In Hopkins lecture, Gloria Steinem outlines ways to fight the patriarchy but stumbles on question about inclusivity
By By Maura Callahan
Feb 26, 2015 | 3:33 PM
Last night, anti-abortion activists held signs with the words "Did Roe really make abortion safe?" outside Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus. They were ignored by the predominantly female crowd (a few wearing "Hopkins Feminist" T-shirts) filing into the auditorium to hear iconic women's rights and antiwar activist Gloria Steinem, who HBO recently announced would be the subject of an upcoming miniseries starring Marisa Tomei.
After a fairly long wait followed by a fairly long applause, Steinem floated to the podium and said, "I'm always worried by structures like this—that we have to have because of our numbers—with you looking at each other's backs, me looking at you. This as we know is a hierarchical structure; it's based on patriarchy."
The second half of the lecture, she explained, would allow the audience the opportunity to "make organizing announcements; you can tell us where the bodies are buried locally" in addition to asking questions. She assured the audience not to fear the microphone, though admitted "it's true that you lose all your saliva; each tooth grows a little angora sweater."
She proceeded with her speech and defined patriarchy as the male control of women's bodies, specifically female reproduction, noting that patriarchy affects women differently. For example, white, upper-class women are sexually deprived, while poor women and women of color are sexually exploited.
Steinem's thesis centered around the importance of "making connections"; in other words, finding the root of global injustices to domestic problems.
"The biggest determinant of violence within a nation or of the willingness of one nation to be violent against another nation is actually not poverty, not natural resources, not religion, and not even degree of democracy," she said, "It's violence against females."
She disclaimed, however, that violence against females is intrinsically more important than violence against males.
"But because anti-female violence tends to be experienced first, and is by far the most universal and most likely to be seen by our own families and religions as natural and inevitable, even a moral necessity, or a part of human nature," she said. "It is the root of all other violence because it justifies other violence, and we come to believe it is necessary for there to be a passive and a dominant."
The well-seasoned public speaker that she is, Steinem backed up her arguments with factual evidence. She explained that the number of women killed by their husbands and boyfriends since 9/11 outnumbered the Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks plus the number killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"But we don't talk about domestic terrorism that comes from this idea that to be masculine, you have to dominate," she said. "We don't talk about that in the same way at all, nor do we finance efforts against it. And yet domestic terrorism is the root of global terrorism."
As a "hopeaholic," Steinem said she takes solace in the existence of indigenous cultures that are not built on hierarchy and use gender-neutral pronouns.
"Anthropologists have known that the cultures with the most polarized gender roles have been the most violent, and flexible cultures with the most interchangeable roles have been the most peaceful."
Steinem recognized the reports of sexual assault on the Johns Hopkins campus, pointing out that both college campuses and the military contain the biggest clusters of women of reproductive age, allowing for greater control of women's bodies. She encouraged parents to send their daughters to schools with higher reports of sexual assault, "because the others are lying."
She touched on a variety of issues, criticizing the modern Republican party (which has "been taken over by old, racist Democrats"), as well as college debt and excessive male incarceration in the United States, encouraging the audience to seek out the root of these problems in the patriarchy. In response to the issue of police brutality, she proposed that part of the solution would be to have police forces that are 50 percent female to better represent the world population.
In fighting global and domestic violence, Steinem emphasized that the ends do not justify the means.
"If you want love and joy and music and laughter at the end of the revolution, you have to have love and music and joy and laughter along the way. If you don't want violence and humiliation and taunting at the end of the revolution, you can't use it along the way," she said.
Despite Steinem's earlier invitation to make organizing announcements, the audience participation portion of the lecture consisted only of questions, as well as praise and gratitude, for the speaker. Steinem managed to fit in concise answers to more questions than are often heard at lectures, but the final question, which came from a young audience member who was asked to sit down by the event staff, but didn't, seemed to startle her.
"How can I as a white feminist—how can we as white feminists—reconcile the problems white feminism has caused in this world for other women?"
"That's too general; you have to give me an example," Steinem replied, confused.
The questioner noted the effects of imperialism and colonialism and the wrongful criticisms white women make of women of color.
"We learned feminism in this country from other countries," Steinem said, listing feminist groups like Equality Now and Sisterhood is Global that, "unlike the Gates Foundation," listen to what women in those countries want rather than tell them what to do. Though earlier in the lecture, Steinem emphasized the importance that social justice not be in silos, stating "human beings are linked, not ranked," she now seemed unaware of the present divide between white feminists and feminists of color that is frequently discussed on social media.
The final questioner asked a valid and important question, though had I not been glued to my notepad, I might have asked the question differently. Many have criticized the "mainstream" feminist movement for not being more inclusive, focusing on problems faced by white women and ignoring the significant problems faced by women of color. These criticisms, I feel, are completely necessary, though I regret that they cause people who identify with the ideals of feminism at its core to reject the label "feminist," which is already deemed a dirty word by misogynists. So, are the problems that tend to develop within a social justice movement enough to justify the rejection of the movement altogether? And what can feminism do to be more inclusive?
In order to dismantle the patriarchy, feminism needs to be self-critical. And even with 50 years of monumentally valuable activism behind her, Steinem is not exempt from this responsibility.
The lecture was part of the Foreign Affairs Symposium's "Chaos-Catalyst-Clarity" speaker series, which will feature, among other guests, an ISIS panel discussion on March 11 and Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton on March 25.