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Gloria Steinem on International Women’s Day: ‘We Just Need to Keep Going’

Gloria Steinem Womens Day
Ryan Pfluger for Variety

The fact that we have an International Women’s Day means we are still in trouble. There is no International Men’s Day. Only less powerful people or forgotten historical events need “A Day” to be part of the present. Yet it’s an important step because any notice is better than no notice.

On this International Women’s Day, we might start by admitting why women are subordinated in the first place. We have the one thing that men don’t have — wombs — and they can’t perpetuate themselves or differences of race and class without controlling or influencing us.

Until the 1960s, interracial marriage was illegal in some parts of this country, and children not “owned” by a man were “illegitimate.” Even now, right-wing groups object to abortion or clinics that teach contraception, mostly because white women have been choosing to have fewer children on average than women of color.

But the first condition of democracy is being able to make decisions about our own bodies,  and that has consistently been taken away from women. We’re beginning to have some control over giving birth, but the rates of sexual assault and rape have increased. The good news is that sexual assault and harassment are illegal and reported now, instead of people saying “Why did you have that dress on?” or “Why were you in that neighborhood,” which is where we started.

There has been big progress thanks to Anita Hill and the MeToo movement — they educated the whole country. But there are still groups out there that disbelieve women, or try to force women to give birth, even after a rape, by saying that “life” begins at the moment of conception, and fetal life counts more than a woman’s life.

We have made a huge step forward with equal pay legislation yet we still don’t have equal pay. The last estimate I saw was that just equal pay for women of all races — equal to what men in similar jobs are earning — would put nearly $500 billion more a year into the economy. But, right now, jobs themselves are often valued according to who does them. For instance, in New York, the last time I looked, a guy who was a parking attendant was making more money than a woman who was a child care attendant. We don’t value our cars more than our children, but an almost all- male profession is valued and paid more than a mostly female profession.

Change is slow. Like a tree, it grows from the bottom up, and we still have a long way to go. But we just need to keep going and to celebrate how far we’ve come. We also have fun doing it. Supporting each other and finding new ways to work is the source of day-to-day change, and also of joy and community.

The women who have had the deepest, most continuing influence on me are probably Florynce Kennedy and Alice Walker. Flo was a lawyer when that was very rare for a Black woman. Later, she became an activist instead, because, as she said, “The law is a one-ass-at-a-time proposition, and what you have to do is stop the wringer.”  We traveled and spoke together as a team in the ‘70s and ’80s. She was almost twenty years older. She was my first and most important teacher.

Alice Walker, who is younger than I, has been an inspiration, too. Her writing, her understanding, her use of how country people talk have made her stories travel around the world.

Accidentally, I met a woman from Japan, and then later a woman from China, both of whom had translated Alice’s novel, “The Color Purple.” Both used the language of their own country people, just as Alice had here, and that was a first in a work of high art.

If you do one true thing, it will make change wherever it goes.

Excerpted from a conversation with Claudia Eller, Variety Editor-in-Chief

Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, is a celebrated feminist, journalist and social activist who became a national leader of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She is also a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, which “works to make women visible and powerful in media.”