Tag Archives: gloria steinem

50 years of feminism: from ‘gal wanted’ to Hillary Clinton

Fifty years ago, when a small group of activists founded the National Organization for Women, the immediate issue that motivated them was sex discrimination in employment. They were irate that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was refusing to ban “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female” job advertising.

Typical were ads seeking a “well-groomed gal” for a job as a receptionist.

Flash forward to today: Women comprise close to 50 percent of enrollment in U.S. medical schools and law schools. One-third of federal judges are women, compared to just a handful in the 1960s. The U.S military is opening all combat jobs to women.

At NOW and elsewhere in the diverse ranks of the feminist movement, there’s deep pride in these changes, but also a consensus that the 50th anniversary — to be celebrated June 23 — is not an occasion to declare victory.

“The battle goes on,” said Eleanor Smeal, a former president of NOW who heads the Feminist Majority Foundation. “So many of the things we fought for have been achieved, but we still do not have full equality.”

Among the issues viewed as unfinished business: a wage gap that favors men over women, the persistent scourge of sexual assault and domestic violence, and the push in many states to reduce access to legal abortion.

Once virtually alone as a national, multi-issue feminist group, NOW shares the activist stage today with a multitude of other players — ranging from youthful online organizers to groups focused on specific issues such as abortion rights, campus rape and workplace equity. NOW’s membership and revenues are down from its peak years, and some younger feminists wonder if it is losing some relevance.

The situation was very different back in 1966. NOW’s founding was a pivotal moment in the rebuilding of a vibrant feminist movement in the U.S. after a period of relative dormancy in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“The momentum of the feminist movement that won suffrage and expanded women’s rights in the early 20th century had waned,” says NOW in its own history. “A negative media blitz proclaimed the death of feminism and celebrated the happy, suburban housewife.”

The so-called “second wave” of U.S. feminism gained momentum in part because of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s 1963 book that gave a voice to women frustrated by the gender inequities of the status quo. Friedan was among the co-founders of NOW and was chosen as its first president at an organizing conference in October 1966.

She also wrote the Statement of Purpose adopted by NOW at that conference.

“The time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes,” the statement says. It vowed “to break through the silken curtain of prejudice and discrimination against women in government, industry, the professions, the churches, the political parties, the judiciary, the labor unions, in education, science, medicine, law, religion and every other field of importance in American society.”

Fifty years later, only patches of that silken curtain remain, and Hillary Clinton will have a chance this fall to add the ultimate breakthrough by becoming the first woman elected president. NOW has eagerly endorsed her, while depicting her Republican rival, Donald Trump, as “a boorish, babbling bigot who disrespects women.”

Trump prides himself on an ability to draw large crowds to his rallies; for many years, that was a hallmark for NOW as well. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a 1977 march in Washington in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ultimately failed to garner support from enough states to win ratification. Far larger crowds assembled for abortion-rights marches in 1989 and 1992.

In subsequent years, there have been only a few mass mobilizations of feminists. NOW’s president, Terry O’Neill, says the drop-off in revenues and dues-paying membership resulted in part from a drop in engagement by activists who, after a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, perceived less of a threat to abortion rights.

O’Neill declined to provide financial details, but said NOW’s national headquarters in Washington is down to a staff of 11, about a third of the size 25 years ago.

Another iconic feminist institution, Ms. magazine, also faces financial challenges.

“It’s nip and tuck, but we manage to always find the resources,” said Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms. since 2006. She said the magazine, a nonprofit, gets by with revenue from donors, special events and advertisements.

Ms. is only slightly younger than NOW, first appearing in 1971 as an insert in New York magazine, and publishing its first stand-alone issue in January 1972. Today it publishes quarterly but has a Facebook site and online blog that have attracted millions.

In their early years, NOW and Ms. were among a small handful of national entities with a broad mission of empowering women and girls.

“Now there are so many organizations, you can’t count them,” Spillar observed, saying they work well together.

