Gloria Steinem at 80: Taking Stock of Today's Women's Movement

America’s most prominent feminist on what young girls think, bias in journalism, religion and Republicans who used to be Democrats Brian Virgo

The past two days had been leading up to this moment: Writer and activist Gloria Steinem, wearing a studded black leather jacket and sleek black pants, had just realized she was sitting in the front row of her very own surprise 80th birthday party.

Steinem's birthday isn't until March, but it was a fitting (early) celebration at a fitting moment: the denouement of the first-ever "Makers" Conference near Los Angeles.

Last February, PBS aired the critically acclaimed documentary MAKERS: The Women Who Make America, which traced the history of the women's movement and feminism over the past 50 years. Narrated by Meryl Streep and told through archival footage and interviews, the documentary drew 2.6 million viewers.

The Makers Conference aimed to pick up where the series left off, gathering leaders and innovators from corporate America, politics, non-profits, Hollywood, the media and the women's movement to reignite the conversation around women in the workplace — to create "a 48-hour action plan to help define the agenda for women in the 21st century," as organizers put it.

Speakers included Sheryl Sandberg, Geena Davis, Chelsea Handler and Gwen Ifill, as well as executives from Coca Cola, Nike, AOL, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Harvard Business School. In the lead-up to the conference, a flurry of protest erupted online with some criticizing the get-together for being unduly elitist and invitation-only, while others complained the organizers had snubbed labor unions.

But the mood in the main ballroom — where Sam Gordon, a 10-year-old girl making waves on the elementary school football field, stole the show even after Jennifer Aniston interviewed Steinem, Ifill interviewed Sandberg and Gabrielle Giffords appeared with her husband, Mark Kelly — was ebullient.

Steinem is perhaps the most well known American feminist activist, an icon of the modern women's movement who has been advocating for equal rights and change for over 50 years. She got her start in journalism as a freelancer ("I was assigned things about fashion and food and make-up and babies, or, the low point of my life: textured stockings," she once said), but it wasn't until she covered an abortion hearing that she fully grasped the need for a women's movement — and found herself at the center of it.

In 1972, she co-founded Ms. magazine, which covered social and cultural issues that, until that point, had only been whispered about: domestic abuse, sex, beauty standards, sexual harassment in the workplace. Steinem has written bestselling books and founded numerous organizations, included the Women's Action Alliance, the National Women's Political Caucus, and the Women's Media Center.

A few hours before Steinem stood before a crowd of hundreds at her surprise birthday party (where Marlo Thomas and Jane Fonda introduced her and participants tweeted #wwgd for 'What would Gloria do?'), she and I sat down together at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, Calif.

When Steinem talks, she is matter-of-fact and unnervingly calm, and often punctuates her perfectly crafted one-liners with a chuckle. We spoke about girlhood today, religion, the blind spots in the women's movement, and the first truly free woman she ever saw.

ABIGAIL JONES: Let's talk about the culture many girls are growing up in today. Fashion is getting sexier younger. TV shows and musicians perpetuate that problem. Social media makes it all instantly accessible. Parents desperately try to keep up. And marketing to girls and boys is a $17 billion industry.

What's working for girls? What can derail them?

GLORIA STEINEM: Adolescence. We see in children, girls and boys both, that are left to themselves, there's a unique person in each one. And if you listen to them, they know they have something to say.

And if you love them, they know they're lovable. And they say great things all over the world, like, 'It's not fair.' Or, 'You're not the boss of me.' What we need to do is preserve that.

The problem is, the gender roles come down and say, you can't say this if you're a girl. You must say that if you're a boy. It's the gender roles that are a problem. The more that we can get ride of gender roles, the better off we are.

How do we do that?

Defy them. And highlight people who are defying them. As we keep saying, if you can't see it, you can't be it. The more you actually see it — real people doing different things — the better off we are.

Being a parent — or anyone involved in the lives of young girls today — is tricky. Even parent-approved pop stars push the limits on what's "acceptable" for children. How can this pop culture landscape be used to girls' advantage?

It's very difficult. You can't forbid it, because that just makes us want it more. But you can teach with it. I think the media literacy courses are very helpful, because you can look at a Barbie doll and say, 'Isn't that interesting that if she were to stand up, she would fall over because her feet are tiny and her breasts are huge? If she was a real person she'd have to be 11 feet tall.' You can use it to teach with, and that heightens consciousness.

What have you learned from talking with young girls?

