The following is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by Gloria Steinem at the 3rd Annual Women & Power Conference, organized by Omega Institute and V-Day.
There is no place in the world that I would rather be than in this room with the women sitting with us, sitting next to us, reminding us of the fragility of flesh and the durability of the spirit. I am so proud of New Yorkers whose words are the most lasting words for me of 9/11. Our grief is not a cry for war.
I don’t know where that first came from, but it appeared on handmade signs all over the city, and it is in all of our hearts still. I’m proud of that. I’m ashamed of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, who have turned it into revenge and fear. The other cry from us at the time was why are we so hated. Remember? Why don’t they understand that they are making us more hated? They are increasing the likelihood of violence in the world, not decreasing it. But we are going to get rid of them. It’s no accident that all the posters say that women on their own — have you been reading all the surveys — are the key to this election. Because if women on their own had voted in the same proportion as married women, we would have been in an entirely different place in the last election. It is a question of whether or not we go to the polls. And I’m so proud of this conference for having voter registration right here in this room. And I want to thank Sobonfu Some, whom I haven’t met before today. But whose work was the source of a leap of consciousness — that’s supposed to be my theme today — new leaps of consciousness today for me — because it explained to me the difference between ceremony and ritual.
Ceremony is something that that is always the same that is dictated from above. Ritual is something that uses universal symbols and changes with every group that does the ritual. Isn’t that a kind of click of understanding? And I want to thank Elizabeth for her wisdom in choosing this particular time for me to speak. Because the friend I married, as she explained to you, who so loved this conference last year— he came to everything. He kept saying, you know, we must go back to the next conference.
And so I thought I would try to bring him into this room and ask each of you perhaps to think of a person in addition or the person whose name you said — but a person you want to describe to other people during the conference so you can bring that person with you. So I will, since I know I can’t — since I haven’t tried to do this before, I wrote a few words about David.
David walked lightly on this earth with few possessions, a great heart, and a rare ability to cross boundaries between people, countries, and even species. He tried never to pass a living thing in need, whether this meant stopping on the freeway to rescue a hurt animal, even just to set its body aside with a few words of respect, or relating to every overburdened mother in the street because he, too, had raised his own children. He had a gift for living in the present and forgiving others the love and the self-belief that he himself had missed as a child. There are others in this audience who love him. There are everyone in this audience with a loved one we can bring with us.
I have also just the little small assignment from Elizabeth of bringing you hope after grief. It’s true that hope is a form of planning. It's true that dreams are a form of planning. And so I thought about the 20, 30 years ago leaps of consciousness that came with the women’s movement that we have struggled ever since to fulfill, some more than others.
But that transformed us and made such a difference in our lives. I was going to try to immediately list some new leaps of consciousness, but then it dawned on me that now that I’m an elder, I should understand that not all of you were here for the first leaps of consciousness. Some, some were pretty basic, like women are whole human beings.
Which meant we had to admit that Freud and the Bible were wrong, which is no small thing. Some were pretty global, like the differences between two women or between two men are greater for every purpose other than reproduction. The single purpose of reproduction. But for 99 percent of life the differences between us as individual women or individual men are greater than the differences generalized between males and females. Like the sexual and racial caste system has to be fought together.
It is simply not possible to uproot them individually. Not only because women come in all races, but because a big motive for controlling women’s bodies as the most basic means of production, the means of reproduction, is to maintain racial difference, racial purity. And therefore, racist systems oppress women and it is necessary to free women to stop racist systems. They can only be uprooted together. Or like women aren’t more moral or less violent than men.
We just don’t have our masculinity to prove. And that is a fan-f---king-tastic advantage. Of course many of these are tragically still fresh, especially perhaps given the March of a million white men that we have just seen in this town called the Republican National Convention. Like we must still seize the means of reproduction because they are pushing us back even before the ‘50s with the Human Life Amendment that would declare the fertilized egg to be a legal person, thus effectively nationalizing women’s bodies throughout our child bearing years.
As our bodies could be legally searched, we could be detained if there was reasonable cause to think we might have an abortion — you know, it’s, it’s the hand maids tale. It’s a legal nightmare.
