Gloria Steinem Examines the Women's Decade: Wins, Losses and Changes in Her Life

“Think for a minute. Who were you before the ’70s began?” Gloria Steinem asks in her introduction to The Decade of Women, an ambitious potpourri of pictures, news bulletins and text on recent feminist history produced by her colleagues at Ms. magazine. It is published in hardcover by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, for $17.95, in paperback by Paragon, $8.95. Steinem’s own consciousness over the decade can be traced in what she calls “sense memories”—from “the scared quavery sound in the voices of women who were speaking out in public for the first time” to the “strong sisters” she now sees around her.

A full-time feminist before the ’70s, Steinem is arguably the most influential leader in the women’s movement in America. Now 46, she lives alone in New York City, where her power base is Ms., the publication she helped found in 1972. Her forum is a monthly column through which she speaks to the magazine’s two million readers on subjects ranging from a macho-mocking fantasy, If Men Could Menstruate, to a serious and moving profile of former porn star Linda Lovelace.

A staff of 50 (two are men) puts out the magazine in a mid-Manhattan suite of offices that includes a nursery-playroom. At her cluttered desk, Steinem keeps in touch with the women’s movement—from the pro-ERA wing of the American Psychiatric Association to union organizers of clerical workers. Five to 10 times a month she goes off to speak—in the last few weeks, for example, to students at the University of New Hampshire, women-led farm workers in Louisiana, an audience of 21,000 at a Chicago job conference. Recently Steinem turned her attention to the politics of love and marriage, among other less discussed aspects of the women’s revolution, for Irene Kubota Neves of PEOPLE.

What are some of the measurements of success over the last decade?

Every major issue raised by the women’s movement now has majority support in opinion polls—from such easy things as equal pay for equal work to the ERA to abortion. It was a time of massive consciousness-raising and a period in which women’s hopes were raised. There were changed ideas about division of work in the home and in the way children are raised and by whom. We learned that women can and should do “men’s jobs.”

Are there other pluses?

There is much less of the belief that what feminists want is to become Superwoman—the idea that says, yes, you can be a nuclear physicist or a plumber providing you have three charming children, are a gourmet cook and the perfect wife. Some women’s magazines still suggest more and more for women, who are already doing two jobs. It’s ridiculous.

What about the delay in passing the Equal Rights Amendment?

It’s taking longer than we thought. But it is a profound principle, so perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, it took a century and a Civil War to achieve the 14th Amendment. I give the ERA 60-40 odds in favor of passage by June 1982.

Where else has the movement been less successful?

We haven’t yet established the principle that men can and should do “women’s jobs,” that homemaking and child rearing are as much a man’s responsibility as a woman’s.

Aside perhaps from the justice of it, why would men want to do those things?

The justice of it is enough.

How can men be convinced of that?

It’s hard. No one gives up comfort easily. But there is a reality and a freedom that comes from being able to take care of yourself. The man who cannot cook, cannot iron, who does not understand the simplest mechanics of household procedures is a prisoner himself. No form of dependency is a pleasant experience.

Isn’t it an improvement that men help out around the house, even if inconsistently?

That is unacceptable. “Help out” is the clue. Until we reach a point where everybody who lives in a house is responsible for it and until we pursue the logic of children being raised by both parents, the majority of women who work outside the home as well as in it will have an enormously unfair burden.

How are men going to learn?

New mothers have said to me that when for some reason they’ve had to leave the baby alone with their husbands, it has helped. The men would never have learned to take care of a child if they had not had to. None of us is born with this knowledge.

Are you saying the sharing process can be hastened?

Yes. But at the same time we as women have to face the fact that we sometimes like to be regarded as indispensable, and we are not. Nor are we the only people who can parent children or clean kitchens or make food. The other thing we have to reconcile ourselves to is that if someone else does a particular task, it won’t necessarily be done the way we want it.

What are your arguments for involving fathers in the raising of children?

It’s partly fairness and partly reason. There are also profound emotional rewards. But we are not asking this simply because it will help humanize men, or for our own convenience. How children are raised is crucial. It’s important that from infancy on they see their fathers changing their diapers, and grow up knowing that men can be loving and nurturing people too.

How have male-female relationships fared over these 10 years?

