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At 81, Feminist Gloria Steinem Finds Herself Free Of The 'Demands Of Gender'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Later on this edition, we'll hear from Jeffrey Tambor, the star of "Transparent." Up first, my interview with Gloria Steinem, recorded in October. Steinem has been a leader and symbol of the women's movement since the 1970s and continues to speak out at the age of 81.

She co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972 and remained one of its editors for 15 years. She's written about political, social and economic barriers to women's rights and has also written about her own life and the personal obstacles she's had to overcome and how they represent obstacles many women face.

Her latest book, "My Life On The Road," was published in the fall. She estimates that she's spent at least half of her time on the road for more than four decades. She's traveled with a purpose - to raise awareness of women's issues and organize women in the U.S. and around the world. As we'll hear later in the interview, she kind of grew up on the road.


GROSS: Gloria Steinem, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to start by reading the dedication of your new book.

GLORIA STEINEM: (Reading) This book is dedicated to Dr. John Sharpe of London who, in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a 22-year-old American on her way to India. Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, you must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life. Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death. I've done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that dedication to your new book. When did you first speak about your abortion?

STEINEM: The amazing thing was that it took me so long. There was no women's movement. It was supposed to be a secret. Women didn't share in the same way. So it wasn't until many years later, after New York Magazine had started. And I had gone to cover an abortion speak-out held in a church downtown in New York City. And suddenly I heard other women standing up and talking about what it was like to have to go out and seek an illegal abortion. This was actually an alternate hearing to one that the New York state legislature was holding on the liberalization of abortion law in New York state. This was before the Supreme Court ruling.

And, you know, a group of early feminists had just say - said, wait a minute, you know, in New York (laughter) - in the legislature, they asked 14 men and one nun to testify. You can't make this up, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEINEM: (Laughter) Let's hear from women who have actually had this experience. So I sat there as a reporter for New York Magazine, listening to women tell their stories, you know, that were tragic and ludicrous and every human emotion all wrapped into one. And suddenly, I thought, wait a minute, you know. I had an abortion, and actually 1 in 3 American women had needed an abortion at some time in her life, so why is this illegal? And why is it dangerous? And it's the kind of revelation that comes from people just telling the truth and discovering you're not alone.

GROSS: Do you often wonder what your life would've been like had you not had the abortion and had you had a child at that age?

STEINEM: You know, it just - you know, I don't know what would've happened. I had been doing all the foolish things that we then did, like riding horseback, throwing ourselves down stairs (laughter), you know, the - all kinds of things in the hope that's...

GROSS: Well, let me stop you right there. Did you throw yourself down stairs?

STEINEM: Yeah, kind of, I did. I did. And, you know, I am the most cowardly (laughter) person you can imagine, so - physically speaking. But I did. I kept thinking that somehow, you know, I could - I don't know what I thought. I was desperate. I really was desperate because, you know, I just knew that if I went home and married, which I would've had to do, it would be to the wrong person. It would be to a life that wasn't mine, that wasn't mine at all.

GROSS: So, what surprises you about the current debate around abortion?

STEINEM: I think I am still most surprised by the inability or the reluctance of many people to tell the truth because - you know, about the need for abortion and, I must say, about the morality of abortion because it seems to me that every child has the right to be born, loved and wanted. And every person has the right to control - male and female - to control their own bodies from the skin in. I think we need a - legal principles called something like bodily integrity which recognizes that, though the state may jail us, they can't insist on injections or tests or pressuring us for organ transplants or, you know, the - our skin needs to be the line of defense between our own dignity and will and any outside force. We do need a new wave of telling the truth, I think. However, I'm not surprised by the opposition because it is the basis of (laughter) - of everything. I mean, to be able - the definition of patriarchy is to be able to control reproduction. And that means you have to control women's bodies.

GROSS: You spent half of your life on the road. You're still on the road a lot. You grew up on the road. Let's talk a little bit about your very atypical childhood. Your mother was often incapacitated by depression. Can we call it depression?

STEINEM: You know, I - I don't know what to call it. I think her spirit was broken. You know, she, before I was born, had to give up everything she loved and cared about. And she was depressed. She got addicted to tranquilizers. I just think her spirit was broken.

GROSS: Your father, until you were 10, during the summer, ran a dance pavilion that he created. Would you describe what your father did summers?

