Gloria Steinem on “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Votes” at UCLA: The Quick Notes Version

Yesterday, I saw Gloria Steinem give her “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Votes” talk at UCLA. It reminded me of seeing Eve Ensler speak at Clark in 2008. It was the feeling of feminists gathering in one spot to hear a superstar speak, speak to us, in our language. It was riveting, electrifying. In all her glory, Gloria Steinem at 78 speaking to a full auditorium. She got two standing ovations before she even began speaking.

To set the scene: she began by commenting that lecture halls are based on hierarchy, which is based on patriarchy, with the audience seeing each others’ backs and unable to interact with each other. She prefers a circle (like all feminist teachers I know), and said “we [women]are linked, not ranked.” I took 5 pages of notes and rather than dump all the details onto you, I’ll share with you the tastiest morsels:

1. The central theme of the talk was “seizing control of reproduction” and how this control is fundamental to racist, classist and nationalist divisions. By isolating the women of the “superior” group and exploiting the women of the “inferior” group, all women are controlled. The gender imbalance caused by preferring one gender over the other (as is in China) causes destabilization, where all divisions are normalized and racism, classism and other forms of structural violence become normalized.

2. Attacks on abortion providers is large-scale domestic terrorism. The anti-choice activists responsible for this terrorism have now taken to the legislatures. 55% of women of reproductive age now live in states with restrictions on reproductive rights. The current Republican platform includes the Human Life Amendment plank, where a pregnant women’s body becomes nationalized, can be searched and detained (as is done now with addicted or jailed pregnant women).

3. Legislators have “real jobs” before they came into office, and many worked in insurance, the prison industry and liquor. Using their legislative power, they push through the regulations that benefit them. For example, despite numerous legislators campaigning on the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s, it was never ratified. Legislators must be held accountable by those who vote them into office.

4. The biggest economic stimulus would be mandating equal pay for men and women…because women would spend the money. (From progressive to reductionist in one sentence!)

5. The night’s most interesting tangent: Most religious buildings are built as the body of a woman, with the inner and outer labia entrances, the vaginal aisle, the ovarian side structures, and the pulpit womb. Men in skirts take over the cartel of giving birth, by taking over the mythic significance of reproduction. While women may give life, these men give everlasting life. The message is: heaven is superior to, is better than women.

6. Best quips: Abstinence-only sexual health education is the only federally funded program that rewards ignorance with taxpayer money. Voting matters – it’s when the least powerful has just as much power as the most powerful. Women didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left them. The means we choose dictate the ends; the means are the ends. Loss of memory is the root of oppression.The best decisions come from mixed-gender groups because there is no masculinity to prove. National boundaries don’t stop pollution and immigration. We have more in common than we think; ask what others need and support them. How is it that men can be CEOs without having been pregnant?

7. Recommended reading: Sex and World Peace by Valerie Hudson et al, which argues that polarized sex roles are correlated with race and class divisions.

8. Piece of advice:  Say “how interesting that you feel that way” when disagreeing.

9. The US is the only democracy with no national childcare, which puts pressure on the individual rather than the social policy.

10. Lastly, feminists have been too nice. We would have accomplished more! Persuading and asking takes longer than doing. We need to harness our consumer power. The AA group structure may be useful – it’s everywhere, it’s leader-less and there is a strong community.

Despite my enthusiasm about the talk and the speaker, it’s important to note that some claims were cherry-picked. Steinem made several claims that didn’t hold up to light questioning after the talk: First, that 70% of native women were sterilized because the government told them they wouldn’t understand how to use birth control. The highest I could find was 25-40%, in the 1970s. Though even that is questionable. Second, that in Europe, 6 million witches were killed for sharing dangerous knowledge that helped women. Access to, and knowledge of, contraception and abortifacients allows women – not the state – to decide when to procreate. (Not the church, not the state!) But, it looks like it was closer to 35,000 or 110,000200,000 at the most. Lastly, she contrasted civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was sterilized without her consent, and Hamer’s grandmother, who had 22 children (20 as a result of rape). Steinem argued that farm equipment was the difference; the bodies of Hamer’s grandmother’s children were needed to work the land; Hamer’s reproductive capabilities weren’t necessary. Yes,  it’s true that Hamer was sterilized…at the age of 44. It’s a much less compelling argument when understood within the context of the average woman reproductive life: from 15 – 45 years old. Sterilizing someone without their consent is wrong at any age, but the contrast with her grandmother’s experience is less powerful in this new context. Despite these poorly chosen examples, it’s true that compulsory sterilization has happened and is happening all over the world, and that women continue to be targeted for violence. I just wish she had chosen her examples with the help of a fact-checker.

PS She looks jaw-dropping-ly great for someone two years shy of 80. I was sitting towards the back, but she looked no older than 60 to me. Take away message: wear black and do what you love?

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