And I looked back to see when Robin Morgan and I had first written an article which itself was late on female genital mutilation, and it was 1979. So we could all list the ongoing concerns. Of course, some of our leaps of consciousness and realizations were kind of funny. Like our figuring out finally despite the term lesbian, man-hating lesbian — remember that term? It turns out; actually, it’s not lesbians that hate them. It’s women who live with men that hate men. Lesbians could kind of take it or leave it alone, you know.
And we had great slogans, like sink into his arms and you may end up with your arms in his sink. Like we’re becoming the men we wanted to marry.
All of us who wanted to marry a lawyer, a doctor, discovered we actually wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor.
Like wait a minute, there is no such thing as a vaginal orgasm and no wonder we’re pissed because we’ve been told we’re immature if we don’t have a kind of orgasm that doesn’t exist.
We used to have a sign at Ms. Magazine on the board that said it’s 10:00 o’clock at night. Do you know where your clitoris is? Well, I don’t think that I can provide insight today comparable to orgasm.
Although it is true that at my age, remembering something is as good as an orgasm. But some of them just kind of follow in a natural way. Remember becoming the men we wanted — some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry? Well, we figured out that not enough men are becoming the women they wanted to marry. And that is a next part of the revolution; right? We’ll always have two jobs until all the work of the home and the rewards of the home and child rearing are equally shared by women and men. Like yes, raising daughters more like our sons is a good thing. But how about raising our sons more like our daughters?
But a friend asked me — a friend who had been going to some women’s meetings and the subject of those meetings was what is the future? What’s next? What is new? What are the leaps of consciousness? And she said to me what would you say? And in that way the questions are precious because they help us to understand what we ourselves have been thinking and not said. I said well, I guess in a very general way I would say first we had dependence. And that was women’s classical role. And then we understood and celebrated and are still exploring independence. Absolutely crucial. It cannot be — we can’t do, we can’t progress without that. But probably when we’re ready the next step is interdependence.
Bella Abzug always used to say about nations and this country especially, we’ve had our Declaration of Independence. Now this country needs a declaration of interdependence. For example, Eve last night was talking about old and new paradigms.
Well, I would say that the old paradigm is both conquering nature and old style environmentalism that was about rescuing nature. As if we were its shepherds, we could make the decisions, we knew best. I think probably that interdependence is recognizing that we are part of nature rescuing ourselves. It’s giving up the idea that we have the answer for nature, and listening to what nature tells us. There were three stages — the same three stages, I suppose, as dependence equaling old women who need protection.
Now that I’m aging I feel this profoundly. That was the old idea. Then we had the independent idea, which is I am the same person I always was, only older. A kind of I’m going to go right on doing everything I’ve done before. Take that!
However, this is not progress, doing everything you’ve done before. Right?
So now I think we are on the verge of the third stage, which is I am a slightly different person who builds on the past and becomes even better, and more myself.
And we’re lucky to have the prophet of this realization with us today, Suzanne Brawn Levine, who’s here somewhere, whose book, Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, will be with us in December but we can talk to her during the conference. And who shows us that even neurological research supports this burst of growth after 50. But it shows that the brain after 50 begins to grow new synapses in much the same way as it did when we were teenagers.
So in the way we began to see things more globally as teenagers, we see the world as more connected and interdependent as we grow older. She has given us and we will have a whole new stage of life that has never been described before. We in our dependent stage we’re doing work in the home. In our independent stage we’re saying men have to do it, too. And, you know, let’s face it. We’re nowhere near even into this stage, much less through it. But I think at the same time we are beginning to understand that the work that is done in the home has to be counted as productive, important work in the world and given an economic value. 40 percent of the work in this country is—the productive work is done in the home and it is completely invisible in the gross national product.
Fortunately we have smart inventive feminists, like Theresa Funicello, who has figured out that we can attribute an economic value at replacement value of all the work done in the home, all the care giving, whether it is raising children or taking care of invalids, or taking care of AIDS patients or older parents — to give that an economic value and make it deductible from our income tax, if we are fortunate enough to make enough, to pay income tax. And if not, then it can become a subsidy, which would replace the disaster of welfare reform. It is a practical possibility and one that if you are interested in, you can look at a Web site called CareGiverCredit.org — it is a piece of legislation even in this conservative era that might be able to pass.