STEINEM: This was a little lake in southern Michigan called Clark Lake. He had built a kind of long, big pier with part of it covered, part of it uncovered over the lake. And on weekdays, there would be sort of canned music and a jukebox. And on weekends, a band - then, the big bands of the '30s and '40s used to travel the country in the summertime in a bus (laughter). And so we would get some famous bands sometimes - Wayne King and Joe Venuti, I mean, names I don't know if people know anymore. And this was his dream. And he - you know, he created a kind of magical place.

GROSS: So, what was it about being there or about being with your father that broke your mother's spirit?

STEINEM: It just wasn't hers. Well, let me describe what she had been doing (laughter) long before I was born. She was a pioneer newspaper reporter and journalist and, actually, editor, which was extraordinary. But it was an era in which she at first had to write under a man's name in order to get published. So, you know, she was a real pioneer, and she loved it. She adored it. At the same time, she was married to my father, a wonderful, kind, charming, utterly irresponsible man, so there were always money troubles and, you know, lots of difficulties. She had my sister, who is nine years older than me. And I think, you know, as she later explained, she'd fallen in love with a man at work and had grown up believing that you could not divorce. You could not change. She had a girlfriend who wanted to come to New York with her where she could try her hand at being a journalist. You know, she had all these aspirations. She just couldn't make it work. She had a - what was then called a nervous breakdown, which meant she was in a sanatorium for a year or two. I'm not sure. And there, she got hooked on an early form of tranquilizer.

GROSS: So getting back to this life that you had as a child, your mother's spirit was broken. It was often hard for her to get out of bed. Your father created this - you know, like, wonderful dance-pavilion summers. But then when the summer was over, the family would move into a van and drive south and basically live - when I say a van, I should say trailer, I suppose - and then the family would live in the trailer for the duration until the following summer. You write that you never started out with enough money to complete the trip. Your father would buy antiques and then sell them to antique dealers - you know, buy them at country auctions and then sell them to antique dealers at higher prices to fund your trip south. How did you like being itinerant like that?

STEINEM: I suppose that two things happen at once when you're a child. One is that you just accept as normal whatever is around you. And the other is that you go to the movies and you see kids or your classmates - because I would go to school till it got cold - to Halloween or something - who are living a different way, and you want to be like them. You want to be like the other kids. It never, for a moment, occurred to me that they might envy me. So I both accepted it and hoped that my real parents would come find me and take me to a house with a picket-fence and a pony. I mean, that's the degree of realism and fantasy.

GROSS: So you weren't in school for those years that your family was on the road. How did you learn to read and do basic math?

STEINEM: Well, I'm not sure I've ever learned to do basic math to be frank (laughter). But I learned to read just because my family had lots and lots of books, especially my mother, you know, read all the time. My memory is that I learned how to read from ketchup bottles and labels and billboards along the highway. I don't know. I'm not sure. But I don't remember not knowing how to read.

GROSS: Was it legal for you to not be in school?

STEINEM: No, I'm sure it was illegal. And my mother always said that if the truant officer showed up, she would use her teaching certificate - the fact that it was for university calculus, which she had been teaching in order to make money to finish college herself, I don't know how impressive it would've been. But anyway, no - but no truant officer ever showed up.

GROSS: Your parents separated when you were 10, in 1944, and you had to take on a lot of responsibility for your mother at a young age. What were the - some of the things you had to do for her when you were still a child yourself?

STEINEM: Well, it depended on, you know, on the ups and downs of her moods. But I would make her meals, or the child's idea of a meal. I kind of always worried about what I would find when I came home from school, you know, because she might be really depressed or she might have retreated into another world or she might be convinced that a war was happening outside the house and be wandering around in the street. I - you know, talking to other people whose parents were, say, alcoholics and who also kind of didn't know what they would find when they came home, has made me realize that it's not - I mean, it's hopefully uncommon, but it's certainly not unique, my experience.

GROSS: She was called the crazy lady of the neighborhood once you had a neighborhood. What was your reaction to that, and did it make you think of her differently than you did before?

STEINEM: No, I don't - didn't make me think of her differently. She was - how can I say? - I mean, she was a loving, wonderful woman who recited poetry by heart and was, you know, certainly super loving toward me, but sometimes she was just in another world, and I didn't know when that would happen.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gloria Steinem, and she has a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gloria Steinem. She has a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." Do you remember the moment when you first realized women's rights was a legitimate issue along with all the other rights that you are interested in fighting for?

