Gloria Steinem was a young journalist working for New York Magazine in 1968, a few years before the U.S. Supreme Court's 1975 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. She'd been sent to cover a meeting in a New York church, where women were sharing their personal experiences with abortion.
"For the first time in my life, I saw women standing up and telling the truth about something that was not supposed to be spoken of in public. The stories were moving, and I realized that one in three American women — then and now — needs an abortion at some time in her life. So why was it illegal and unsafe?" Steinem said. "I had an abortion when I was newly graduated from college and never told anyone. [This meeting] was a great moment of revelation."
Steinem soon became a trailblazer for women's equality and reproductive rights, eventually founding the feminist-themed Ms. magazine. Steinem has traveled the globe organizing and lecturing on women's equality, and she recently published a book — My Life on the Road — on those travels and the impact they've had on her life.
She'll be traveling to Memphis this month to speak at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region's (PPGMR) annual James Award ceremony at the Hilton Memphis on September 15th. That event will also serve as the local health services provider's 75th anniversary event.
Steinem took a few minutes to speak about the future of reproductive rights in the U.S., sexism in American politics, and her thoughts on gender identity in the feminist movement. — Bianca Phillips
Flyer: Abortion rights are being challenged in states across the country. Do you worry that Roe v. Wade could be overturned?
Gloria Steinem: We've been worrying about that ever since the decision. It would only take a couple of right-wing presidents appointing anti-choice Supreme Court justices to make that happen. There's a lot of resistance, even though the majority of Americans clearly believe that reproductive freedom is a fundamental human right.
Tennessee's Planned Parenthood organizations jointly launched the Tennessee Stories Project this year to give women a safe space to share their abortion stories online. That sounds like a virtual version of that meeting you attended in 1968.
There's nothing like the truth to help us realize that we are not alone, and it is crucial for women to be able to decide when and whether to have children. Whether or not we can make that decision is the biggest factor in whether we are educated or not, healthy or not, able to work outside the home or not, and determines how long we live. It's a human right.
Sexism seems to have dominated this presidential election. Are we moving backward?
[The equality movement] has been winning quite a lot, so there are waves of backlash. It's probably peaking in part because, in short order, this country will no longer be a majority European-American or white country. For people who were born into a system that told them that men were superior, white people were superior, and Christians were superior, it's very upsetting to understand that they are no longer in the majority, and they're fighting back.
Do you think America is ready for its first female president?
It's going to be very difficult, but it's been very difficult for President Obama, too. The right wing has been so hostile to him. If the right wing had cancer and he had the cure, they wouldn't accept it. They're just dead set against him. Similarly, the idea that a female human being should be the head of arguably the most powerful nation on Earth is offensive to people who believe in the hierarchy. I did not think in 2008 that this country could elect a woman. I do think we can and must now, but it's going to be hell.
What young women inspire you?
There are so many more feminists today than there were in my generation or the one that came afterwards. Think about the three young women who started Black Lives Matter [Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi] or Lena Dunham or America Ferrera. Sometimes I think I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born.
Where do trans women and non-binary women fit into the struggle for women's rights?
It seems to me to be all the same struggle. We invented the idea of gender. It doesn't exist. The old languages — Cherokee, Bengali, the oldest African languages — do not have he or she. They don't even have gendered pronouns. We're all trying to achieve a world where you are a unique individual and a human being.