The trembling voice of a 17-year-old girl resonated throughout Sydney Town Hall as feminist icon Gloria Steinem leaned in and listened intently. “In school assembly we were asked to put up our hands if we were a feminist and out of 1,500 girls only about 10 put up their hands.” The audience murmured. “I was just wondering,” she continued, “how you think we can get past the negative stigma that comes with the word feminist and make people proud to show that they are one?”
The capacity audience of 2000 people applauded with vigour. “Sending people to a dictionary is very helpful,” replied Ms Steinem, “and standing up and saying what you did is a big step.”
Gloria Steinem, who is now 82, spoke to a responsive crowd on Friday evening about the big steps she’s seen in the advancement of women’s rights in her many years of activism, journalism and travel. She spoke eloquently on a wide range of topics. Rarely referring to her new book, Life on the Road, she answered questions about her itinerant childhood and how that impacted positively on her feminist understanding of the world. She said her travel-loving father “never thought the rules were for him, he treated me as a co-conspirator”.
Ms Steinem’s comments were dotted with memorable lines. On feminism’s failures, she said, “I think we’ve been too nice.” On U.S. politics, she remarked, “If the ultra-right wing in my country had cancer and Barack Obama had the cure, they wouldn’t accept it.” About women who eschew activism, she was philosophical. “Life will radicalise them,” she said, raising a laugh from the audience.
Ms Steinem referred to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump as being “the candidate of resentment”. She expounded her theory on why men felt discomfort with Hilary Clinton, “We are raised by women and associate female authority with our childhood.” Ms Steinem proposed that the last time most men saw an authoritative woman, they were very young. Now, upon seeing a powerful woman in the public domain, many men regressed to childhood and “felt unmanned.”
Misogynistic reactions to this discomfort are widespread. Ms Steinem spoke about prominent U.S. news anchors “saying the most ridiculous things” about Hilary Clinton and male students at U.S. colleges wearing T-shirts with ‘Too bad OJ didn’t marry Hilary’.
Misogyny and sexual violence against females around the globe is the focus of Ms Steinem’s new documentary series called Woman. In it she shows how the greatest dangers of the 21st century can be tackled by confronting the problems once marginalised as ‘women’s issues’.
Domestic violence was also a hot topic during the session’s extended Q&A. Ms Steinem said the problem with the masculine role was that it resulted in perpetrators seeking to generate a feeling of superiority and control through violence. She suggested what might be done to redress it. “Not only do we need to raise our daughters like our sons,” she said, “but we need to raise our sons like our daughters.”
Yet Gloria Steinem remains positive about the future. “We have seen massive change,” she said. “Years ago we didn’t even have a word for domestic violence. It was called ‘life’.” A self-labelled ‘hope-a-holic’, she advocated against pessimism. “It’s important to be sceptical. But to be pessimistic is to give up right away. Hope is a form of planning.”
With 50 years of activism under her belt, Ms Steinem is speaking from a place of first hand experience. She was there in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the words ‘I have a dream’ to a non-violent assembly. She remembers Mahalia Jackson, the renowned ‘Queen of Gospel’ singer, shouting out to Martin Luther King during a pause in his prepared speech. “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,” she called.
The session was running over time when Jennifer Byrne started a compelling wrap-up. Gloria Steinem interrupted, “Wait! We are together in this space because we care about a lot of the same things. So please do me a favour before you leave.” She entreated everyone speak to a few new people and share what each cared about with the possibility that new ‘revolutionary troublemaking’ friends might be made. “Because I so want us having been together here to make our lives a little better the next day and the next,” she said. The thunderous standing ovation drowned out anything else she had to say.