Gloria Steinem

Connecting Across the Generations - Sept. 2009

Gloria Steinem
September 11, 2009— Rhinebeck, New York
Women & Power Conference
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The following is a transcript of a speech given by Gloria Steinem at the Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference held at Omega Institute, September 11-13, 2009.

I’m so, so happy to be in this room. I would not be in any other room in the world. I thank you so much, I thank Omega for bringing us all together. I thank each of you who have taken time out of your busy lives to come here. Yes, indeed, I know that technology is important – but we are here and we are not texting, we are not isolated behind our computers – there’s a reason why we have all five senses [laughs]. We are in this room together. We have no idea what is going to be the most important thing about these days. Could be someone we meet here, could be a phrase we hear – we don’t know, we don’t know. We are on the verge.

And the reason we know that we are going to be able to learn, is because we are not all the same. You can’t learn from people who are exactly the same. Difference is the source of learning. Maybe we should put it on a t-shirt – “Difference is a Gift” so that we understand and don’t fear, so we are able to go up to the person most different from us and ask them the question we most fear asking. So really we can expand and learn.

I think the challenge of this weekend, and the challenge of our lives, is to learn from difference, and at the same time, in perfect balance with difference, understand that we are all human in an universal sense. We live in a world of either/or. We’re trying to make a world of and. So it is about shared humanity in perfect balance with difference. And I hope this weekend we think not only about difference in conventional labels, but in terms of uniqueness. Each one of us in unique. Because the truth of the matter is that the individual is more different from the next individual than a group is from a group. There are more differences between two individual females, or members of the same ethnic group or race, than there are between males and females, or between races and ethnic groups. Each one of us in this room is a unique combination of millennia upon millennia of heredity and environment combined in a way that could never have happened before and could never happen again. And anybody who has ever met a baby knows there’s a person already in that baby – right? And our job as the parents and families and allies of children, is to help them become who they are already are.

I always think of it in terms of flowers in a way – you know, that somebody is an iris or a petunia, and trouble comes when you try to make them into a rose or lilac – you just get an unhappy iris or petunia [laughs]. So the question is – what is this unique wisdom, who is the guide who is inside us, and can we see the uniqueness of each individual whether or not it confirms to any of the labels. I think the role of individual differences - it’s so in us – or the role of labels I should say – is so in us that it’s hard to get rid of. And I notice that so much of the research money now is going into sex differences and gender differences, that of course they are finding differences. [audience laughs] They used to do it with race, and they got shamed out of it, but now they’re doing it with sex.

So I think it’s interesting to look at some of the prophets of human possibilities that have sometimes come out of tragedy. You know, people who have what is called “multiple personality disorder” – which just means that they were the subject of such profound, deep, sadistic abuse – usually from people on whom they were totally dependent, with no alternatives – that they split off other personas to whom this was not happening. It is an incredibly genius, creative, survival tactic. And the process produces personalities that are separated off, and that often are different genders. Because perhaps a little boy is being sexually abused by a male, and so invents the female in order to make that OK. Or a little girl is being abused, and there is such a prohibition against anger from females that she invents a boy, she splits off into a boy in order to express her deep, profound anger. But for whatever reason, there are, generally, in my experience, people who have had to use this survival technique, have personas of different gender.

And what’s so interesting is that when they switch in a millisecond, not out of their will but because of some trigger in the environment that reminds them of the abuse usually – but when they switch from one gender to the next – what many of the things we think of as male/female and gendered, switch too: right brain/left brain patterns, in fact people can switch from having poor eye sight to having better eye sight, which just has to do with blood sugar, the same thing can happen because of other diseases. They switch their pulse rate, their response to various medications – in a millisecond! In the same person. They are prophets of human possibilities.

And I wonder too if many of the people who are showing us, and perhaps can show us at this conference, if you’re in this room, who pass on from one gender to the next, are also prophets of human possibilities. I must say – I have to say, that it is one of my age shocks to get into a meeting and have the first subject be “How are we are going to define a woman for this meeting?” [laughs]

And I also must say that I am in favor of changing society to fit people, not changing people to fit society. But the fact is that we all find whatever solution we can. And I think we have prophets of human possibilities among us that have come about because of cruelty and punishment and restriction, who know that our humanity is shared. Who know that the labels are really quite artificial.

This may seem trivial to you, but it didn’t seem trivial to me, that in my generation only women were supposed to type – I bet a lot of us remember that. There actually were studies, and only we had fine motor skills [audience laughs] – it was absolutely clear that men could not type. [audience laughs] And then computers came along, and voila! [laughs] Suddenly the men could – it always seems to be a great proof that people can indeed change. [audience laughs]

But I do think we need to think about this, because I don’t want us to get into the situation of romanticizing females. Of romanticizing biology. The truth is that all the so-called feminine values that we crave and that we need to develop, as Elizabeth [Lesser] said so brilliantly, are also present in men. We all have the full circle of human qualities. It may be that men need to become more expressive, more empathetic, more nurturing – that’s their progress. And we need to become more daring – that’s our progress. But we are each trying to complete the full circle of humanity.

