When I ask Gloria Steinem what she’s most proud of after nearly 60 years of reporting on women’s rights, she immediately replies, "That we know we’re not crazy and that we have each other. That’s huge!" The 81-year-old author and activist-who attended AOL’s second-annual MAKERS Conference this week alongside Sheryl Sandberg, America Ferrera, and Katie Couric-is a firm believer in the political (and "magical") power of strong female bonds. But she also knows that the struggle is not over. Here, she takes ELLE.com through what needs to be done to stop violence against women ("take it seriously"), bridge the pay gap ("demand it"), and safeguard our "basic human right" of reproductive freedom.
What are the most pressing issues women are facing today?
I think it depends on the woman-I wouldn’t dictate to people. But if you add it up, I would say that reproductive freedom comes first, then violence and economics.
There has been a lot of talk at the conference about how to close the pay gap. From your own perspective, how do we equalize pay?
The short answer to what we need to do is ‘everything.’ We need to make demands ourselves. We need to force companies to disclose what they’re paying. And now there is various legislation [dictating] that companies over a certain size have to make public their pay scales. We have to get companies to pay for the job, not the person. It’s a job, it’s worth ‘X’ to them. Maybe they want to compensate for productivity after that, but at entry level, people should be paid the same. And we have to expose incredible offenders, like Walmart, that had the biggest sexual discrimination suit against it in history, and won the suit not because there wasn’t discrimination but because it was impossible to prove their intentions. Which is, incidentally, why we need the Equal Rights Amendment. And we need to make the linkage that explains that equal pay for women-if women of all races got the same pay as a white guy for doing the same job-it would be the biggest economic stimulus for this country [and] for the world. Because I don’t think there’s any country that has equal pay, not even Sweden or Iceland, but they’re much closer than we are.
Interestingly, one topic that hasn’t been raised at the conference is the epidemic of violence against women. After Ellen Barry’s piece on the threats Indian women face when seeking employment was published in The New York Times on Sunday, I think it’s certainly at the forefront of everyone’s minds. What do you think it will take to stop violence against women, on a global scale?
"Both racism and sexism are crimes that I call superiority crimes."
We need to raise our sons more like our daughters. We need to relieve them of this burden of the idea that to be masculine they have to be superior, which is what they get addicted to, and why both racism and sexism are crimes that I call superiority crimes. They have no other motive. They’re not getting money. It’s just to prove that they’re superior. We have to raise men, especially white men, without that burden. Also, we need to take violence against women seriously. It is the biggest indicator of whether a country is violent inside itself, and whether it will be militarily violent against another country. More than poverty, more than natural resources, more than religion, more than degree of democracy, it’s violence against women. It’s what we see first and it normalizes everything else. So if we took that seriously in our foreign policy, if every democracy took that seriously. … You know, the United States supported mujahideen in Afghanistan, who turned into the Taliban, and their whole reason for seizing power from a secular government was, as they stood up and said, because they’re allowing women to go to school, women can’t be married without their permission, and women can’t have political means. And America supported that! We created that. If we used violence against women as an understanding of what’s going, it would help everyone.
After 50 years of reporting on women’s issues, you’ve seen it all. You have witnessed history and seen countless setbacks. As we enter 2016, what are the issues that haven’t changed that you thought would have by now?
"Every economic statement should start with reproduction, not production."
I think two things: One, fundamentally, it’s that we don’t have a democracy. Public opinion is not reflected in the decisions of the government. And I think some of that is our fault. For instance, we’re not paying [the same] attention to state legislatures as we do with Congress. But a lot of it is not our fault, because it’s all about the money. But, in addition to that, I think we have not really recognized, and taken on board, that controlling reproduction-and therefore controlling women’s bodies-is the basic motive. And this only existed in the last five percent of human history, tops. The androcentric, patriarchal cultures, whatever you want to call it, are quite new. So, every economic statement should start with reproduction, not production. Every statement for human rights ought to include reproduction as a basic human right, like freedom of speech. The power of the state stops at our skins. They can’t restrict contraception [or] abortion. They can’t take our kidneys. Bodily integrity is a principle.
Lastly, what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, as a woman?
Speaking in public. I was terrified of it! I had chosen two professions, really, so I didn’t have to do it [laughs]. One as a dancer, and one as a writer. And it’s still scary. But I’m very grateful that this kind of [event] made me do it. … As much as I love books, it can’t happen on the page. As much as I love the Internet, it can’t happen on a screen. You have to be together to bring real change.