It has been 40 years since Gloria Steinem delivered the commencement address at Simmons College, and when the political activist and founder of Ms. magazine returns to the school on Friday to speak about feminism today, she’ll discuss issues that are as much in the spotlight now as they were in 1973 — maybe more so.
Steinem’s Boston visit comes at a time when many of society’s most charged topics still revolve around challenges faced by women. Whether it is Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and her new book urging working women to “Lean In,” or Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting, a decision that hits working mothers especially hard, or the culture’s interest in the complex lives of twentysomethings as portrayed in HBO’s “Girls,” the old issues linger.
In fact, much of Steinem’s Watergate-era speech sounds as if it could be written today: “If we look at a marriage in which both a husband and a wife are working outside the home and we see that the wife is still more responsible for taking care of the children and the house, for doing the work of that house, then we understand now that it’s politics,” Steinem said back then.
In 2013, what still needs to happen? Steinem, a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and, at 78, still an activist for social justice, boiled down her message to just a few words.
“Here’s a skeleton key to what has to change,” she said on the phone from New York. “Women still require an adjective and males don’t. There is a ‘novelist’ and a ‘woman novelist,’ [as there is a] ‘doctor’ and a ‘black doctor.’ ”
Though decades have passed since Steinem, a Smith College graduate, first emerged on the national stage as a campaigner for women’s rights, her message still resonates. It was Simmons’ students who selected Steinem as keynote speaker for this week’s Women’s History Month address. The title of her talk? “The F Word: Feminism Today.”
“Gloria Steinem is the perfect person to help our community navigate the important topics of women’s history, the women’s movement, and how we can impact the future,” said Simmons president Helen Drinan.
Steinem, a native of Toledo, Ohio, became a leader of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s while living in New York and writing on issues affecting women, including abortion rights. Steinem, who had an abortion at age 22, has said her life as an activist began while covering a 1969 abortion speak-out for New York magazine.
That issue, along with many others, still remain at the forefront of the American political debate. As for the seemingly never-ending conversation about the challenges facing working mothers, Steinem said the discussion continues because it’s still not broad enough.
“If you have that discussion without discussing national policy, and without discussing fathers, you can’t possibly have a discussion. To discuss it as if it only involves women as individuals, and does not involve national policy, is to make scapegoats out of women.
“Maybe we should refuse to discuss it all until the discussions include all parents,” Steinem said. “I can testify based on my own experience that when I talk about children, people hear ‘mothers.’ They don’t hear ‘fathers.’ ”
Steinem took the issue one step further, noting that family-work issues are not exclusive to parents of young children, and certainly not just to mothers.
“More people take time off because of having to take care of elderly parents than caring for children,” she said. “This is a much larger issue. What is most destructive is to discuss this as if it was a woman’s problem.”
The freedom to work from home is also not a women’s issue — many men telecommute, too — but Mayer’s new rule at Yahoo against it was seen as a slap by many working mothers, particularly since Mayer is the mother of a young child, and had a nursery built right next to her office.
“In that [2012 PBS Makers Series] documentary [Mayer] says she is not a feminist,” Steinem said. “When I saw it, I didn’t know if she meant she’s really not a feminist, or she misunderstood what a feminist was, or she was fearful of criticism. I don’t know people’s inner processes.
“But once she canceled the working-at-home policy, I thought, she really isn’t a feminist. I’m not saying she doesn’t have a reason [to require people to work at the office]. She was trying to create a better sense of community. But you do have to give people a choice. It is not true that all women identify with other women. We’re not talking about biological determinism here — it’s a state of mind.”
At the same time, Steinem said that criticism levied against Facebook’s Sandberg is unfair. Many women have seen the book — which, among other things, takes issue with why more women aren’t making it to the top of corporate America — as an unwanted admonition to work even harder. But Steinem believes Sandberg is being attacked because she’s a woman in power, something that still makes some people of both sexes uneasy.
“Even Hillary Clinton had to lose to be liked,” Steinem said of the former New York senator’s 2008 presidential run. “I’m oversimplifying, but it’s unfair that men have to succeed to be loved, and it’s equally unfair that women have to fail to be loved.’’
Steinem sees in the Sandberg book some of the same issues and ideas that have been at the heart of the women’s rights movement since the 1970s.
“I would say the most radical thing in [Sandberg’s] book, and perhaps in the long run the most important, is that she suggests that fathers can equally raise children and can be equal at home,” Steinem said. “I have not seen that in the coverage of her book. Maybe I’ve missed it. She also says the most important career choice you will make if you want to have children is who your partner is. I don’t see that discussed either.”
Steinem took a moment from discussing the political to talk about the personal.
In 2003, her husband of three years, David Bale, the father of actor Christian Bale, died of brain lymphoma.
“I would say the biggest change for me was to live 100 percent in the present,” she said.
“When the present is an emergency, or when you’re not sure of the future, you need to live intensely in the present. In the rest of my life, I have tended to live in the future.”