Thursday, June 9, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #19: Gloria Steinem (1983)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
In the early days, when feminism was still called "women's liberation," the emphasis was on equal rights for women, the control over reproduction and challenging existing stereotypes. But between 1980 and 1990, a number of different economic and political issues rose to the surface. As freedoms were won, questions began to be raised about what happens to the spirit of the struggle itself. Feminism (like any political organism) was faced with the difficulty of evolving and diversifying its views in order to accommodate different voices and the possibilities of continued reform.

Before her leadership was challenged by reformists like Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Summers, though, Gloria Steinem was still the most outspoken feminist to be heard in the eighties. Steinem had earlier been a columnist for New York magazine and co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972. Her first piece of significant writing had come three years earlier with her article, "After Black Power, Women's Liberation," which first brought her and the modern feminist movement to national attention.

Gloria Steinem.
In the chapter, The Many of Faces of Feminism, I included some feminist voices, including authors Judith Guest (Ordinary People) and Erica Jong (Fear of Flying), poet Lorna Crozier (The Garden Going On Without Us) and film director Lizzie Borden (Working Girls), who were speaking out during the Reagan years. The talk with Steinem, however, foretold the growing impact of the American right's so-called Moral Majority with its attempts to undermine the feminist reforms of the previous decade.

kc: Did the issues that prompted the beginning of contemporary feminism also propel you to be a writer?

gs: Becoming a writer came first. And I'm sorry to say that I spent a lot of years being an imitative writer precisely because I didn't understand my own issues. I had a kind of unconscious emotional identification with discriminated against groups, so I very often found myself writing about farm workers or civil rights groups. But I didn't understand why I felt that. After all, I was a middle-class person who had always been white. So I regret a lot of those years where I was trying to imitate what a serious magazine writer was supposed to be instead of using my own experience.

kc: Was "Sisterhood," which you wrote in 1972 and include in your new collection Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, the beginning of finding your own voice?

gs: You're quite right. That was the first article where I consciously connected that there was a sexual caste system in society just like there was a racial one. I realized that there was a reason why I had this emotional identification with all the wrong groups (laughs).

kc: How much progress do you feel we've made in male/female relations since the last decade?

gs: In a general way, relationships between the sexes are better because at least women are not encouraged to marry men in order to be supported. In the past, we looked not for a friend whose values we shared, but for a meal ticket. We also had to find someone who had good job prospects and was older because men were supposed to be paternal. He also had to be tall enough and was the right race or religion. By the time we finished with all of those requirements, it was a wonder we even liked each other. Even though today we are less in need of economic support, the old habits of mind are still strong. For instance, I notice today that when women tell me that they can't find a good man who will appreciate them as an equal partner that they are still eliminating men who are younger, who are shorter, and who are the wrong race or religion. We have to get out of that. It's an old groove in our brains that was worn for other purposes.

kc: Is that groove reinforced by the threat that men feel towards advances made by women?

gs: Oh, I think absolutely. Men have been born into a society – through no fault of theirs – that tells them that the very definition of masculinity has, at a minimum, to do with not being female. So to discover that there's this human being who is female, who is as smart and can make as much money in the job force, can be very threatening. In that, we are getting some polar responses.

kc: What kinds of polar responses?

gs: Some men are welcoming this change and see it as a path to wholeness itself. They are grateful for having another income in the family so they don't have to be solely responsible. At the same time, there are other men who in flight from change. Rita Mae Brown always says that among those men who are in flight from change, there are always two kinds of reaction. The very best ones are into nostalgia, talking about the fifties when women knew their place. The worst ones are into sadomasochism. But I also see an awful lot of men who say to me – and other feminists – thank you for saving my marriage so now I can take care of my kids. They have become feminists because they care about their daughters and wives and lovers. I think – as in all things – progress probably lies for each of us in the direction we haven't been.

kc: How do you think feminism has changed the way women vote for political parties?

gs: It's more about issues now than party labels. Women have been more likely to vote against military spending, or anything to do with violence. They tend to vote for health education spending, or anything to do with anti-discriminatory laws. This is a pattern that used to be called conservative, but is now called radical. This pattern hasn't changed. It's just the reason it wasn't perceived as partisan in the past was not because it didn't exist on issues, but because the two major parties were close enough on those issues of foreign policy and domestic spending. The fact that women felt strongly about a particular issue had no place to go and the political analyst didn't care about how women felt unless it could influence which man got into office. Now Reagan has made it seem partisan – for the first time – by identifying what is in fact an ultra-right wing view with the Republican Party. He is not really a Republican because even most Republicans don't agree with his basic positions, especially if you look at the surveys done of the delegates that elected him in 1980.

Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan.
kc: Is that also true of certain women's issues like pro-choice?

gs: Most Republicans are more likely to be pro-choice on abortion than Democrats are. But you would never know that from Ronald Reagan. He's the first Republican to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. So he temporarily at least made the gender-gap appear partisan.

kc: Isn't that due to the fact that he's currently aligned the Republican Party with fundamentalist Christians?

gs: Yes. And let's not forget that most Republicans used to be Democrat. Reagan used to be a Democrat. So did Jesse Helms. It's just that the move towards racial representation and other liberalized elements of the Democratic Party forced these ultra-right wing men to take over the post of the Republican Party.

kc: How would you account for the right-wing reaction in the United States right now?

gs: Well, it's perfectly logical from their point of view. There's a way in which the right-wing understands feminism better than the liberals do. The right-wing is very clear that there is a system in the world. It's put there by God and capitalism and it makes men the head of the household and women the subservient ones. There was a cartoon that we published in Ms. magazine that I thought explained this connection very well. It shows Reagan in a cowboy hat and he's saying, "A gun in every holster. A pregnant woman in every home. Let's make America a man again." This is a classic mark of authoritarian groups. They want to enforce an authoritarian family because it is the microcosm for the training of the rest of society.

kc: Are you starting to get the feeling that they're slowly turning the clock back?

gs: Sure. What they perceive as "anti-family" legislation began, for them, when women were granted property rights, removed from the authority of their husbands and given the right to vote. Now they see all of these upstarts turning the other way – and they are in terror and backlash. These people understand what feminism is saying. But there are also a whole group of liberals who are embarrassed by reproductive and family issues. They know how to talk about NATO, yet they think family and reproductive issues are unimportant. Liberals have bought a limited definition of politics. They believe that politics is only the electoral system and foreign policy. Feminists understand that this has to change. Right-wingers understand what happens if it does change.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His five-part lecture series, Roads to Perdition: The Allure of Film Noir, begins at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, June 15th from 1pm-3pm.

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