STEINEM: You know, the amazing thing is how long it took me, actually. I mean, there was no - at least to me, there was no visible women's movement. So I thought I just had to function within the system as it was. And I identified with everybody else who was having a hard time. I think women often do that without knowing that it applied to us, too. But I owe it to the women who held that hearing on abortion, for instance, or, you know, who had been inside the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement and even in those movements that we utterly loved, still were not treated equally and so I had understood that there needed to be an additional women's movement.

GROSS: I remember you telling me that one of the reasons why you co-founded Ms. magazine was that writing for other magazines, they just weren't interested in women's issues. They'd say, oh, we did an article about women's issues or about the women's liberation movement, like, eight months ago, so we don't need another article yet. And that article about men was, like, articles about the world. But articles about women fell into the category of, like, yeah, we covered that a while ago. We're done.

STEINEM: Well, in - that was true of women's magazines, but in other places where I was writing, including The Sunday New York Times, (laughter) you know, lots of other places, the attitude was even worse. It was sort of, well, if we publish an article saying women are equal, then in order to be objective, we'll have to publish one saying they're not, you know (laughter). So...

GROSS: What was your reaction to that?

STEINEM: Well, it seemed perfectly logical to them because they thought it was debatable, if you see what I mean.

GROSS: Yeah, I definitely see what you mean.

STEINEM: But it seemed - right.


STEINEM: But it seemed extremely frustrating and outrageous to me.

GROSS: Do you remember the articles - the headlines - in the first edition of Ms.? I want to see if those articles could still be written today. Like, how much have things changed?

STEINEM: Well, we did have a piece about a couple that had made a marriage contract. In order to make up for the unequal laws on the books, they had made their own contract. We had reprinted an article from another feminist publication called "Why I Want A Wife," by Judy Syfers. I remember. She deserves credit.

GROSS: I remember that article.



STEINEM: And it was a woman talking about all the reasons why she needed a wife. It was funny and wonderful.

GROSS: To have somebody at home who was doing the cooking and cleaning and taking care of the errands and stuff...

STEINEM: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Which was what wives were supposed to do, but she was working so she needed to somebody to take on that role.

STEINEM: Yeah, exactly. Right.

GROSS: Would have been helpful. Yeah. So that first edition was 1972, right?


GROSS: What's your connection to Ms. magazine now?

STEINEM: Now it's published by the Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles, and I am an adviser to it. But I'm not the daily role at all that I was for, you know, such a very long time. And I'm very grateful to them that they are taking good care of it. And now it's quarterly, but it has an additional and big life on the Web.

GROSS: If I asked you to make a list of the five most important issues for women today, what would be on that list?

STEINEM: Well, I can do it, but I would like to say that the most important issues are those to the women who are listening. I mean, it's not about dictating to each other what's important, but supporting each other and solving the ones that are in our daily lives.

GROSS: I like that point that you just made.

STEINEM: However, if you add up, you know, in terms of the numbers of people, I would say that competing for number one would be violence against females worldwide. If you add up all the forms of violence, whether it's domestic violence in this country, which is at an enormously high rate - I mean, the most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home, and she's most likely to be beaten or killed by a man she knows. Or it is FGM - female genital mutilation - or it is female infanticide or honor killings or child marriage and too-early childbirth, which is a major cause of death among adolescent girls worldwide. So, you know, violence has reached an emergency - well, it's - I mean, any violence is an emergency but, you know, collectively...

GROSS: What - well, the sense of emergency has certainly increased with groups like the Taliban and ISIS truly attacking women and denying them any form of rights.

STEINEM: Yes, yes. Yes. No, it's the extreme forms of patriarchy, often religious - so-called religious, and the violence against females in warzones - sexualized violence in the Congo and, you know, many in the former Yugoslavia. You know, and all of these have mounted up to a real emergency. But tied, I would say, for first place is the ability of women to decide when and whether to have children because that is a major cause of death - the lack of that ability is a major cause of death. And it is also a major cause of inability to be educated or to be free outside the home or to be healthy. You know, so I would say those two concerns - violence - sexualized violence against women and reproductive freedom or reproductive justice are right up there in our focus in every country.

GROSS: Gloria Steinem, it has been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

STEINEM: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Gloria Steinem recorded in October after the publication of her book "My Life On The Road." We'll continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with Jeffrey Tambor, who stars as a transgender woman on the Amazon series "Transparent" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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