And I also hope we understand deeply, deeply, deeply, that race is a fiction [audience claps] – that we made it up! There’s a brilliant document called “The Journey of Man” – I immediately of course wanted to know why is it called “The Journey of Man?” [laughs] Turns out they followed the male of the DNA, but anyway, it shows the original cultures in Southern Africa, from which all of us came – every, single one of us, has as our common ancestors the people of Southern Africa, now called the Quay and the San, the so-called bush people, and so on, who then migrated around there. And then it shows with DNA trails exactly how they migrated around the world. And shows you – I don’t think it’s possible – I would like to think it’s not possible to see this and still come out a racist. Because it’s so clear that race is an adaptation, to climate, and to conditions, and to food supply. And that if we went to a place that was cold, we got to be shorter because the body has to be heated by the heart, and so we got shorter. If we went to places where there was not enough sunshine and we desperately need vitamin D, our skins got lighter - that all of these adaptations were relatively minor, and yet we have built this huge, huge fiction upon them.

So I just want to kind of say that to give us a sense of possibilities. You know, to get us out of thinking of each other as categories – including generational categories. It’s important, it’s crucial. It’s part of us, we need to respect it in each other, we need to listen to each other, but it is just another category. Because the truth is that some mothers are actually younger than their daughters. Because those mothers, through no doing their own, came from generations or cultures where they weren’t allowed to take responsibility for their own lives or to develop their own talents. That might be especially true for those of us who are older here because our mothers were perhaps – we are living out the unlived lives of our mothers. And I was thinking that, but then I heard the young woman from Haiti – she is living out the dreams of her mother too.

So when I hear other young women now say, “I hope I can have as interesting a life as my mother,” it is so moving to me. Because what that means is that her mother lived her own life. And it’s honorable for us to live out our mother’s lives. My mother was a writer and a journalist who could not do the work she loved – I am sure I am living out much of her life, and that’s good. But it should also be possible for each individual woman to live out her own life so that her daughter doesn’t feel that she must do that, that she must compensate in some way.

And on the other hand, some daughters are younger than their mothers were at the same age. Because their mothers had to enter the adult world, and earn their own livings and they were single mothers, while the daughters can stay in college or graduate school until they’re 30 [laughs] and only then have the culture shock of having to pick up and pay for their own dry cleaning [laughs]. So the whole idea of generations is suspect unless we also look at the individual differences.

My generation said, “I’m not going to be anything like my mother,” so it is especially moving to me to hear young women say, “I hope I can have as interesting a life as my mother.” It brings tears to my eyes. Some of us were forced into motherhood too early, and spent the rest of our lives trying not to get pregnant, while others were forced out of motherhood by an un-family-friendly, male-oriented work world, and then spent years trying to get pregnant. Some of us have no guilt or reluctance whatsoever to fight against male privilege and dominance because we come from a race and a class where the guys are dominating other people too, so we don’t have a qualm in the world about it, we understand it’s a good thing. But on the other hand, some of us don’t want to disclose poor treatment or even violence, because we know the men in our families are suffering, as undocumented immigrants or there are men who are in danger of joining the one in twenty African American men who are in prison – one in twenty. I am sure we all know that this country imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other country on Earth. And that it’s all about race, and it’s all about class, and it’s all about the cult of masculinity, and it’s all about profit – it’s the prison industrial complex. There are corporations making profit from those prisons.

But if we listen to each other’s stories, and we figure out what changes will help the biggest number of people, then we come out with both better changes, and more community. I mean one obvious example is that so-called population control came to be called “reproductive freedom,” in part because a pioneer of the great civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer has been sterilized without her knowledge while being treated in a Mississippi hospital. And so involuntarily sterilization became a cause of the feminist movement even before criminalized abortion. So it didn’t make sense to call it population control, we began to call it reproduction freedom, as a fundamental human right. And that makes better sense for everybody, including the woman who had children early and doesn’t want to have more. And the woman who suffered from the non-family-friendly policies and was not able to have children. We are trying to make reproductive freedom a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech. And the reason it came about, the reason it’s inclusive, is because we listen to each other.