So at the same time that we are still trying to divide the work equally at home, to understand that we don’t have to be super women, we are also beginning to make leaps of consciousness that would be the single biggest economic change for women that this country or any country has ever seen.
We used to think that art is what men did in a kind of European tradition and it hung in galleries and cost a lot of money. Then we understood that women could be artists, too, and we try to enter those galleries and to do that work and be recognized for it. But I think in our third stage we understand that what women and natives do and that has been called crafts is also art. And we began to, to integrate the craft techniques and all the beauties of usable art, which always have been the traditions in Africa and many other—and the ancient times of this continent as well. And question the very definition of art.
We used to think in our dependent stage that childhood was a uniquely female concern. That somehow if we spent nine months baring and nurturing a child, that meant we were more responsible than men for the entirety of childhood. I think that that was the origin of my notion that logic is in the eye of the logician, because I began to think wait a minute. If we spent nine months or a year baring and nurturing a child, why are men not responsible for taking that much time taking care of the child. And of course it is not a burden we are inflicting, it’s a gift.
Because all the qualities that are wrongly called feminine are really only qualities necessary to raise children. Patience, nurturing, attention to detail, empathy.
And men develop them—men have them as much as we do. It’s unlibal on them to say that they don’t. When they are able to express them to children, they develop them within themselves. So we know in our independent stage that childhood is not a female concern. And we are learning that foreign policy is not a male concern.
That was sort of distance that—the further it was from the home, the more male it was. Have you ever noticed that?
So foreign policy was really male.
Those were our dependent and independent stages. But now we are beginning—just beginning to realize that child rearing is the greatest determinant of the foreign policy we will have. That what happens in the home, what happens to children is the single most important element in the kinds of society that—and whether or not we can have democracy. If children’s authority is not respected in the home, they will accept dictatorial leaders because that has been bred into them.
These two things are connected. I speak a lot on campuses and I have yet to find a campus where there is a course on government or political science or foreign policy or whatever it is called that even includes child rearing as an element. And yet it was the single most important reason why the former Soviet Union changed, because child-rearing methods changed.
It’s the single most important reason why Hitler was elected, because there were authoritarian families that made people feel—we can all cite many, many, many examples. But the interdependent stage is to understand that child rearing and forms of government and self-government are interdependent, are connected seamlessly. We began I think to go deeper in understanding gender. We've had a rash of books about mean girls, you know. About how girls are bullying each other.
And it’s very important that we acknowledge this. But not all the books seem to understand that the girls who are the bullies and the mean ones are the most feminine ones. They are the ones saying you have to have this kind of shoe, you have to have this kind of boyfriend, you have to wear your hair a certain way. They are the gender police. Just like the boys who are the bullies are the most masculine ones. It comes from gender. They are the people who take on society’s assignment of policing everybody else into those rolls. And I don’t think that that’s been enough a part of the analysis.
We also are—I think beginning to see forms of generational change that are very personal. I have noticed lately, for instance, again perhaps because I’m, you know, relating to women of my age who have daughters and even granddaughters, that we have several generations of women now in which the daughters are maybe 20, 30 years older than the mothers. Because of the way the women’s movement and our internal realizations have come along for what we’ve been able to do in the world, because that has changed.
Not because of the fault of the mothers or the virtue of the daughters, but because of external changes. It is often the case that mothers have not had to remain— that daughters have not had to remain girls all their lives in the way that some mothers were encouraged to do. It’s interesting, isn’t it? And if you begin to look, I think you see this phenomenon of daughters who are actually older than their mothers. And the mothers at a certain point, thanks to all the changes in the world, begin to be reborn themselves and begin to go out, go back to work, find what they love to do, whatever it is. And the daughters are proud of the mothers as if they were their mothers.
It’s so interesting. That the generations in fact turn out to be defined by experience and by autonomy and dreams and the ability to follow them rather than by age.