While younger feminists appreciate NOW’s legacy, some also question its tactical skills and its demographics.

O’Neill, a 63-year-old white woman, says NOW would like to further diversify its membership, but acknowledged that its activist base is largely middle class or upper middle class. Racial diversity “is a continuing issue,” O’Neill said, citing NOW’s outreach to black sororities at U.S. colleges and its calls to tackle the racial wage gap as well as the gender wage gap.

Jamia Wilson, an African-American feminist writer in New York, said NOW and other long-established women’s groups “paved the way for many of us to be able to realize our visions and do our activist work.”

However, Wilson, 35, said these groups should make “bold moves” to recruit more women of color into leadership positions and work more closely with marginalized communities, such as transgender women and women who served time behind bars.

Generational rifts have surfaced in the presidential campaign, as many young women backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race rather than Clinton. When renowned feminist Gloria Steinem suggested that Sanders’ young female supporters were doing so in order to meet young men, there was enough outrage to prompt an apology from Steinem.

Jessica Valenti, a New York-based author who founded the popular blog Feministing in 2004, said younger feminists, acting individually or in small groups, have become adept on online organizing and activism.

“That doesn’t mean the big national organizations are unnecessary,” said Valenti, 37. “I would love to see them continue to get funding and do work, but my hope is that they take cues from younger organizers and that their work evolves with us.”

One example of online activism is UltraViolet, an advocacy group that uses the internet to mobilize rapid responses to public comments or actions that it views as sexist. Since its founding in 2012, its campaigns have helped build public pressure that contributed to the resignation of an Alabama-based federal judge accused of beating his wife, pressured Netflix to expand paid parental leave, and recently mounted a petition drive seeking the ouster of a judge who sentenced a former Stanford University swimmer to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

“We want to change the calculus that it pays to ignore or harm women,” said UltraViolet’s co-founder, Nita Chaudhary. “We exist to create a cost for sexism.”

Chaudhary doesn’t view UltraViolet as a rival to larger, older groups such as NOW.

“We create space for other groups that are better resourced to step into the cause,” she said.

It’s never been easy to quantify America’s feminist movement — many women consider themselves feminists to a degree yet don’t share some core beliefs of militant activists.

According to a recent national survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, six in 10 women and one-third of men in the U.S. depict themselves as feminists _ higher figures than in some polls a few years earlier. However, four in 10 respondents in the new poll viewed the feminist movement as “angry,” and a similar portion said it unfairly blames men for women’s challenges.

Among the critics of contemporary feminism is Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor who is a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In an interview, Sommers hailed NOW’s original mission statement as “an inspiring document” with goals that have mostly been achieved.

“It seems the more things improve for women, the more aggrieved many feminists become,” Sommer said. “There’s never a time when they say, ‘We’ve done it. It’s time to celebrate.””

Sommers said there’s still a pressing need for women’s-rights activism in many foreign countries, a need that American feminists could help address.

Spillar, who has expanded Ms. magazine’s international coverage, said U.S. women would have more influence abroad if they gained more clout at home.

“If we had half the seats in Congress, think how much more of a voice we could be,” she said.

In some respects, the United States lags behind many nations on women’s issues. According to a U.N. report, it is one of only three countries worldwide _along with Oman and Papua New Guinea — without a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave. Only a handful of U.S. states have mandated paid family leave.

Ellen Bravo, a Milwaukee-based activist who advocates on behalf of working women, contends that the dearth of family-friendly policies in the U.S. is rooted in the undervaluation of women and the work that they perform.

“In the past, the mindset was that there were always women ready to take up the caregiving tasks at home — and they would continue to do it for free,” Bravo said. “The mindset is still there, even though the facts on the ground have changed.”

Now, she says, many activist groups are campaigning simultaneously to curtail workplace inequality for women and expand the potential for men to handle more caregiving duties at home.

One workplace advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, has found that raising gender-related issues bolstered its efforts to get a higher minimum wage for restaurant workers who rely primarily on tips.

