She is the woman who famously said, A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. At 80, feminist Gloria Steinem has lost none of the spirit, sparkle or humour that marked her radical writings. In Delhi to launch her latest collection of landmark essays, As if Women Really Matter, she tells Malini Nair that she is awed by the on-the-street radicalism of young Indian women
Post the December 16 gang rape in Delhi last year, it is as though there is a sudden and dramatic realization in Indian women of their self-worth. How do you see this?
It was like lighting a match to dry tinder. If this had happened 20 years ago the energy would have been suppressed. Women are no longer saying ‘give us protection’ because protection is more imprisoning. They are saying: give us justice. It will take a long time for the rest of the society to get used to it and accept it. But I believe that men are also beginning to tire of forever playing masculine roles of being aggressors and protectors. They realize that gender stereotypes are bad for them too.
Feminism in India is now facing generational differences. The older feminists who fought core issues seem not quite comfortable dealing with ideas like the slut walk.
Movements often pick up ‘bad’ words and turn them into ‘good’ words to assert their power. I was once called ‘the slut from East Toledo’ on a TV show in Ohio where I was born. When I was a teenager I would have cringed at the insult because East Toledo was this really run down place. But we had just finished protesting at the Wall Street, and share prices were tumbling and I was thrilled to hear the insult. I said great, put that on my tombstone: ‘here lies the slut from East Toledo’.
But the fact is that a lot of young women disown the label ‘feminism’.
Well, what do you expect? The word has been made fun of for 40 years. And I say if they are doing what they are doing without wanting a name on it, fine. Maybe they tell themselves that if they fight but don’t give themselves a label no one will notice (laughs). I was called feminazi every week by the conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. I say use whatever name you want — womanist works, why even gurrrl power works. But the fact is that young women today are better bullshit detectors. I am often asked by young feminists why do you smile so much? And I say I was brought up in the ’50 when women were told to smile all the time!
What is your verdict on the unending debate — can women have it all?
That is utter bullshit. I don’t want it all and no one can have it all. No one asks men that question. In this age we all need to have jobs and we need to redefine traditional roles in a family. We need the workplace to realize that we (both men and women) have a life and need time for the family. This having it all line is a great con job men have pulled on women so they do it all (laughs).
You are a part of anti-trafficking efforts of the Ruchira Gupta-led NGO Apne Aap. How should a country tackle prostitution?
I turned against the legalizing of prostitution when I saw that in Las Vegas they were forcing women off welfare and into prostitution. People are beginning to realize — like Netherlands did — that legalizing prostitution can have horrific consequences because it breeds crime, thrives on the use of force and degrades women. The Nordic model works the best — arrest the pimp, the supplier, the agent, the transporter, not the woman.
Beyonce just declared that gender equality is a myth because men still earn far more than women for the same job.
If the US ensures that women are paid as much as men, there would be $200 billion dollars more in the economy and that money will not be gambled or drunk away. They should give us equal pay for the good of the national economy!
Looking back, how do you see the journey of feminism?
There are two myths in circulation now about feminism — that it is over and that it has failed. The message is and has always been — ‘Stop now!’ I was naive when I started out and I thought if we can explain these terrible inequalities then it will all change. But it took me a while to realize that gender was about controlling profits, controlling production and above all controlling reproduction. The failure was of my imagination, not the movement. It has only been 40 years. Give the movement another 60.