinem noted–and promoting the candidate she feels is most passionate about and competent to achieve the change that is needed for women.
Albright never said there was a special place in hell for women who didn’t vote for Clinton. But it’s understandable why she and also Steinem would be surprised that younger women are supporting Sanders, not Clinton. After all, Gov. John Kasich–the alleged moderate in the GOP race–left his second-place finish in New Hampshire to go back to Ohio and sign in more restrictive reproductive rights legislation. And as Clinton herself noted at the Milwaukee debate Feb. 11, it’s one thing to support women’s rights from the bleachers, it’s another to lead on them.
Clinton has led on them. And whatever you think of Steinem and Albright, both have devoted their lives to women’s rights at a time when women’s rights were barely thought of. For that they deserve better than Reddit, Twitter and Facebook rants about them being “old hags” and worse.
In the Milwaukee debate, Sanders noted his support for choice and equal pay. But in 30 years in Congress, Sanders has never sponsored any legislation aimed at women. While she was a senator, Clinton repeatedly sponsored bills related to equal pay, repro rights and she also co-created the CHIP program and was a sponsor of the Family Medical Leave Act.
Clinton also has focused attention older women, who represent the bulk of America’s poor who are not children. In the Milwaukee debate, she stressed how if president she would expand Social Security to benefit these women who are, she noted, unpaid for taking care of children and elderly parents and whose pay while working lagged significantly behind that of men, meaning a much lower Social Security pay out.
Clinton also spoke directly to reproductive rights. In the recent GOP debate, Clinton was targeted by all the candidates as being a baby killer who supported culling fetal organs, a reference to the now-debunked Planned Parenthood “videos.”
This is who we are up against. It’s no surprise that second-wave feminists would not only be supporting the woman candidate, but also be supporting the candidate who has been fighting for women’s rights and equality for decades. Something Sanders simply has not done and still is not doing. And the fact that Sanders has been in Congress 30 years yet has never introduced any legislation for women has to be especially galling to the women like Albright who are just a few years older than Sanders who fought so bravely for our rights.
Clinton has talked about how in 1973, in her 20s, she was still not eligible to get a credit card unless it was in her husband’s name. That was the same year Roe v. Wade was made law. Birth control itself wasn’t legalized until the 1960s. The Lily Ledbetter Law which Clinton co-sponsored was only signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Yet President Kennedy enacted the Equal Pay Act in 1963–it has never been implemented.
Last year–2015–there were numerous attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics, including the one in Colorado Springs that killed three people and injured 10. Texas cut back on women’s access to abortion as did seven other states. These things matter to all women.
The Milwaukee debate was the first in over 200 televised presidential debates since John Kennedy and Richard Nixon where the moderators were both women.
After I heard Steinem’s comments and saw the backlash against her and Albright online, I wanted to gather millennial women and talk to them from the place of the generation between my mother’s–Steinem and Albright–and theirs–my daughter’s.
Dear Millennial Women:
I feel you. Thirty years ago exactly, I was you. As a 20-something reporter for a major daily newspaper trying to get my byline known in the days before the Internet and clickbait. I had to work harder than my male peers–and, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, in a skirt and high heels.
I got my first Pulitzer Prize nomination at 26 and won other journalism awards. So what if I was the only “girl” in the newsroom? So what if my male cohorts said I must be sleeping my way to the top (even though I was a lesbian)? So what if they called me “Blondie”–it was the 80s–I could be down with being Debby Harry in the newsroom. So what if I took any and all assignments, the more difficult and dangerous, the better to prove I was as fearless as the men.
By the time I was 30, my byline had been in all the newspapers and magazines anyone cared about then, from the New York Times to Ms. I was working 18 hour days and traveling around the country and commuting to New York or Washington from Philadelphia, but it was all good, because my byline was everywhere and I was breaking ground. I wasn’t making the same money as my male colleagues, but my byline was there.
Dear Millennial Women:
I’m the woman who took the hits then so that you don’t have to now. I’m the woman who was the only woman in the newsroom more often than not and always the youngest. I’m the woman who got dismissed because I was pretty and blonde. I’m the woman they said wasn’t really qualified enough, no matter how many awards I was nominated for and how many I won. I’m the woman about whom it was always implied that I was an affirmative action hire. I’m the woman who was so busy blazing a trail, I listened to men before other women. I’m the woman who wanted success so much–the success the men around me were having–I was trying to be one of the guys instead of looking for the women who came before me and being proud to be one of the girls, the very few girls.
Don’t get me wrong. I was a feminist. But I was a feminist who put men first. I was a feminist who took men’s advice. I was a feminist who wondered why more women weren’t doing what I was doing. I was a feminist who sneered at fashion reporters and lifestyle columnists because what they did wasn’t “serious”–because I was serious.
Dear Millennial Women:
I’ve been a Socialist since college. I want us all to be on the equal playing field I have never had. I want all girls to have the opportunities that came too late for my mother and even for me. Hillary Clinton said at the Milwaukee debate that she wanted you to have choices–that she had worked hard so that you would have choices–even if your choice was not to vote for her. But I want you to understand that it will never, ever be “establishment” to be female until all the barriers are broken down, until a woman can make the same money as a man–including speaking fees equal to a man’s–and not have to apologize for it. I want you to understand that we are at a pivot in our country where women have the opportunity to fight for other women in a way that has never happened before.
Dear Millennial Women:
I understand you want more. I want more. I want more for you, too. But there is no revolution if women are not at it’s center because we are the ones who are the poorest, the most disabled, the most unable to break out of poverty or move up the corporate ladder. Those are the facts as Albright laid them out and she knows because she’s been doing this for decades.
Dear Millennial Women:
We do need a political revolution. I could not agree more. But the political revolution we need and which we have yet to have in this country or any other on earth is the revolution that breaks down the most fundamental class barrier there is:
Clinton is invested in breaking that barrier for all of us–women of her generation, of mine, of yours, of the girls just entering kindergarten now.
Dear Millennial Women:
Remember, I was you. And if we don’t create the political revolution that centers us–the one my generation never got and Clinton’s generation never got and Steinem’s generation never got–a couple of decades from now, you, alas, will be me.