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‘Do Something Outrageous!’ Gloria Steinem Talks Anger and Survival

Highlights from the feminist icon's talk at the Riveter.

Gloria Steinem is arguably the most recognizable face of the ever-evolving feminist movement — but don’t call her the foremother. “The women’s movement does not belong to white women,” she told a roomful of Riveter members and guests this week in Los Angeles, echoing a message she has shouted her entire career. The age-defying 85-year-old activist, author and feminist organizer — who helped get Roe v. Wade passed; who championed the Equal Rights Amendment; who co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Free to Be Foundation, the Women’s Media Center and Equality Now — has always centered the work of other women, particularly black, Latina and indigenous women. It’s the rest of the world that is still playing catch up. 

Steinem, already an author of more than 10 books and anthologies, has just released The Truth Will Set You Free But First It Will Piss You Off, a collection of short stories and reflections on some of her most famous quotes — those little nuggets of wisdom that have pulled clarity from stones of disarray for more than 70 years:

“Revolutions, like trees, grow from the bottom up.” 

“Women can’t have it all if that means doing it all.” 

“Women are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” 

“Mothering is a verb.” 

“Work is not a four-letter word.”

In a lively, profanity-spiked conversation with Riveter CEO Amy Nelson, Steinem shared more of her wisdom, reflected on decades of feminist organizing, and offered a bit of hope for our seemingly uncertain future.

On learning to love living outside of the box

Steinem, who, like Riveter CEO Amy Nelson, grew up in Ohio, came of age during a time when women’s expectations for success were limited to who they married. “The big thing to be was a drum majorette or a cheerleader … and then a wife,” she says adding big gestures with her impeccably-manicured hands to underscore the absurdity of such limitations. “I realized, not everyone has to live in the same way, and that’s fan-fucking-tastic!”

On the importance of centering women of color in conversations on feminism

“The public image of the women’s movement has excluded black women, but the work of the women’s movement has always been led by black women,” she said, name-dropping feminist leaders like Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Alice Walker, Wilma Pearl Mankiller and Tarana Burke. “Some 60 percent of black women support all women’s liberation interests, but only 30 percent of white women do. That has always been true. Racism and sexism have always been linked. You can’t be a feminist without being an anti-racist.”

On being a “radical” woman

“Radical literally means going to the root. It just means it’s more basic than reform, and that’s especially important for female human beings,” she says. “Before age 10 or 11, we are our own selves. And then during the time we’re supposed to conform, we change. When you’re 55, 60, they don’t care about you anymore, so you get radical as hell. The woman who is 50 or 60 most resembles that 10- or 11-year-old girl.”

On raising girls to be both resilient and authentic.

Just about every woman, whether a parent or child-free, worries about girls. We all live in the same world that victimizes and vilifies them and holds them up as beacons of hope while stripping them of their voices, and their freedoms. We need girls to succeed, so how can we help them do so without losing themselves? “We have to remember they are watching us,” Steinem says. “Every time we pass a mirror and criticize our bodies or compromise ourselves, they are watching. Every time we let our sons have more freedom than our daughters, a girl sees it. What we do is what we teach. Don’t tell girls what to do, but listen to them. We have to listen. Only when you listen do you realize you have something to say.”

On the gender binary, and other ways our society and culture dissects us

“Sometimes I think our world is divided into two kinds of people: people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t. I find it comforting to think that we didn’t always divide ourselves by gender/race. We made it up. It’s a fiction. We are unique individuals and we share our humanity. We need to get women’s issues out of women’s issues because they’re connected to everything.”

On America’s obsession with guns

“I think we should make fun of men who need guns. They are so insecure. I don’t get it.”

On staying alert when we’re most at risk

“When you look at domestic violence situations, the most likely time a woman gets murdered is either right before or right after she escapes. Because she’s escaping control. I’d say this country is escaping control. This is a time of maximum danger and we have to look out for each other, but we’re not going to stop.”

On goals for the 2020 election

“Voting is not the most we can do, but its the least we can do. We spend too much time saying who can win instead of spending our time working for who we want to win.” 

On advice she would give to her 18-year-old self

“I think I would just say, it’s going to be alright.”

On the power of economic equality to fuel change

“The biggest economic stimulus would be equal pay,” she says, quickly pivoting the conversation to the importance of equally dividing household labor. “If you lived with another woman how would you divide the housework? Now, don’t lower your standards.”

On how to not feel deflated from the barrage of negative news

“Fuck those headlines. Don’t let them take over your brain. Find some friends, do something outrageous, and just don’t be alone.”

On harnessing anger for change

“Anger is a good thing. It took me a long time to know what to say when they called me a bitch: Thank you!”

On how to stay optimistic and not lose hope

“The important thing is to not be alone. We need at least once a week to have a group to share your thoughts and find your support. What worries me is that we spend more time looking at screens. Isolation is tied to depression. That’s what’s so important about places like this [The Riveter]. We need to spend as much time together as we do with objects. A group of people in the same room is utterly amazing.”

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Heather Wood Rudúlph is an author, editor and creative content consultant who specializes in the intersection of gender, work and culture. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Guardian, Huffington Post and Time, among other publications, and she has worked with brands such as L’Oreal, Chevy, Airtable and SAKU Cannabis. Follow her on Twitter @hwrudulph and Instagram @HeatherWRudulph.