I was at a lecture and discussion, and a 12-year-old said, 'I don't read magazines anymore.' I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'They make me feel ugly.' This kid had figured out that if she went on a media fast, as she put it, for a month, and didn't look at television and didn't look at magazines, it completely changed her idea of what human beings look like. Just look at real people. You know? It's revolutionary!

We just need to keep heightening our consciousness at the same time we try to change the behavior. Because we've been sitting around campfires for a hundred thousand years telling stories — and media is the current campfire. Unfortunately, some of us are not around that campfire to tell our stories, and also the media is often very artificial. So we have to keep working on changing it. Unfortunately, some people think the media is more real than reality. The media is not reality. Reality is reality.

You once called Ms. magazine naïve. What do you think is naïve about the women's movement today?

The way we look at religion. Religion is politics in the sky. It is! Spirituality is quite democratic. It says, God is in you and me and in those flowers and everything. But the minute you put God in a white guy with blond hair and blue eyes in the middle of the Middle East, you know you're in deep s***. Because it's racist. It's everything.

I think we're also deceived by gender. We think there is such a thing. There isn't. We think there is such a thing as race. There isn't. You know, we all came from Africa. There's more difference, in fact, between you and me than between racial groups. The individual difference is generally bigger than the group difference.

How do we bridge this chasm between opposing factions in religion or politics? For example, it would likely be quite difficult to convince someone who is adamantly pro-choice to change sides.

You could point out that the Catholic Church approved of and regulated abortion until the 1800s. And when they stopped, it wasn't because they thought it was a sin, but because Napoleon wanted more soldiers and made a deal with Pope Pius IX. So part of it is reporting and reading. We treat it as if it's off-limits. We need to look at the politics of religion.

Your career has not only taken you to the front lines as a human rights activist, but also as an award-winning journalist. When it comes to feminism, what story isn't being told right now?

Religion is a big one. Another one is that the Republican party is not controlled by Republicans. There is not one single thing on the Republican party platform — except possibly capital punishment, which also is changing rapidly — that is supported by Republicans. People in control of the Republican party are mostly old Democrats.

Eight thousand fundamentalist Baptist churches, they all used to be Democrats. People like Jesse Helms, you know, who moved into the Republican Party because he was a racist who disapproved of the Civil Rights Act. So, real Republicans who supported the Equal Rights Amendment first, who are pro-choice, like Goldwater, need to take back the Republican Party. It is controlled by extremists.

Are journalists and media outlets doing enough to cover feminism and women's rights? What can we do differently?

A gender problem with media is that serious stories — hard news is a very gendered word — that hard news is made up of generalities and statistics. Narrative is soft news. That means masculine/feminine. It means narrative is disdained by serious journalists.

It happens that our brains work on narrative, because we've been sitting around campfires for our entire being. So, we're starved for narrative. And I think that's why we turn to celebrities. They're the only narrative in town.

It's also part of the reason we dislike media, because it's so full of fighting. We think that only conflict is news, which is completely wrong.

Stereotypically, conflict feels so masculine and, if it's female, then it's the Housewives.

Yes! If we could de-genderize the media— It's not just about women in the media. It's about substance.

You call yourself a "hope-a-holic." What makes you hopeful right now?

I'm more hopeful about women in technology. Women were there in the beginning… I do think there are a lot of women here [at the conference] who are devoted to demystifying math, technology, science, which is great.

The work you still think needs to be done?

A high-level conversation is not worth any more than a low-level conversation. Maybe less. We need it all. We need both.

How do we ensure that the conversations happening here at the conference, among a who's who of corporate America, thought leaders and Hollywood, reaches girls and women of all backgrounds?

You don't. You listen. They know what they're doing. They're organizing. Support them. Meet them. Meet some of the women here. I know they are fighting for their own salaries, but are they making sure that the food service women, the cleaning women, are getting paid too?

I think it's almost pointless to say, what should I do? It's much more helpful to do what you can. If somebody makes a stupid sexist joke, say, 'Would you say that about Jews? I don't think so.' Or whatever. Whatever it is that comes up, do it.

Anything you want to add?

I remember, in the little thing department, being on 57th Street in New York a long time ago, and I saw a person I did not know at the time. It later turned out it was Niki de Saint Phalle, the French artist. She was walking on 57th Street and she had on one of those Australian raincoats, the black oil cloth, and it was flowing out behind her. She had a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and no purse — very important to me, I don't know why she had no purse.

And I thought, 'That is the first free woman I have ever seen in real life. I want to be just like her.'

(This interview has been edited for length.)