Gloria Steinem receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Photo: Pandagon
What would you like to hear from a feminist elder, prominent enough in her day to be bracketed with such big names as Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug? At 81, Gloria Steinem is in a position to be frank about the failures as well as successes of the movement for which she has been a standard bearer.
Second wave feminism hastened some positive changes in the education, employment and public life of women that were already evolving. But it also drove changes that were morally objectionable and culturally destructive.
So, for example, Ms Steinem could tell us whether, in view of her special concern for minority women, the fact that black women today have an abortion rate five times that of white women is a victory for “reproductive rights”, or a defeat.
She could also tell us whether being raised without a father – as almost one in three children in America are today, and as she was in her teens – is a good for the child, even if it represents the extension of “welfare rights” for the single mother; and whether unstable cohabiting relationships are a good replacement for marriage.
Again, she could respond to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, which raises the question of why, after four decades of equality rhetoric, law and social changes, women are still shaping their lives and work according to male norms.
But you will not find any of these pressing questions addressed in her new memoir, My Life On the Road. It is futile, of course, to complain that someone did not write the book one would have liked, although it does seem, in this case, like a wasted opportunity to engage with the concrete concerns of the present.
So what was her life on the road all about?
In this account of her career as an itinerant feminist organiser, Steinem writes first about her upbringing, which explains a lot about her later life. She talks about her two years in India becoming acquainted with Gandhian consensus building, about Native American (Indian) “talking circles” and nature-centred spirituality, about friendships with black and other minority leaders, election campaigns, talks at colleges, talks with truckies and taxi drivers, and much more about her grassroots activity – an attempt, one writer suggests, to counter her early media image as the pretty face of an essentially white, middle-class movement.
Against this patchwork background, which creates the impression of a multifaceted and representative movement, Steinem highlights a couple of major events: the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston (“the most important event nobody knows about”) and the 2008 presidential election campaign. She also singles out two religious communities for their opposition to the feminist programme.
What do women want?
The 1970s were the decade in which second wave feminism became a political force. Abortion – declared a constitutional right by the US Supreme Court in 1973 – was made respectable as an equality move in much the same way as gay marriage has been. The 70s also saw the Equal Rights Amendment – which came from the suffragist movement – passed by Congress and recommended to the states for ratification.
The mighty United Nations threw its weight behind the equality movement, designating 1975 as international Women’s Year (IWY) and staging a world conference in Mexico – the beginning of a Decade for Women, during which the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly.
CEDAW was foreshadowed by the Declaration of Mexico, which set out a 30-point charter about the equality of men and women, including the principles of women’s right to work and receive equal pay while having their children cared for (a state responsibility); to receive an education geared to “new roles” in society, and be supported by the media in their “expanding roles”. Women for their part had the “duty … to make full use of opportunities available to them and to perform their duties to the family, the country and humanity.”
Article 12 prescribed what became known as “reproductive rights”: “Every couple and every individual has the right to decide freely and responsibly whether or not to have children as well as to determine their number and spacing, and to have information, education and means to do so.”
The US sent a 39-member delegation to Mexico (“headed by a man from the State Department”) but it was only at the Houston conference that, according to Steinem, “there would be democratic answers to the classic question: What do women want?” Congresswoman Bella Abzug obtained funding from the federal government to run women’s conferences in every state, from which delegates would go to the plenary session in Houston.
Steinem, for whom this was a watershed event, was one of 30 new IWY commissioners appointed to facilitate this programme, of which she says:
“Women in every state and territory would be invited to debate such contentious issues as reproductive freedom and abortion, welfare rights, domestic violence and the exclusion of domestic workers from labor laws.”
In other words, if women did not know what they wanted, or were inclined to want the wrong sorts of things, there was a ready-made agenda. It included sexual orientation, by the way.
Many women did not own these issues. Busloads of Mormons arrived at state meetings to oppose policies they rightly saw as a threat to the family. At Houston, the formidable Phyllis Schlafly, whose STOP ERA organisation effectively killed the amendment at state level, held a counter-conference in the city – a headache for Steinem who had to worry about how to pull her diverse troops together and reassure minority women that their voice would be heard.
Schlafly, a Catholic mother of six, career woman (a constitutional lawyer), prolific writer and equal to anyone on public platform, led opposition not only to abortion but also to the push to eliminate gender roles (STOP = Stop Taking Our Privileges). Her effectiveness is no doubt one of the reasons that Steinem reserves some of her sourest comments for the Catholic Church and the pro-life movement it led.
