In just the past two years, Gloria Steinem has had her life dramatized three times. First onstage in New York in “Gloria: A Life”; then on television in FX’s much-discussed “Mrs. America”; and finally in the director Julie Taymor’s upcoming decades-spanning film, “The Glorias,” in which America’s best-known feminist activist is portrayed by, among others, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore. And while her own story may have reached depiction-in-prestige-entertainment phase, Steinem, who is 86, is fully aware that both her work and the country’s work remain unfinished. “The progress we’ve made is not sufficient,” she says. “But there is an advantage to being old. I have a role to play in the movement by saying, ‘Here’s when it was worse.’”
You’ve spent countless amounts of time doing in-person activism and political organizing. But even though there. has been so much energy around protests this year, activism, like everything else, has over time been shifting toward the digital world. Has the ship sailed as far as activists’ prioritizing physical over online communication? I think the ship has never sailed.
I guess “the ship has sailed” is a strange expression. The ship staying in port doesn’t really sound better. [Expletive] the ship. I’m swimming.
Spoken like a true optimist, and I imagine that optimism is necessary when you devote your life to activism. Given that you’ve done that, how do you wrap your head around this moment, which in so many ways is one of regress? For example, no matter what happens in November, because of the way different courts have been stacked, there could still be huge rollbacks in abortion rights, birth control, voting rights. We’ve paid, as movements, more attention to Washington than to state legislatures, and we see the penalty for that. Tactically we could have done better. But we are at a point of a backlash because we are winning. The most dangerous time is after a victory — eight years of Obama and moving forward and the fact that now most Americans agree with what social-justice movements have been saying. But what that means is that 40 percent of the country feels deprived of their position in an old hierarchy, and they’re in full backlash.
What are you looking at beyond public-opinion polls when you say “we’re winning”? I’m mainly thinking about public-opinion polls, which are the most general measure we have. The issues that were once the concerns only of social-justice movements, whether it was female equality or gay marriage, have journeyed from being the concern of an insurgent movement to being a majority view. That heartens me. I understand that it doesn’t have a positive impact on the people who don’t agree, but it is a fact.
What do you think it is about you that has allowed you to have an impact? I know that in the early days people used to lazily point to your attractiveness as an explanation for the attention you got, but what deeper qualities helped you become a leader? I don’t understand it. I thought I understood in the beginning because I realized that as a journalist I had written articles about the movement, and so I would be asked to speak about it. But I really don’t know. I suppose it’s partly because I’m a full-time movement worker, which most people can’t be because they have another profession. That probably makes a difference. It’s also partly that no one can fire me. Most people don’t have that freedom. Maybe that plays a role. If I had to pick one reason, it’s because I have a sense of humor. That’s crucial. It allows you to laugh at yourself and say when you’re wrong. One of the things that Native American culture understands and we probably don’t is that laughter is the only emotion you can’t compel. You can’t make anybody laugh unless they want to. I suspect that the people who last the longest, who continue to be trustworthy, are people with a sense of humor.
You’ve seen a lot of political and ideological trends come and go. Are there contemporary attitudes or ideas that belong to younger activists — or even the political left generally — which you’ve found challenging to understand? I did sign a recent statement about cancel culture. I was — and am — concerned about what seems to me a function of being on the web too much and focusing on words more than actions. You’re saying exactly the right thing or not, and people are responding with hostility instead of an invitation. Instead of being against a specific act or statement or article, you’re against the person who said it, and that makes no sense to me because that ends the conversation. If you care about having the conversation, surely you want to try in a humane way to convince the other person, not do away with them.
People have tried to cancel you before. What have you learned about the best way to mitigate those kinds of attacks? It’s important to learn from criticism. We all [expletive] up. If and when the criticism bears no resemblance to reality, then we have to move forward and understand it comes with the territory. Part of what may seem unfamiliar to some people is because we’ve been raised with this patriarchal, racist idea of normalcy. Those of us who are not obeying those past ideas may seem to be unnatural.
Did you follow all the hubbub around that cancel-culture letter you signed? I was asked to sign the letter, and I signed it. I believed in the letter, so I thought, Fine. I didn’t read any of the response because I knew that it was going to be mixed. But if someone has a problem with it, then start another letter. There should be lots of letters. The most painful criticism or attacks come from people who share your values, not people who don’t share your values. If Trump spoke well of me, I would shoot myself.
