A career in journalism and advocacy that spans half a century has not only equipped 82-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem with a trove of accomplishments and wisdom, but also with a disarming sense of humor.
Despite the seriousness of her decades-long fight for women’s rights and gender equality, Steinem drew outbursts of laughter and applause from the some 400 people gathered Monday morning at the Mission’s Brava Theater.
“My idea of heaven has always been an editorial meeting,” said Steinem about organizing, and on feminism. The latter she defined as the “social, economic and political equality of males and females.”
Steinem said the movement’s name was changed from women’s liberation “because the word ‘feminism’ was easier for guys to say.”
The event was hosted by the Women’s Building, a women-led non-profit arts and education center on 18th Street, and was part of a speaker series to support women’s rights, inspire local activism and raise money for the organization.
While the promise of Steinem talking about her “life of activism” was enough to sell out the tickets for the event in a day, many among the neighbors, teachers, writers and activists also came to grill the legendary activist on organizing tactics in the era of President Donald Trump.
The first half of the forum was styled as an intimate conversation between Steinem and interviewer Lateefah Simon, a local activist. Simon began by referring “Ms. Steinem” as an icon, a formality that elicited a thumbs down from Steinem.
“You’re going to have to call me Gloria,” she said.
When asked what she is most proud of having done, the older woman quickly replied –“I haven’t done it yet.”
Steinem encouraged the audience to connect with each other, to resist against Trump’s political agenda, which has threatened women’s reproductive rights, and to find power in community.
“If we look up at him and them – we feel disempowered,” said Steinem. “Don’t look up. Look at each other.”
After requesting a moment of silence for the recently deceased women’s and civil rights activist Aileen Hernandez, with whom Steinem formed the National Women’s Political Caucus, she said: “If Aileen and I are floating around up there, I’d like to look down and see you like this – in circles, talking to each other, telling our stories, plotting subversion.”
In 1993, Steinem was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame and a decade later, former President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Steinem had few but select words for the country’s new president.
“[Trump] has a narcissistic personality disorder big time and doesn’t know fact from fiction,” she said. “He responds negatively to the smallest slight and follows praise.”
That is not to say that the current times are not dangerous, she continued. “The people around him are more guilty in a lot of ways than him, including the women.”
When asked how she responded to the news that 53 percent of white women in the United States voted for Trump, Steinem said: “I would like to say it was white married women.”
Race and gender, she said, are cross sectional and “together make your choices smart.”
While launching Ms., a liberal feminist magazine that Steinem founded in 1971, a poll by the magazine gauging women’s support for feminist issues showed 34 percent support from white women and 60 percent support from black women, she said.
“The Chinese did not bind the feet of poor women. They bound the feet of rich women. If you are the means of production of the ruling class, your mind is [more likely to be] bound,” she said. “Women of a ruling class or caste have to be very controlled in order to maintain the purity, through their wombs, of the ruling group.”
In regards to her observation about the future of the global feminist movement under Trump, Steinem, who delivered a powerful speech at the January 21 Women’s March in Washington D.C., conveyed optimism.
“In my long life, I have never seen such a spontaneous, energized … rebellion all over the country,” she said, adding that the current opposition is “a thousand times more than during the Vietnam War. “
To continue the feminist agenda, Steinem told Simon that it is imperative to also advocate for racial and economic equity.
“No way on earth can you be a feminist without being anti-racist,” she said.
In the second hour of the forum, audience members took to microphones set up in Brava’s auditorium to ask Steinem questions directly.
A social science teacher at a high school in San Jose wanted to know how she could inspire her students with “something that’s not in the textbook that I should be teaching.”
“Who was living on the land where your classroom is before your history books told them it belonged to anybody?” Steinem responded, adding that later in life, “I got so angry that nobody told me.”
A Mission High School Senior who gave her name as Rihanna asked Steinem for advice on what makes a young activist successful.
“Listen to yourself because inside you is a unique person who could never happen before and never again,” Steinem advised. “You know the situation around you and what needs to be done – I’m here to support you.”