Perhaps I am too optimistic, but it seems to me two things have happened. Bad relationships have broken up, and good relationships have been made stronger.

Wasn’t consciousness-raising responsible in part for a flurry of divorces?

Consciousness is always raised sooner or later. The cause of divorce is not feminism; the cause of divorce is marriage. The difference now is that instead of a woman saying 20 years later with great bitterness, “I should never have married you,” she is more likely to take responsibility for her own life and change it. I was once asked why women don’t gamble. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t say the real reason is that women’s total instinct for gambling was satisfied by marriage.

Why do you say that?

At 18 or 22 we were supposed to find the man whom we were going to attach ourselves to forever. I myself assumed I would marry, even though I kept putting it off, and that when I did my husband’s identity would become mine. Marriage was the one life-changing mechanism women had. So if we have come to honor different ways of living—that some people will marry, some not, some will have children and others not—then perhaps we need not go through the cultural phenomenon of people breaking out of prison. But the problem is the prison, not the breaking out.

Are relationships harder to maintain after consciousness is raised?

Some are finding it harder. But there is another side. If women are giggling and shuffling and saying how clever of you to know what time it is, how can anyone expect decent relationships? It seems easier to be honest and end up with someone who actually likes you. Far from being contrary to love, I think the movement makes love possible for the first time. Economic dependency and fear might have looked like love from 50 feet away, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

Is getting older still harder on women?

Our culture is arranged that way. If you look objectively at men who are aging, they are getting just as wrinkled and chickeny-necked. But a man’s identity is in what he does. Ours is much more in how we look.

Are you sensitive about your age?

Six years ago when I turned 40, I made a point of being very open about it. People would say to me, kindly, “Oh, you don’t look 40.” And I would say, “This is what 40 looks like.” We’ve been lying about our ages for so long, how would anyone know?

Are you advocating truthfulness as a tactic?

I feel we should stop pretending about a lot of things—that we are happy in subservient roles or that we have not had abortions or whatever it is.

Was it difficult for you to be truthful about your abortion?

For 12 years I told no one. Not a woman friend, no member of my family. But in the first issue of Ms. we ran a petition which women signed, saying they had had illegal abortions. I felt I couldn’t ask others to participate if I didn’t. It was hard then.

And now?

Because our ideas of what women could or should do have been dictated to us, the only way to see reality is through our own lives and the lives of other women. So I feel an obligation to tell the truth. It might possibly contribute to change. You also realize you’re not alone.

But, as a woman who is not married and is without children, are you not alone?

Perhaps. But many of the women who are most alone are the ones who have followed the most conventional life pattern. In later years they are the ones likeliest to find themselves widowed or turned in for a younger worker; their profession has been in the home, raising children, so they are more apt to be out of work. That’s why women over 65 are the single poorest group in the population.

What is the next step?

Progress, for both men and women, lies in the direction we have not been, filling out that part of the circle we have not yet experienced. You see it at women’s conferences, especially feminist conferences, which are very different from men’s. Men plan everything ahead. They replicate the power structure by having one person in charge of the group. There is no spontaneity. It could be done as easily through the mails. We do the reverse. Nobody wants to be the leader. We spend a lot of time mooshing around trying to make somebody be in charge. The goal is not to try to outdistance one another but to complete ourselves. For many men progress is to live more spontaneously, to develop an emotional life. For us progress is to take control of our lives and stop being so passive.

Does that go for you? You haven’t been exactly idle.

I haven’t been exactly idle, but instead of taking control of my life and finding the time to do the books I want to write, I was being passive and responding to requests.

Are you putting that in the past tense?

I’m hesitating. When we started Ms. eight years ago I said, all right, I will do this because it is vital, but I’ll do it for two years, tops. I kept feeling that way, like a transient passing through, until a year ago. I suddenly realized I really enjoy being here, that I could feel useful for the rest of my life.

Is this feeling new to you?

I don’t know exactly when it changed or if it will continue. It used to be that if I were traveling in a car from an airport or wherever and I passed tenements or row houses—poor houses like some of those from my childhood—I would compulsively imagine myself in them, especially as an old person. And I would be depressed. Now I see places like that and feel I could live there, that the neighbors would be interesting and there would be a block to organize, that I could carry on wherever I was.

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