The roar of the crowd when 84-year-old Gloria Steinem walked onstage at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center last week was like nothing I’d ever felt there before.
Thundering. Almost primal. I took it as the deep welling up of immense affection for this force of nature who more than any other leader has been the iconic face of the women’s movement for the past 50 years.
The crowd at the revived New Bedford Lyceum’s second successful big-name forum was overwhelmingly women, maybe 90 percent. And they clearly loved her.
Steinem loved them back.
Each time the audience pored affection her way, she stood, looked directly at the women in the sellout crowd and with her outstretched arms, clapped toward them. It is you yourselves who hold the power, she was telling them. It is you yourselves who are the the movement.
Steinem made no prepared remarks at the Zeiterion.
She sat in a chair and took questions from Cape Cod NPR station WCAI’s Mindy Todd and New Bedford High’s Nadia Abouchanab, and later by computer screen from the audience. It was almost like she was holding court.
Is that politically incorrect for a middle-aged white guy to say?
That Gloria Steinem was holding court, like some sort of queen of her movement? Maybe. But if Steinem was holding court, it was a judge’s bench she never particularly sought or particularly seemed to value much. It was a high bench Steinem only seemed interested in using on behalf her mission — a lifelong mission of freeing women from their forever history of second-class status based on gender. And that quest, as she told the Zeiterion theater crowd, might also be freeing to men who have also been forever trapped by the societal expectations of restrictive masculinity.
Fifty years into the movement, Steinem did not give an inch.
She called the women’s movement stronger and more organic than ever, talking about the large number of women running for office in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. And she had some interesting things to say about white women in particular, noting that though 95 percent of black women voted against the gender-bashing president, 51 percent of married white women voted for him. (It’s actually near 52 percent of all white women who voted for Trump to be president.)
“It has ever been thus,” said Steinem. “It’s always been true that women of color, and especially black women, have been more likely to be activists and feminists.”
She said she herself had learned the most about being liberated from minority women and she alluded to what she called traditional gender “myths” about white women and black women — that white women must be restricted from sex for the purity of the white race and that black women must serve as breeders for workers.
If I understood her correctly, I believe Steinem was essentially arguing that black and Native American women have been more liberated because they have had to be. They have suffered the most. Often forcibly separated from their loved ones, women of color have been at the head of equality movements from the beginning because they have been the furthest outside the system.
It’s 2018 and Steinem and the women’s movement have long been mainstreamed in American culture but make no mistake about it, her agenda is, and has always been, a radical one. She continues to self describe herself as a “radical feminist” and ever the activist, at the end of last week’s appearance, she gently appealed to the audience to talk to each other, if they wanted, to organize.
No one at the Zeiterion asked Steinem about past controversies over her defense of Bill Clinton on sexual harassment accusations or some comments she made in the 1970s about transgender individuals “mutilating” themselves that have been criticized as prejudicial.
Steinem has said she defended Clinton because the charges against him endangered sexual harassment law — they were wrongly being applied to free will, extra-marital sex. She has more recently acknowledged, that she would not defend Clinton in the same way today as more is known about other women the former president may have been involved with. She has apologized for any misunderstanding of her comments about transgender people, saying they should be accepted into the women’s movement on an individual basis if they want to be part of it.
Asked whether it was troublesome to her that many young women last weekend were taken with watching an American actress marry her “Prince Charming,” Steinem opined that she thinks Meghan Markle is saving the royal family rather than vice-versa. Seeming to echo her own life, she said young women might find they meet a “quite a few” of Prince Charmings over the course of their lives, and that princes and princesses might find fulfillment in helping each other rather than just the prince rescuing the princess.
Gloria Steinem, born in 1934 and still traveling around the world encouraging women, said she thinks the women’s movement, with the rise of #MeToo, is close to the “tipping movement” of achieving all it has worked for. But she cautioned, alluding to the rise of Trump, that the moment when women break free and leave abusive situations is also the moment when they are most in danger of violence.
“We are about to escape, and it’s a time of maximum danger and also opportunity,” she said. “We have to look out for each other and be careful but on the other hand we may be about to be free.”
Contact Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org