Though the group’s 18,000 members include men, about two-thirds of them are women. Saru Jayaraman, the group’s co-founder and co-director, said the wage campaign gained momentum after activists sought to demonstrate that workers dependent on tips were subjected to disproportionately high levels of sexual harassment.

“Suddenly we were the new wave of feminism and gender justice,” said Jayaraman. “It allowed us to get more support.”

While efforts proceed to support women in unglamorous workplaces, there’s also been a popularization of feminism at the other end of the social spectrum. Among the pop culture icons embracing the term are Beyonce, Taylor Swift and even the Muppets’ Miss Piggy.

Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Media, warily analyzes this phenomenon — which she calls “marketplace feminism” — in a new book, We Were Feminists Once.

She worries that feminism is becoming a feel-good buzzword as the struggle for gender equality shifts “from a collective goal to a consumer brand.”

“The problem is — the problem has always been — that feminism is not fun,” Zeisler writes. “It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable.”


Gloria Steinem turns to TV to fight gender-based injustice

For her latest project in pursuit of equality, Gloria Steinem is turning to television.

The feminist activist and author makes her debut Tuesday as producer and host of Woman, a documentary series on the Viceland network about gender-based violence and injustice around the world.

The series came out of a discussion with Vice Media chief Shane Smith, Steinem said. They met at a Google camp in Sicily, Italy, two years ago, and when she told him how violence against women predicts and normalizes violence at all levels of society, he “responded in a very heartfelt way.”

The result is eight short documentaries, all by young female journalists, each focused on an issue threatening women in a particular region of the world. The first episode looks at the epidemic of rape as a tool and symptom of war in Congo, with more than 1.8 million victims over the last 20 years. Future installments explore female guerrilla fighters in Colombia, child brides in Zambia, the murder of indigenous women in Canada and mothers behind bars in the United States.

Steinem, 82, talked with The Associated Press about the show and how she stays hopeful after six decades of activism. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What did you say to Shane Smith that made him insist you do a show?

I was talking about violence against females in the world and the degree to which, first of all, it normalizes other violence. It tends to be what we see first in our families or in the streets. If not violence, then control or aggression, and it makes us feel that it’s inevitable that one group will be born to be dominant over another. … So it normalizes the idea of dominance. … And it turns out to be the biggest indicator — more than poverty, more than degree of education, religion, access to natural resources, even degree of democracy — violence against females is the biggest indicator of whether a country will be violent in itself or be willing to use military violence against another country.

How did you decide what to focus on for these eight episodes?

We were clear that we wanted to include every continent. We didn’t want to make it seem as though problems of violence were limited to one part of the world. They take different forms in different parts of the world. We looked at what was most prevalent or important to the women’s movements in that country.

Will you make more?


The challenges facing some of the women you show are upsetting, but you’ve said the series makes you feel less helpless. Why?

We have to know before we can act, and the very fact that this is allowing millions of people to have the experience of walking around and talking to people and listening is a step forward in itself. We know from many forms of suffering that what is important first is a witness — people want to know that someone else knows what’s happening, that they’re not alone — and someone who listens to what is needed and tries to help. So this is a chance for all of us — me, too — to be a witness, and we will put enough different ways of helping so we hope viewers will be able to find a way to help that fits into their lives.

What real, concrete changes have you seen in your fight for feminism?

We now know, deeply and in the majority, that the old discriminatory systems are crazy, we are not crazy. We now know that racism is not real, it’s made up, it’s cruel, it can be stopped. We know sexism is not inevitable. It’s only about controlling reproduction and therefore controlling women. If we have reproductive freedom, that is the ability to decide for ourselves when and whether to have children and what happens to our bodies, it can be reversed. It’s the understanding that it’s not inevitable. I think that is crucial.

Woman premieres Tuesday, May 10, at 9 p.m. CT on Viceland, with selected episodes available at viceland.com.

Complaints drive Lands’ End to issue apology for featuring feminist Gloria Steinem in catalog

Wisconsin-based retailer Lands’ End is apologizing to customers for featuring an interview with feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem in its spring catalog and has removed references to her from its website.

