Consider it a sign of the times that Gloria Steinem, the feminist firebrand who has spent nearly five decades fighting the establishment, has lately been lauding centrist Republicans like Governor Charlie Baker as the greatest hope for politics.
On a swing through Boston this week, Steinem urged Baker and his Illinois counterpart, Governor Bruce Rauner, to fill the leadership gap of a divided GOP, saying direction is needed “if the Republican party is going to rescue itself, and thereby rescue the Democrats,” who are mirroring the GOP’s extremism with a tug of war to the left.
In the meantime, she said, no one is representing the perspective of most Americans.
“Trump represents the majority view on nothing,” she said.
Steinem, the most recognizable face of the feminist movement since the 1970s, was in Boston to receive a leadership award from the Victim Rights Law Center, the nation’s first nonprofit law center to focus on sexual assault survivors. That same day, Harvard University hosted US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had angered assault survivors by rescinding the Obama administration’s guidelines for how colleges should investigate sexual assault.
Steinem blasted DeVos’s reversal of the assault policy as “wrong. It’s just 100 percent wrong.”
“I guess she’s protecting a president known to assault women,” Steinem said, alluding to claims raised against President Trump before the election and his own statements, captured on video, about groping women.
In a backhanded compliment, she credited DeVos for speaking at the liberal Harvard campus.
“I have to say, this is the first thing she has ever done that made me have any feeling of respect for her — that she showed up at Harvard, where she knows she has no support,” said Steinem.
In a wide-ranging interview, Steinem touched on everything from the origins of the Taliban to this week’s announcement that director Julie Taymor is planning a biopic of Steinem’s life. Originally a journalist and a founder of Ms. magazine, Steinem acknowledged the discomfort of being on the opposite side of the lens.
“I figure I have spent all my life asking other people to tell their stories,” said Steinem. “So if somebody asks me, it’s only fair.”
At a time when many women fear an erosion of their rights, Steinem sees room for optimism in states like Massachusetts and Illinois, where Democratic-led legislatures are trying to head off federal changes to reproductive rights law with state protections.
Massachusetts legislators on Tuesday begin considering a bill that would require insurers to provide birth control, without copayments, if the Trump administration overturns the five-year-old federal mandate on contraceptive coverage, as expected.
In Illinois, the governor on Thursday signed a law that will protect abortion rights even if Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized them, is overturned. That law also allows for Medicaid funding to be used to pay for abortions in Illinois, reversing a state measure that mimicked the federal Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortion.
In Massachusetts, women on Medicaid have the right to a state-funded abortion, as a result of a high court ruling. But a group of conservative activists has launched a petition for a constitutional amendment barring it — a longshot effort could appear on the ballot in 2020 if it wins the support of the Legislature.
After a bruising year in politics, which saw Hillary Clinton, the nation’s first female major party presidential nominee, defeated by a man who bragged about forcibly kissing women, Steinem was not entirely surprised. She was surprised other people were surprised.
“All politics is gender,” she said in a twist on the classic take by the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s line, who said all politics is local.
But Steinem sees a reason for hope, particularly in the surge in public activism, which began with the largest-ever protest marches by women the day after Trump’s inauguration and continued into this weekend’s March for Black Women in Washington, D.C., where she was planning to appear. She also cited the outpouring of citizens who rushed to airports in January to help those affected by the administration’s planned travel ban for visitors from Muslim countries.
“This unelected president, who represents, at the most, a third of the country, is at the levers of power and he is not a responsible human being. He is not an adult,” Steinem said. “That’s the bad news. The good news is that this has awakened ... the majority of the country in a way I’ve never seen and activated the majority in a way I’ve never seen.”
Her perspective is also a benefit of aging, said Steinem, who is now 83.
Even in this trying time for women, she can remember times that were worse.