Another obvious example is that women of color knew best of all that racism and sexism were intertwined, and absolutely cannot be uprooted separately, they can only be uprooted together. And that cast a light on the historical truth that white women, in order to maintain so-called racial purity, and without a visible difference or racial purity, racism itself begins to disappear, that white women also had been profoundly restricted by racism. And together we began to figure out that wherever one group of women is sexually restricted, another is sexually exploited. We only found that out by listening to each other and learning from each other.

Racism affects women of color and white women differently, but it affects all women because our bodies reproduce racism. And that’s why we are controlled as the means of reproduction. So if we understand that, it makes us allies, right? We know that we are acting out of our own enlightened self-interest. It makes us reliable allies. And, of course, old. Old. Seventy-five. I’m seventy five. [audience applauds] You see, when you get to be seventy-five, you can just get a hand for just saying your age! [laughs] I don’t know how I got to be seventy-five either, you may like to think you’ll know when you’re seventy-five – no, you’re as shocked as anyone else [laughs]. But old is the one category that we’ll all be part of if we’re lucky. So I hope it’s hopeful for me to stand up here and say that I’m seventy-five [audience applauds] and I’m planning to live to be at least 100. And I have lots of lots of different periods of my life, all of them unexpected, so I hope that my standing up here might help women of fifteen or twenty-five or thirty-five who think that you have to be totally successful and everything you want to be by the time you’re thirty, or at least forty, in learning that. And I know it helps me enormously when young women are [tape breaks off here in mid-sentence – and picks up here on 2nd tape]….Wrong. Not true, not true and I hope that we can help each other in learning that.

And I know it helps me enormously when young women are pushing my horizons, are helping me to learn. It helps me to become more “platform agnostic” - a phrase I learned from young women, right? I know it makes me very happy when I have dinner with a twenty-three-old woman from Facebook, and I say to her, “Well, what are you doing in New York.” And she says, “Oh, I’m trying to help The New York Times.” [audience laughs] That made me happy for about three days! [laughs] So, what is keeping us apart? Well, it’s partly just categories, and it’s partly that we have a very age-segregated society, you know? But also, we have generalizations and stereotypes about each other. Now, it isn’t that – I mean, every generalization and stereotype is true some of the time, right? But I would say that the ones we have about each other are not true most of the time. And they’re mostly due to the media that generalizes, instead of telling our individual stories. So about young women, the stereotype is that they’re ungrateful and inactive. This is utter bullshit in my experience [audience cheers]. I’m sure it’s true some of the time, because of course, you know, you have to experience what’s wrong before you know that it’s wrong, right? So, women do get more radical as we get older, just because we have more experience, but in fact young women have a pretty good bead on what’s wrong, in the majority. And the stereotype clearly does not fit the majority.

So here’s some ammunition, given to me by Shelby Knox who was the young woman who stood up in the row here, by a young woman who knows what ammunition is: In the 2004 Presidential election, young women were more likely to believe that not enough attention was being given to women’s issues – more likely than older women. Prevention of violence against women, sixty-nine percent of younger women said that there was not enough attention to violence against women, and only forty-six percent of us older women – and this younger and older is usually before thirty and after thirty. Sixty-seven percent of younger women said not enough attention goes to achieving equal pay, while only fifty-five percent of older women said so. Women’s equality under the law – sixty-five percent of younger women said not enough attention was paid to that, and only fifty-six percent of older women. I mean, the truth is, that more young women, in many surveys, count themselves as feminists, self-describe themselves as feminists, even with no description, than older women do. And yet, we are led to believe that the opposite is the case, right?

In 2006, EMILY’s List did a survey of women 18-80, about a lot of different electoral issues and social views and so on. And they broke it down into Gen Y, which was 18-27, Gen X, which was 28-43, and Boomers, which was 44-62, and Seniors – that’s me [laughs] – sixty-three and over. And here’s the shocking thing, there were a lot of similarities among all of those groups. Seventy-two percent of Gen Y women say they have different interests and concerns than older generations when it comes to choosing candidates – specifically they point to their heightened concern about the Earth, and the environment, and so on. Gen Y women are the only generation of women voters who express a net favorable view of the growing acceptance of gays, lesbians and same-sex unions – very smart, right? Eighty-four percent of all women have a favorable view of the increasing number of women entering politics and getting elected to important offices, including more than eighty-percent women of all four of those groups. I mean, these are views that unite us.

In general, I would say – this is a kind of terrible generality – but younger women are kind of smarter about their own issues than older women. Women of color are definitely smarter about voting their own self-interest than white women. It’s the ambition of my life to make white women as rebellious and smart [laughs] as women of color. Really – we’re the last group in this country who is still voting for people who don’t vote for us [audience claps]. If only white women had voted, McCain would be President by about two points [audience gasps]. There’s a big gender gap – white men were – with all deference to the white men here, who are exceptions to everything that I’m saying [laughs] – there’s a big gender gap, but that does not mean that we are by any means smart enough.