Now, this question of looking at gender is key to what we mourn today in terrorism. Because it is true of terrorists in general just as it is true of serial killers in this country or the senseless killings in this country. Think about who it is who has gone into schools and fast food restaurants and post offices and killed senselessly. That is, not for robbery — just for apparently no reason. When this happens in schools, we have had a lot of reporting that that starts out, 'what’s happening to our children?' It's so interesting how reporting becomes gender free at just the wrong moment.
It’s not our children who are doing this. Excuse me? It is 100 percent males. 100 percent white males. 100 percent middle class males or non-poor males. 100 percent heterosexual who are trying desperately to appear heterosexual males.
Given the different degrees of suffering in this country, it’s quite amazing that the people who suffer the least statistically speaking, are the ones most likely to kill. And it’s true of serial killers, too, who take pleasure in controlling and torturing others. They are 100 percent middle class white males. Why is that? Because they have through no fault of theirs, been the ones most likely to be raised with the maximum expectation of dominance. With the purist expression of the masculine role, the greatest idea that they will be able to control others and therefore the greatest susceptibility to frustration when they can’t and bursting out into these killing rages.
I’m not trying to do a single factor analysis, as they say, of this kind of killing. Obviously in each individual case there are many factors. But this seems to be the one common factor. And what’s interesting about — when we look at the terrorists — today incidentally at noon CNN is doing a documentary on the terrorists of 9/11 and other terrorists around the world because they have just discovered in shock that they — well, they don’t even comment, you know, about the masculine part. But that they are middle class and educated. And they have just figured this out. And I’m grateful that they have figured it out. But they are the people most vulnerable to believing that they have a right to control others and therefore most vulnerable to the frustrations when it turns out not to be the case. Are there female terrorists? Yes, of course. Look what has just happened in Russia. Yes, there are. And what’s interesting is it seems to follow the general pattern of gender that the mean girls and male bullies do. In other words, the female terrorists are the most feminine ones. They are doing it for their families. They are doing it for their fiancées. They have been excavated of their own will. And adopted this self-annihilating feminine role.
So I think once again what Olaf Palma, the great Swedish chief of state, himself killed by a terrorist eventually — I think what he said so long ago — and I profoundly wish we had a chief of state who was capable of saying this — that the gender roles are the deepest source of all violence that is not in direct self-defense and that every government has as its most basic responsibility - the duty of humanizing, eliminating the gender roles. I worry a little bit about describing the three stages this way of dependence, independence, and interdependence because of where we are, which is sort of staggering along somewhere between the 14th century and the 24th century. We’re all in different stages.
And talking about interdependence is almost dangerous for women. Because it’s so easy to believe that the connectedness that Carol Gilligan talks about so brilliantly — the empathy that we treasure is so easy to confuse it with dependence. It’s so easy to become empathy sick and know what other people are feeling better than we know what we ourselves are feeling. It’s bred so much in us.
So I just want to say again how important it is that we celebrate independence first. We can’t get to interdependence until we have experienced independence.
There’s no easy excuse allowed here, you know, that we can remain in childhood and call it progress.
We know in our hearts when we are speaking our true voices as we emphasize and Eve emphasized last night— we know, we know when we are speaking our true voices and not being dependent. But nonetheless, it truly is the stage for which we are all hoping and the stage for which men, too, are hoping. They get stuck in independence. We get stuck in dependence.
But all of us are striving for interdependence. People often say to me, isn’t it wonderful that you finally found someone you wanted to marry. And I never quite know how to respond because that isn’t it — it wasn’t that every other man was the wrong man. Nor was it that I was waiting. For something external. It’s we’re waiting for something in ourselves. We’re waiting to get to a place where we can become interdependent with another human being without giving up ourselves. We are waiting to give birth to ourselves. So on the way, it’s simple things that help us.
So I thought I would read you a short poem by Fran Wyant in closing.
As Jane Fonda would say, eat low on the food chain; right?
Have faith in women.
What I don’t know now
I can still learn.
If I am alone now
I will be with them later.
If I can be weak now
I can become strong.
Slowly, slowly, if I learn, I can teach others.
If others learn first I must believe they will come back and teach me.