Have you ever met the president? It’s interesting you ask that. I did, a very long time ago. I was raising money for something, as usual, and I went to see him. He was sitting on the other side of the desk, and he praised me to the skies in a way that made me know he didn’t have a clue who I was. Then he gave me a very small check.
What’s the key to getting rich people to give money to your cause? Explain to them that it’s way more satisfying to see money making change for the better than it is to see numbers adding up in a bank. Why would anyone want to die with money? Let’s spend it all for good, creative things before we die. I’ve seen more damage done by inheritance than by no inheritance. I mean, it’s nice to be left money for a college education, but after that I’m not sure inheritance is helpful because of all that comes with it. People worry, “Oh, my friends only like me for my money.” Or, “I have to consciously try to live an ordinary life.” Money brings a whole set of problems that isolate us.
I was always curious about this infamous incident — it’s even dramatized in “The Glorias” — that you had as a young journalist with Saul Bellow and Gay Talese. The three of you are in a cab, and Talese makes a snotty comment to Bellow about you as a writer. Did you ever run into him again after that? I have to say, to the great credit of Gay Talese, that I was at a dinner where he and his wife were, and I said that this event is being written about, and he said, “Yes, that sounds like me.” I thought, Well, that’s a great thing to say, because he’s not denying it. It made me like him better.
One more from the old days: I was reading an oral history of Ms. magazine, and in it Vivian Gornick described you as an uptown feminist as opposed to her and other more radical downtown feminists. Was there any validity to that line of criticism? There was physicality to it. I had tried to find an apartment in the Village and couldn’t afford it, and so I had to go to the less-expensive Upper West Side.
I don’t think she was just talking about ZIP codes. Those downtown groups were all white. So the criticism didn’t make sense to me.
Are there criticisms you’ve gotten that you felt were valid and then learned from? There is the obvious fact that I am a white person and the disproportionate majority of feminists are women of color. So I do my best as a normal procedure not to show up unless I am speaking as a partner with women of color. It’s still present in the media: They tend to see the women’s movement as white. We are still referring to Seneca Falls as if it were the first political meeting of women for political ends when 10 years before there was a meeting in Manhattan that was white and Black women. That should be called the beginning of the women’s movement, not Seneca Falls. But because of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, because of who wrote history, it’s got to be Seneca Falls.
That’s similar to how for a long time in the popular imagination second-wave feminism was seen as basically a movement of white women, despite what was happening on the ground. It was led by Black women! It’s ever been thus. The last election was more led by Black women than by white women. Ninety-eight percent of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, and 47 percent of white women voted for Trump. The public image of the women’s movement as white is a problem. Just as the public image of the civil rights movement as male is a problem because it is just not accurate.
What accounts for those images? We live in a racist, patriarchal society.
That would do it. We’re always having to say: “No, wait a minute. It’s not just one guy, or it’s not just white people. Let’s look like the country here.” From the beginning of the women’s movement, we’ve always seen that women of color, and especially Black women, have been the majority of the activists and the leaders. Sometimes it’s hard for us to see that because we have a pretty racist view of history, and we tend to see white people, including white women, as leaders when the opposite has been the case. Black women have been more in the leadership of the civil rights movement too, than they’re given credit for. We need to correct for that and look at reality.
Let me ask you something I don’t think anyone has ever asked you. Oh, I can’t wait.
What has it been like to have Batman for a stepson? Well, Christian is someone I met as a grown-up, so I think of him as a friend, not a stepson. He is a truly great actor. I think he enjoyed doing Batman, but I don’t think it’s the peak of his career in his own eyes. It’s been a great gift to have David’s grown-up children as friends. And actually, completely without any work or deserving on my part, I have grandchildren!
Did you ever see him in “American Psycho”? No, I didn’t, and I’m happy to say that he made that before I met him.
What was most surprising to you about marriage? I was surprised because some of the response was as if I had capitulated somehow. There was disappointment from women I didn’t know. I mean, David and I loved each other and wanted to be together, and it turned out to be very important that we were together because only a year or so after we got married, he became ill. I think he needed someone to take him out of life. His illness was a couple of years; being with him helped me acknowledge that it’s important to live in the moment.
Do you still? I hope so. Because consider my age. I have to keep reminding myself that even if I live to 100, which I have every intention of doing, it’s not that long left. I just hope that I don’t die saying: “But! Wait!”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
Opening Illustration: Source photograph by David Sandison/Eyevine, via Redux.