“How am I? I’d say seven out of a possible 10, maybe eight. How are you?” Gloria Steinem has just gotten back from breakfast with her friend bell hooks (!), and is sitting at her desk at home in New York. We’re speaking in advance of the release of WOMAN, a documentary series about violence against women which the 82-year-old writer and activist is hosting for VICELAND, VICE Media’s new television channel (debuting today). Touching on burnout, Beyoncé, and being a witness, our conversation left me feeling a full 12 out of a possible 10.
The show is so unflinching; there are parts of it that are quite difficult to watch. It feels a bit like a counterargument to the suggestion that feminism is no longer necessary in 2016, or to people who conceive of feminism as a bunch of privileged women on the internet being offended about TV shows.
The idea that feminism is over is so clearly an argument of people who are against equality. It’s like saying that we’re post-race because we’ve had President Obama in the White House; it’s just so ridiculous that I wasn’t really thinking of those people. I was thinking of showing the realities in different countries and on different continents to make clear that this is not a problem of only a few countries, but a worldwide phenomenon—not confined to any one country, or nationality or religion.
How was the experience collaborating with the young female journalists who travelled to different countries and reported for the series on the ground?
They’re being objective journalists, but they are also reacting as human beings to what they hear. They’re not pretending to be a machine.
You’ve been working for so long—do you ever feel discouraged, or tired? What do you do when you feel that way?
All of the above. I get discouraged, tired, pissed off, impatient, all of that. There are two saving graces: one is community, because we are experiencing this together, we’re sharing our experiences. That’s what a movement is, it’s a community of people who share values and are trying to make change. To have that kind of community is a gift. The other one is that—well, age is an advantage in one way because I’ve seen change, so I have faith in change.
I do think things are changing; if you look at what VICE magazine used to be, used to publish, to think of this show airing on their channel…
There have been much smaller parallels in my own life. When we started New York magazine, for instance, I was “the girl writer.” There was Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, and all these men… That changed, too. There’s just a lot more room than people assumed. The internet has been very democratizing, as well as a huge source of information and community, it’s wonderful. You no longer need to raise money to start a magazine, which is what we used to have to do.
Feminism can feel like kind of a buzzword right now. I recently saw a video that had this long set up about female empowerment, how women can achieve anything when we work together, a lot of shots of carefree girls having fun outdoors—it ended up being a commercial for jeans. How does it make you feel when you see feminism commodified in that way?
We live with a lot of different influences in our lives, and we need to transform them all. There are some forces that, when they begin to be on your side, you know you’re winning. If they’re pandering to you, even though they’re fundamentally opposed to what you stand for, you’re gaining on them.
The show, although it’s called WOMAN and focuses on women, also does a great job of illustrating the wounds patriarchy inflicts on men—and brings it back to the way men visit these wounds on the women in their lives.
Hierarchy is not good for anybody, including the people on top, because then they’re constantly worried about losing their position. And they’re shortening their own lives—the masculine role literally shortens men’s lives. At Ms, we once looked at men’s life expectancy and the reasons men die, and many of them were very gendered—having to do with violence, guns, tension-related diseases. We figured out statistically that the women’s movement probably had four or five more years of life to offer men. We thought that was pretty good.
I gotta say, Gloria, heterosexual partnership in 2016 feels pretty impossible. If Beyoncé can get played like that, how can any of us hope for healthy relationships with men under patriarchy?
It’s my understanding that [in the album] Beyoncé takes control over her own experience by speaking the truth out loud. And I love that image of making lemonade out of a lemon. We are all human beings, and there are in the world many good friendships and partnerships and love relationships between women and men. The men in my life—my old lovers—are my friends. They become family. I suppose I owe that to having had a good father. It just didn’t occur to him that I wasn’t his buddy. You know, if you experience it at home—or even onscreen, or in stories—then you know it’s possible. We need to see it to be it, as they say.
You’ve been working a long time, there’s no real age of retirement for you—
Well, I don’t have a job to retire from [laughs]. The concept of retirement is a capitalist invention. The idea of putting off what you love in order to save money for retirement is not a good idea. You need to do it in the present. It’s hard to tell the difference between work and everyday life when you’re doing what you love and you’re working with people who are your friends. I think work versus a so-called everyday life is a false division produced by…I don’t know what, the industrial revolution? Agrarian cultures didn’t see a profound difference between work and everyday life. It can, and probably should, be the same.
Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think you’ll see more major change?
Yes, absolutely. I’m skeptical, but not pessimistic. I think it’s important to be skeptical because it helps you to use your time and energy well. But it’s also important not to be pessimistic because that means giving up before you start.
Who do you want to see the show?
I don’t have a particular demographic in mind. Perhaps not a demographic but a psychographic: people who hope to create positive change. The emphasis here is on being a witness. It’s not a constructed documentary: it’s listening and learning. Being there to see what’s happening, what’s really going on in different parts of the world, and at home, too.
What advice would you give to people hoping to create that positive change? It can be hard to avoid cynicism in the face of the wage gap, bad boyfriends, Donald Trump…
Oh, he’s such an asshole, isn’t he? To be cynical is to defeat yourself. Hope is a form of planning. If you can imagine it, it already exists inside you. The most useful guideline I’ve ever heard is: behave as if everything you do matters. Because the truth is that you don’t know, and some of it will. If we try to instill our values into each thing we do: the language we use, our daily interchanges, our refusal of plastic bags, whatever it is… if we instill what we want in the future into our daily life, we’re much more likely to get there.