It has been more than 20 years since Gloria Steinem’s last book. Please forgive her: She hardly has time to sit still and write. At 81, she remains a tireless speaker and organizer, traveling the world, helping to keep the women’s movement going. Those travels form the backbone of her new book, My Life on the Road, out this week, a collection of essays on her experiences in places like India and taxicabs alike, full of insights that remind us why she is one of the leading feminists of our time.
I had a chance to sit down with Steinem in New York at her Upper East Side apartment, where she has lived since the late 1960s. Her home reflects her nomadic spirit, decorated with mementos from near and far and with plenty of comfy places to sink in and sit for a while.
Leung In your book, you wrote something about the 2008 presidential election that shocked me: “Though Obama was younger, with less national, international and Senate experience than Hillary, I still thought it was too soon for the country to accept a woman commander-in-chief.”
I found myself squealing: How can Gloria Steinem be saying this? Explain yourself.
Steinem Because we are raised mostly by women, we associate female authority with nurturing and emotion. For a lot of us, including some women, the idea of a female authority in public life, in the world at large, feels inappropriate and even frightening, just because we haven’t seen it. We as human beings do what we see — much more than what we are told.
So I thought that there had not been enough women in public life at a very high level, especially in this country. It just seemed to me impossible.
Leung You were right, but you still supported Clinton and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about that.
Steinem For the first year, when people said to me “Are you supporting Obama or Clinton?” I would say “yes.”
Of course, we all have to make a decision. And I decided to support Clinton, even though I did not believe she could win, because she had, by far, more experience — especially with the ultra-right wing.
Even though Obama had experienced racism that Hillary had not, nonetheless he didn’t seem to know the right wing as much. And I think we saw that in the first two years in his presidency when he had a majority in Congress and did not move as much as he might have. I identify with him. I think he fears conflict. I also fear conflict.
Steinem I do. You just use what you have, so it makes me a negotiator, a peacemaker, because I don’t like conflict. And [Obama], I believe, from observation, doesn’t like conflict either. And, therefore, he was constantly trying, in a good way, in an admirable way, to reach out to the ultra-right wing. And he did not understand, because he had not had the experience, that they will not budge. As you can see after eight years of Obama, if they had cancer and he had the cure, they wouldn’t accept it.
Leung What about now? Do you think the country is ready for a female president?
Steinem Yes, I do. I think just barely.
Leung What’s changed?
Steinem Well, we have seen more women in positions of power in other countries, in public life in different ways. We’ve had years and years of great people like [US Representative] Maxine Waters from California. We could go through the list.
Leung Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Senator Elizabeth Warren . . .
Steinem Right. Women in power in an admirable way in Congress, and we have had the vision of Hillary herself as secretary of state, being internationally effective, which was very important, because people otherwise were regarding her as a domestic figure, both because she had been first lady and because she was a senator.
Leung But Hillary has had this e-mail scandal engulfing her campaign.
Steinem The e-mail scandal is completely trumped up. What was the one before that?
Leung There was a Whitewater, there was Benghazi.
Steinem You will notice that Benghazi has dropped off the map because exactly the same forces and the same money have focused on e-mail. Nothing has changed. They focus on one thing at a time and try to destroy her. That’s not going to stop. She did nothing wrong in the e-mail situation. She obeyed all the rules that were in place at the time. They are holding her accountable retroactively for rules in the future. It makes no sense. But this is not going to end.
Leung So will she survive and be the nominee?
Steinem I don’t know. But I think she could. Now I think it’s possible.
Leung So what would it take for Hillary Clinton or the other female candidate, Carly Fiorina, to win or to move up in the primaries?
Steinem Well, I don’t want Carly Fiorina to win. Are you kidding me? It’s like, do African-Americans support Clarence Thomas? There is always somebody who looks like you and behaves like them and who has been chosen by them. It’s significant that [Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas was chosen by [President George H.W.] Bush, and Carly Fiorina was chosen by a white male corporate world.
Leung What would it take for Hillary to be president?
Steinem What it takes is us getting off our asses and voting. I believe we still have among the lowest voter turnouts of any democratic, modern country.
Leung All of America? Not just men, women, everybody?
Steinem Yes, everybody . . . we need voters of color and female people. For instance, if you look at the trajectory of Sarah Palin, you can see some of the same thing with Carly Fiorina because Sarah Palin was supported way more by men than by women. I mean we are not stupid. We know who’s standing up for us and who’s selling us out.
Leung I write a lot about gender issues, but what I don’t hear is my generation calling themselves feminists. Do you worry women think we’re in a post-feminist age and there’s no need to think about feminism?
Steinem That is utter [expletive]. That is just the adversaries saying that. Listen, the same people who were saying to me 30 years ago or even 40 years ago, you are going against nature, against religion, against Freud, [are now] saying, “Well, it’s over.” It’s just a new form of obstructionism. It has no relationship to reality.