And three in four women voters say that sexism remains a serious problem for women. And, you know this is something that unites women across the generations. So, I think it’s counter-intuitive, for the most part, and we need to remember that.

Now, what are the media stereotypes about older women that younger women believe that keep us apart. Well, I think that the greatest stereotype about older women is that we’re conservative. We’ll make them feel guilty, like they’re mothers. And when it comes to the women’s movement, that the second wave was only white and middle class. And these are all myths, actually. People who say to me that they’re appalled by young women running around with their midriffs and their belly buttons, and their belly button rings exposed and so on. They say, “You know, aren’t you shocked by that?” And I say, “Well, but I was wearing miniskirts and a button that said ‘c--t power’.” [laughs and audience applauds]

And is the women’s movement racist? Yes, the country is racist, but it happens that the women’s movement was – I mean, just talking about the second wave, this wave is even more so – but even the second wave was much more representative and inclusive than any other social justice movement in the country. And I think we need to say this, we need to say this because when we give ownership of the women’s movement to white, middle-class women by believing that that was the nature of the second wave, we are making invisible Fannie Lou Hamer, the part of her life that struggled for reproductive justice. We are making invisible the National Black Feminist Organization which met in 1973 – 1973, huge national conference led by Eleanor Holmes Norton, Flo Kennedy, Margaret Sloan, Eileen Hernandez. We’re making invisible Jean Shinoda Bolen, an Asian American feminist, we’re making invisible Dolores Huerta. We’re making invisible the National Welfare Rights Organization that taught me feminism because they did this amazing analysis of the welfare system as being like a gigantic husband [laughs] that was jealous and looked for men’s shoes under your bed and so on and so forth. I mean, and this was in 1969, I think.

When we say that the say that the second wave, when we believe – as the media has always said to disqualify us - that the second wave was all white, middle class, when we believe that, we render invisible hundreds and hundreds of women of color who were there and who were always there. Toni Cade Bambara – we can all call out the names, right? So we need to, while understanding that racism is there, we need to also challenge the stereotypes of each other because they keep us from seeing the individual truth.

So I’ve made a few guidelines here. I would say, well, first of all, watch out for those media stereotypes – always remember you’re dealing with a person not a group. Very, very important.

Second, talk as much as you listen, and listen as much as you talk. Now, usually older women have more power than younger women – not always, but usually. So it is especially important for older women to listen as much as we talk.

Mentoring is a good word, but it sounds like a one-way street. So, I think maybe we should have a different word because it is definitely a two-way street. Everybody knows that we learn, and everybody knows that relationships don’t work so well, if they’re not equal. This is not a parental relationship, it is a partner relationship. Whenever you are in a group, in a meeting, or wherever it is, and everybody is within a decade or so of each other’s age, ask yourself if there is a good reason for this. We’re past the stage when there should be only one younger person on the Board – just like we’re past the stage when one woman on a Board full of men is enough. And just like we’re past the stage when one person of color on a white Board is enough – we need more than one young woman on decision-making groups and structures.

I think we should pay attention to bell hooks’ wonderful shoe-buying rule – if you buy shoes together, you can be activists together [laughs] – we have to know each other. You know, who do we go to the movies with? Who do we hang out with? Because words mean something different depending on the person who says them, right? And we have to know each other, because otherwise we will continue to misunderstand each other.

So if you folks under thirty or under twenty are going to hear new music, ask an older friend along. You know, I seriously damaged my hearing [laughs] but it was fun! [laughs] If you older women are going to a really interesting meeting with a lot of accomplished people, ask a younger friend with you. And just don’t do things unless you are taking a companion. Be authentic. No role playing. No being the daughter and the mother. This isn’t about family, this is about partnership, this is about learning from each other. Make sure you are both getting something out of it. If one person expects gratitude, there is probably a problem with the relationship.

Watch the language. We have been given phrases like “passing the torch.” Why is there only torch I would like to know? We each have a torch. Am I giving up the torch? Not on your life! [laughs] But I’m helping other people light their torches.

Exchange what you have for what you need. You have a spare room? You know, you’re an older person so you actually have a place to live [laughs] – you know what housing and money is like – invite a young person who needs a place a live to stay there. You’ll get fantastic computer skills [laughs]. Bond on your real interests, don’t pretend. And remember that you are both giving each other the same gift in different ways, which is the future.

We have some discussion time, and I can’t resist laying on you one organizing idea. But I will leave that for the discussion time and look forward to learning from you, other guidelines, other ideas, of how we can unite across difference, learn from difference, realize humanity, and make a fan-f--kin’-tastic revolution. [audience cheers]

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