The company removed a feature on Steinem from its website after customers complained about her support for abortion rights, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The retailer issued an apology on Feb. 24 after customers complained, including by flooding the company’s Facebook page with hundreds of comments and vows to stop shopping the stores.

“We understand that some of our customers were offended by the inclusion of an interview in a recent catalog with Gloria Steinem on her quest for women’s equality,” the company said in a statement. “We thought it was a good idea and we heard from our customers that, for different reasons, it wasn’t.”

Steinem was interviewed by company CEO Federica Marchionni for the Lands’ End “Legend Series,” which features people “who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large,” according to the company.

“Our goal was to feature individuals with different interests and backgrounds that have made a difference for our new Legends Series, not to take any political or religious stance,” the statement said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the interview mentioned her stance on abortion rights.

Steinem’s representative at Random House said Steinem was currently in the United Kingdom on book tour and unavailable for comment.

Stop it with the feminist food fights

A few weeks back, major polling organizations revealed a huge divide among women voting for the Democratic presidential candidates. The polling showed a big generational divide, with large majorities of women under age 30 supporting Bernie Sanders and older women supporting Hillary Clinton.

That’s certainly news and a big concern for the Clinton campaign. What drove the news coverage for weeks, however, were comments by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and longtime feminist Gloria Steinem that were interpreted as patronizing and criticizing young women for not supporting Clinton.

Both women apologized for their comments but not before dozens of media outlets ran stories about “aging feminists” rebuking young women and imposing their views on others, as well as about the “bankruptcy” of 21st-century feminism.

The media love a feminist food fight. Feminist accomplishments, not so much.

It reminded me of the 1980s, when the backlash to the Second Wave of feminism took hold. Major books at the time railed about “The Feminist Mistake” and “The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America.”

In 1987, I wrote my masters thesis on the history of a feminist organization in Milwaukee, the Women’s Coalition. I wrote it to dispel the claims that feminism was somehow a failure and that feminists themselves were responsible for the problems of women, a common complaint of conservatives.

What I found in Milwaukee was hard work and incredible self-sacrifice on the part of feminist activists. They pioneered the battered women’s movement, changed rape and marriage laws, established women’s studies programs, created myriad social services, reformed law enforcement practices and much more.

They achieved these things while also arguing over priorities and personal politics. At different times, there were purges of lesbians, socialists, straight women, men and transgender people. There were passionate fights over inclusion and exclusion, political involvement or cultural separatism, militant tactics or patient consultation.

The feminist movement has always encompassed a multiplicity of individuals and organizations from the grassroots to the national level. Goals vary. Tactics differ. Ideologies shift and often conflict. Leaders are effective or flawed. Mistakes are made. The women’s movement is not monolithic. It is diverse and dynamic.

Feminists do not march in step, nor do they all wear their feminism on their sleeves. They come in all ages, races, classes and sexualities. They range from genderqueer youth organizing on social media to women working across cultures to advance women’s rights in countries where women are treated like dogs.

They are the women who revolutionized women’s health care and the women today working to defend Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive freedom. They are the women leading the fight for the $15 minimum wage and women working to make their churches less sexist.

They are the women who worked hard for years to build partnerships and raise funds for the new Family Peace Center. It’s a multimillion dollar facility that centralizes all domestic violence services in Milwaukee. It’s an amazing advance from the 1970s, when feminist volunteers risked their lives rescuing women and hiding them in a network of safe houses.

I don’t know if these women will vote for Hillary Clinton, but I believe their work transcends any one political moment. It will continue and it will endure.

So ignore the bad press. Feminism lives!



Should his and her Oscars be done away with?

Do Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Helen Mirren need affirmative action to snare one of Hollywood’s favorite accessories, an Oscar, Emmy or Screen Actors Guild trophy?

In a society tilting steadily toward gender neutrality, the separate-but-equal awards that divide actors into one camp and actresses into another have the whiff of a moldy anachronism.

