By Kimberly Ilkowski
Arts & Entertainment Editor
True to form, when feminist icon and social activist Gloria Steinem visited the College on Wednesday, March 2, she split her time evenly between lecturing and leading an open discussion of ideas among herself and those in attendance. After all, Steinem is no stranger to bringing people together in their beliefs.
A mother of three teenage daughters was the first to address Steinem with her question, who did so eagerly.
“I often find that while I raise (my daughters) to be strong, powerful women, I lack the words and the wisdom you may have to encourage them to continue your work,” she said. “Where does the next generation of females start?”
To which Steinem aptly replied, “Wherever the hell they want it to.”
This first event in the celebration of Women’s History Month offered a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
“We have something very special today, which is about an hour and a half together in this room with a combination of people that has never happened before in exactly the same way and will never happen again in exactly the same way,” Steinem said. “If all goes well, I hope each of us leaves here with some new ideas, new organizing tactics, a new feeling of support, some new friends, some new colleagues, something that makes our lives better and makes the world better.”
Steinem, who turns 82 this month, was utterly captivating throughout her lecture, somehow making it feel like an intimate conversation between friends.
If there’s one thing Steinem is always asked, it’s where the women’s movement has been and where it will go. According to Steinem, that’s like saying, “Describe the universe and give two examples.”
It only made sense, Steinem said, to talk about the ideologies of past societies in order to understand the present and where we need to go in the future.
“The southern tip of India, Kerala, was a matrilineal, and perhaps was one of the few, matriarchal cultures, which means that it is still the most democratic. It still has the highest rate of literacy in India, and higher than in many other countries in the world, because it didn’t have that fundamental division, artificial division into masculine and feminine,” Steinem said. “So, wherever we look in the world, we see how basic this is, and it’s so basic that we kind of assume it, like there’s oxygen in the air. We don’t stop to think that it could really be different.”
Through examples such as Kerala, as well as early Native American settlements and tribal studies which Steinem touched upon in her lecture, it becomes clear that this way of thinking isn’t all that challenging.
“We get caught into feeling that how it is human nature, that it’s inevitable, that there has to be a gender difference, that there has to be a racial difference, that there has to be, in many ways, a hierarchy,” Steinem said. “But the paradigm of most of human history was not a pyramid, not a hierarchy — it was a circle. We were connected as human beings and to all living things. We were linked, we were not ranked.”
With the 2016 presidential race in full swing, as well as a landmark abortion case in Texas hitting the Supreme Court on the very same day as Steinem’s lecture, it further put into context the bigger picture of various groups’ desire to control reproduction, which means controlling women’s bodies.
Steinem referenced “Sex and World Peace” by Valerie M. Hudson, a book she said was worthy of the audience’s attention for its studies of modern countries’ sources of violence.
“It concludes that the single biggest element of whether a country is violent inside itself or will be violent and use military violence against civilians is actually not poverty, not access to natural resources, not religion or even degree of democracy — it’s violence against females,” Steinem said. “It’s not even that female life is any more important than male life. (It’s) because the command to control reproduction is the first political command.”
Steinem praised the College and many schools like it for offering courses in women’s and gender studies, African American studies and Native American studies, all things she did not have access to as an undergraduate student in the 1950s.
“A part of the way we’re going forward is learning every day,” Steinem said. “Nothing is more important than what you’re doing here today and that you do have courses that begin to make everyone visible, that begin to say, ‘The division of masculine and feminine is just wrong.’ There’s human, there is not masculine and feminine.”
With deep contentment, Steinem looked back at the early days of her activism, proudly stating that what once was a handful of “crazies” has turned into a majority mindset on the major issues.
“All of our social justice movements are connected to each other,” Steinem said. “When a movement first starts, it is absolutely crucial that those who were invisible can become visible and name ourselves and say what the problems are and rise up and have a voice.”
As her lecture wound to a close, there was one last powerful message Steinem wanted to leave with the audience, and so she read the dedication to her most recent book, “My Life on the Road.”
She said: “Dr. John Sharpe of London who, in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a 22-year-old American on her way to India.
“Knowing that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, ‘You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.’
“Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life.
“This book is for you.”