In a chapter called “Surrealism” she refers derisively to “right-wing and religious efforts to confer legal personhood on fertilised eggs.” Her dismissive attitude to the human embryo sounds odd in a world where “fertilised eggs” stored in IVF freezers represent the last hope of a baby for increasing numbers of couples.
She paints a black picture of the pro-life movement by focussing on extremist incidents and abortion clinic anecdotes about picketers, including the ludicrous syllogism that women who picket “are more likely to be deprived of birth control and so to need an abortion. They then feel guilty – and picket even more.”
She cites a study by the Guttmacher Institute to lend scientific credibility to this theory: “This restriction on birth control may also explain why studies have long shown that Catholic women in general are more likely to have an abortion than are their Protestant counterparts.” Guttmacher, unfortunately, has become notorious for sourcing and spinning data to suit its pro-abortion agenda. In any case, the comparison is subject to so many factors – including numbers and socio-economic status – as to be meaningless as it stands.
In another attempt to make Catholic opposition to abortion look hypocritical Steinem cites “research” that purports to show “the Catholic Church not only didn’t oppose abortion but actually regulated it until the mid-nineteenth century. It was made a sin mostly for population reasons” – namely, because of some deal between Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX. This is absolute tripe. Her information, which comes from “Jesuit historians” and the truly hypocritical pro-abortion group Catholics for a Free Choice, but is sourced in a footnote to the Catholic philosopher John T. Noonan, misrepresents not only Noonan’s scholarship but Church teaching which denounced abortion from the very beginning, although its reasons became more refined in the course of two millennia.
Snippets about abuse of children by priests and nuns are thrown in for good measure. However, for balance, Steinem devotes several pages to a cool priest who disagreed with Church teaching and invited her to talk to his (big and adoring) congregation.
Has taking ‘control’ brought happiness?
Steinem, like so many feminists, is unable to consider the merits of the Catholic tradition because a male hierarchy can only mean one thing: a patriarchy bent on controlling women’s bodies. Wresting that control from the hands of men is the most basic tenet of 1970s feminism.
What she doesn’t see is that women’s control of their fertility through contraception and abortion is illusory. Instead of surrendering themselves to individual men, they have surrendered control to technology developed largely by men and in the interests of men – interests ranging from population control to evasion of the responsibilities of fatherhood. The fact that women preside over Planned Parenthood and do abortions does not change its reductively masculine approach to the problem of unwanted pregnancies.
In any case “control”, whether of reproduction or income, does not equal happiness, as much-cited 2009 research by the sociologists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers has shown. Their report began:
“Two facts stand in stark opposition: women’s lives over the past 35 years have improved by most objective measures, yet we document that measures of women’s subjective well-being have fallen both absolutely and relatively to that of men.”
The part that a reductive and sterile sexuality plays in this female malaise also escapes her notice. The passing of the most controversial policy put to the Houston conference – the “sexual preference” or lesbian “plank”, reassured Steinem. Just as “the religious right wing” opposed contraception and abortion and homosexual relationships, being against “any sex that couldn’t end in conception,”
“Now a representative majority [not “the irreligious left wing”, which would have been the appropriately matching term] was united, too, in recognising that human sexual expression was not only a way to reproduce if we chose to, but a way of pleasuring and bonding.”
Of course, heterosexual traditionalists didn’t need the Houston Women’s Conference, or Gloria Steinem, to tell them that. Yet pleasure and bonding doesn’t necessarily ensure happiness either, as the trail of broken relationships and hearts (not to mention the diseases) resulting from adolescent experimentation and young adult cohabitation testifies.
And when, on top of the hundreds of millions of human beings aborted, the misery inflicted on surviving children from the sexual chaos of the last 50 years — as well as that now being sown by same-sex-parenting — is taken into account, the victory of the pleasure principle looks decidedly hollow.
Gloria Steinem, who began adult life with a broken engagement and a secret abortion, courtesy of a paternalistic male; who missed out on marriage (except briefly in her 60s) and having her own family – or even something she could call a home until she was in her 50s – must know that.
The English doctor who terminated the new life nestled in her body in 1957 made her promise that “you will do what you want to with your life.” She says she has done the best she could. But one can’t avoid the impression from this memoir that she has done what was ready to hand, rather than what she positively wanted. Her unstable family background could account for that. But it can’t excuse her refusal to admit that the results have not all been good.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.