13 November 2011

UK: Gloria Steinem talks about abortion, and being angry

Rachel Cooke interviews the veteran feminist for The Observer.

Cooke writes that a pivotal moment in Steinem’s life was when, as a journalist, she went to cover a “speak-out” – in which women would talk about their experiences of abortion:

Steinem had had an abortion herself, aged 22, in London. But she had never spoken of it. She felt a “big click”. The secrecy surrounding abortion suddenly seemed so oddly counterproductive. “It [abortion] is supposed to make us a bad person. But I must say, I never felt that. I used to sit and try and figure out how old the child would be, trying to make myself feel guilty. But I never could! I think the person who said: ‘Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament’ was right. Speaking for myself, I knew it was the first time I had taken responsibility for my own life. I wasn’t going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life, and therefore it felt positive. But still, I didn’t tell anyone. Because I knew that out there it wasn’t [positive].” A low laugh. “I don’t know about you, but I re-virginised myself several times, too.”

Before she knew it, she was a fully paid-up member of the women’s movement, and she regards it as having saved her life. “For me, this is, and always has been, politics 101,” she says. “The idea that women are supposed to be the means of reproduction. If they – I mean ‘they’ in the larger sense: patriarchy, nationalism, whatever you want to call the mega-structure – didn’t want to control reproduction, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. Remember my age. I didn’t know that I had a choice for a long time. I didn’t want to get married and have children, but I thought it was inevitable, and so, I kept saying: not right now. I kept putting it off. After feminism, I suddenly realised: not everyone has to live the same way. Imagine that!” She never did have children – though she eventually married – and has never regretted it. “I suppose I could analyse it, in the sense that I looked after my mother. But I don’t know that’s really it. That’s too neat. I just never wanted to.” Her sister, on the other hand, had six. “Yeah, she took care of my social obligations. She once said to me: ‘I’m really glad you didn’t get married and have children. If you had, then you would have it all, and I would be jealous.’ I thought that was very honest.” Didn’t she worry about being thought of as cold and unfeminine? She casts me a look. “Who wants to be feminine?”

Steinem never intended to be so visible a figure in the women’s movement – or so she insists. She hated public speaking, and feared conflict. “I know. I’m in the wrong business. But you have no choice, however hard it is. I experience it like this: either I am invisible, or someone I identify with is invisible, and it makes me so angry. It’s so wrong, and then I just can’t resist. I have to do something.” Is she tough? “That’s a good question. I don’t know. Different things hurt you surprisingly. But I always had the feeling, which makes you tough under duress, that I was a survivor.”

But whether she intended it or not, there followed the most remarkable and radical few years – so radical, in fact, that when you look at the footage, you can hardly believe this was America. Steinem’s critics like to point out that, though she has published several books, unlike Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, none of them is a set text; her fame, they say, is disproportionate to her influence (and, boy, was she famous: Richard Nixon was recorded furiously ranting about her; his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, meanwhile, once made a flirty reference to her in a speech). But no one can say that she didn’t get stuff done. She led – in boots and polo neck – march after march. She testified in the Senate on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, and co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance and the National Women’s Political Caucus. The first issue of Ms, which was the first periodical ever to be created, owned and operated entirely by women and sold out in a week, contained a feature titled: “We have had abortions”. It was signed by singer Judy Collins, tennis player Billie Jean King, and writers Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Anais Nin and Nora Ephron (not all of these women had necessarily had abortions; the statement was inspired by those non-Jewish Danes who, during the second world war, wore yellow stars, daring the Nazis to arrest them too). A year later the Roe v Wade judgment was passed down, and abortion was effectively legalised.

“Of course, it has gone back,” she says, now. “In this large country, 85% of counties have no abortion services. The clinics that do exist are still under threat. The so-called ‘right to life groups’ are less likely to firebomb – they got called terrorists, which was awkward – but they still picket and run false clinics and take photographs of women as they go in. One of our two main political parties is anti-abortion, and in some states, they have passed extraordinary legislation so that even those who fall pregnant as a result of incest or rape must hear lectures and see ultrasound pictures. South Dakota tried to pass a law saying that murdering an abortion clinic doctor would be self-defence. It is a struggle, all the time, and it always will be.” ...

Read the full article here:

Gloria Steinem: ‘I think we need to get much angrier’, by Rachel Cooke. The Observer, 13 November 2011