True, the Association for Women in Science gives honors to encourage female participation and success in male-dominated fields. But to mark enduring achievements, would its members ever yearn for a Women’s Nobel Prize in physics?

In contests of intellect or artistry, should gender ever matter?

“It’s not like it’s upper body strength,” Gloria Steinem dryly observed of the requirements of acting.

The separate labeling of male and female performers is losing favor in the industry. Actresses often swat the distinction away by calling themselves “actors,” standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.

Usherettes are long gone from movie theater lobbies, after all. And defense officials said Wednesday the Pentagon will be lifting its ban on women in combat.

SAG, which holds its awards ceremony Sunday, edged toward neutrality with its trophy dubbed the Actor, although the guild gives separate honors to best performance by a male actor and by a female actor.

That cracks the door open, but only slightly. Fling it wide so that Daniel Day-Lewis’ majestic performance in “Lincoln” and Jessica Chastain’s steely turn in “Zero Dark Thirty” vie for the grand prize!

“That’s a great idea,” said Mark Andrews, writer-director of the animated film “Brave.” “At the end of the day, we’re all storytellers, and I don’t think when we’re defining a character that the gender is the major defining factor.”

In all other awards-eligible fields, including directing, writing or cinematography, everyone is “going for it,” male and female alike, Andrews said.

That may be progress in theory for performers but not in practice, according to Sally Field, a SAG and Oscar best supporting actress nominee for “Lincoln.”

“If you do that you won’t see any actresses up there (on stage) at all,” she said. “The percentage of roles is so weighted toward actors. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Exactly, concurred Naomi Watts, “The Impossible” best actress SAG and Academy Award nominee.

“There’s so much competition in life and I do think we are different,” she said. “Yes, we should be able to have the same things as much as possible … (but) life’s a battle already and there’s so many great roles written for men. Women are definitely at a disadvantage when it comes to volume.”

Rapper Nicki Minaj, who’s considering launching an acting career, has a pragmatic take on the issue.

“You see all those divas in the audience looking so pretty, and they all want to beat each other out,” she said. “It’s entertainment.”

Hathaway, in the running for SAG and Oscar supporting actress honors for “Les Miserables,” considers the gender split “an awesome question worthy of an awesome debate.”

“Can I conceive of a world where performance becomes a genderless concept? Absolutely. Do I think it’s going to happen anytime soon? No,” she said.

As Fields pointed out, the bedrock challenge is that women get fewer substantive roles than men. Ironically, that’s obscured by the artificial parity on stage each year at awards shows. Five women compete, five men compete, two winners are crowned.

So what’s the problem? A quick numbers check makes it clear: Females comprised about a third of the characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

This, despite the fact women make up slightly more than half of the U.S. population and, according to the center’s previous research, the finding isn’t an anomaly.

In this context, feminist leader Steinem sees legitimate reason to retain separate acting awards. When two unequal groups are combined it’s the less-powerful one that loses, she said, as when 20th-century U.S. school desegregation lead to mass layoffs of black principals and administrators.

Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby awards prediction site, said strong forces are arrayed against any such change in Hollywood.

Awards shows routinely try to add celebrity-driven categories, not drop them, to increase a show’s “glamor and glitz” quotient, he said, as well as mask the industry’s unequal treatment of women.

“It’s criminal,” he said, bluntly.

In the behind-the-scenes film and TV categories in which the sexes compete, women rarely make it on stage at awards ceremonies. The Oscars started in 1929, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the first woman, Kathryn Bigelow, was honored as best director (for “The Hurt Locker”). Statistics again provide clarity: Women made up a paltry 9 percent of the directors on 2012’s top-grossing films, a new San Diego State University study found.

Let’s give two-time Oscar winner Field the last word in this debate.

Actresses “should be in their own category because they ARE in their own category,” she said. “They face their own specific kind of difficulties surviving in this business that actors, bless their hearts, don’t face.”