I will give you one example: You already know all the statistics about unequal pay, unequal wealth by distribution of sex. In fact, if women were paid equally, it would be the biggest economic stimulus for this country — more than $400 billion would come into the economy every year. Women are going to spend it. We are not going to put it in a Swiss bank account.
So let me say one other thing, which is that because of violence against women, cumulatively around the globe — domestic violence here, which is huge, female infanticide in India and in China, female genital mutilation, there is so much sexualized violence in war zones, and childbirth is one of the biggest causes of death among teenage girls worldwide — if you add up all of those facts, there are now fewer females on earth than males.
So tell me the women’s movement is over.
Leung You gave the commencement speech at Smith College, your alma mater, in 2007. You asked students to get active. What is one thing every woman can do to continue the women’s movement?
Steinem It’s not for me to dictate one thing. The obvious things are to vote. The voting booth is the only place on earth where the least powerful equal the most powerful. To use our dollars in a way that reflects our views and our self-interests. Buy education, not breast implants, and don’t patronize or matronize businesses like Walmart that do us in.
Here’s the basic thing: Stop worrying about what we should do and start doing whatever we can.
Leung One thing I had forgotten until I read your book was that you not only fought for women’s rights, but you were also a big civil rights activist.
Steinem How could you not be? They cannot be fought separately. It is absolutely impossible and perhaps the single most destructive thing the press has done to the women’s movement is to depict it as white and middle class. Women of color have always been in the leadership.
Leung So what do you make of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Steinem I’m not intimately involved, but what I know of it, it’s absolutely great and gives me faith in the future. You know they were founded by three young women.
Leung I didn’t know that! All the coverage is about black men being shot by cops.
Steinem What else is new? Of course, they should have coverage, but so should the women who are oppressed.
Leung Your new book is dedicated to the London doctor who performed an abortion on you when you were 22. It really sets the tone for the rest of the book. Tell me a little bit about Dr. John Sharpe.
Steinem As I say in the dedication, he asked me to promise two things: that I wouldn’t tell anyone his name, and that I would do what I wanted to do with my life. So I didn’t tell anyone his name for decades.
Leung I wonder if he ever knew about the great things that you went on to do.
Steinem I don’t know, but I am so grateful to him. It’s also proof of the fact that this is the basic issue of inequality between women and men: reproduction. Unless you and I can control our physical selves from the skin in, we can’t control our lives from the skin out. It’s a fundamental human right.
Leung Did you read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In? Some women feel empowered by it, some women feel disenfranchised by it.
Steinem Women are punished for being powerful because it’s unfeminine. I feel she was wrongly punished. Nobody writes a universal book. There is no universal book. We are all going to have our own experience. She did two very important things: One, she said that you have to form a group. She understands that humans are all communal, and you can’t act for very long by yourself. And two, she said if you want to have children, the single most important career decision you will make is who your partner is.
Leung Do you know her?
Steinem I know her quite well. She realized the depth of the need for feminism later in her life because she was incredibly smart and always had the support of a very powerful man.
Leung I also write about the lack of women on corporate boards. A bunch of European countries have passed quotas. You think that’s what needs to happen in the US?
Steinem It would help. Quotas have always helped wherever they’ve been. Not completely, but in India, for instance, they’ve been generally successful. The problem with quotas is that you may in the beginning have men in charge who will say: “You want a woman? I’ll give you a woman.” And then you get their cousin.
Leung Or you get their wives.
Steinem The resistance to it here is because if it was a quota based on sex, it would have to also be based on race or it wouldn’t be fair.
Leung In your book, you talk about visiting Boston about 40 years ago and an old Irish woman driving a taxi told you this: “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!” And that’s a line you have used over and over again. She’s probably not alive, but I’m curious about who she was. Do you remember anything more about her?
Steinem I looked at the license and saw that it was an Irish name. And I’m so mad that I didn’t write it down.
Leung In your new book you write that you have spent at least half your life traveling.
Steinem The most unexpected trip I took this year was to walk across the DMZ between North and South Korea.
Leung Why were you there?
Steinem Korean-American women and some South Korean women organized a global delegation of 30 women to go to North Korea and then walk across the DMZ. Citizens of North and South Korea can’t. So in a way, we were doing it on their behalf. It is the last relic of divisions of the Cold War. It still divides families.
We were concerned that the people born, especially in both North and South Korea, now might think it was permanent because it’s been there for more than 60 years, even though it was only supposed to be for six months. It was an armistice.
Leung Oh, I didn’t know that.
Steinem There were supposed to be peace talks, and there never were. But this group of women was extraordinary. There was Leymah Gbowee from Liberia — one of the leaders of this huge movement of Christian and Muslim women that came together to say “enough already,” because Liberia was governed by warlords. In the case of Liberia, women made peace where governments could not or where the international community was not doing anything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
BOOK SIGNING On November 4 at 7 p.m., the Harvard Book Store hosts Gloria Steinem for a book signing and discussion with Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action & the Media, at First Parish Church in Cambridge. Tickets are $28.75 and include a copy of Steinem’s new book. 617-661-1515, harvard.com/events