The American author, lecturer and feminist activist discusses death, her sex education and how politics has changed and remained the same.
Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we're told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they're given. This week he talks to Gloria Steinem. The American author, lecturer and feminist activist, 85, co-founded Ms. magazine in 1971. In 2013, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Her latest book is The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off.
Which of your early life experiences most informed your politics and your values?
My first memory is of my mother, talking about our lives during the Depression, how difficult it was, and praising Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for their policies and compassion that got us out of it. It gave me a feeling that our real everyday lives are connected to people in political office.
When it comes to sexual politics in the United States, are you comforted by how much change you’ve seen, or frustrated by how little has changed?
Well, I suppose both, really. [Laughs] There is some comfort in being old enough to remember when it was worse, because that generates hope. At the same time, if you’d told me 40 years ago that we would still be fighting certain battles – reproductive freedom; racial justice – I probably would not have been encouraged.
Are you optimistic you’ll see a female American president in your lifetime?
I don’t know. We have an array of good Democratic candidates – I’d be happy to work my heart out for any one of them – but I’m not sure whether Americans will elect a woman. As long as children are mostly raised by women, we associate female authority with childhood. Many men, or some men, subconsciously feel regressed to childhood when they see a powerful woman, because the last time they saw one, they were eight.
Other countries have had female leaders. Is there something particular to American culture about not having had a female president?
I think those leaders came from powerful families, or it was a war time. Still, that doesn’t account for Scandinavian countries or England, right?
Tell me about your childhood sex education.
You know, the best thing about my childhood was that I didn’t get a negative education about sex, because I wasn’t going to school that much. We were travelling a lot, living in house trailers [Steinem’s father, Leo, was a travelling antique salesman; she only began to attend school regularly after her parents divorced when she was 10]. And because I loved animals – we had lots of puppies and even a horse for a while – I understood sex in a kind of normal, happy way.
So by the time you were having sex, did you feel properly equipped to have it?
No, I came of age in the 1950s, and the ’50s were pretty awful, very conventional; trying to put
women back in the home after World War II, when they’d been working in factories and being independent. There was still the idea that you were supposed to be virginal until you got married.
Even though that was not true for me, since I was having happy love affairs, nonetheless I felt as if I should pretend that it was true.
What about now? Are you still having good sex?
No, because here’s something else that has happened. Hormones are more dominant in our lives, say, from 11 or 12, to 55 or 60. After that, the part of your brain that has been reliably dedicated to sex is free for other things – and it’s quite exciting! [Laughs] It’s not better or worse. It’s just different and it’s quite wonderful.
What are you using that freed-up brain space for now?
Discovery of people, ideas, new possibilities. I feel as if I have all my brain cells available for subjects other than romance, when I didn’t before.
You’ve rolled 1, which correlates with death.
Fascinating. Kind of appropriate given my age, right?
Well, you’re 85. I imagine you’ve farewelled a lot of people by now. Does that get any easier?
No. I so miss friends, many of whom were younger than I, and died, which seems especially unfair. Wilma Mankiller, for instance, who was the [first female] chief at the Cherokee Nation. In a just world, she would have been president of the United States.
When he died in 2003 of a brain lymphoma, your husband David [Bale, English entrepreneur, environmentalist, animal rights activist and father of actor Christian Bale] was only 62.
That’s relatively young, too.
Yes, and he was younger than me. Far too young. His grown-up children are still my friends, and until yesterday I had a granddaughter of his from England staying with me. So I acquired a lot of very nice people as relatives. [Laughs]
You were married for only three years when you lost David. What did you love about him?
David lived in California, so that meant driving a lot. He always kept animal food and water in his trunk, in case he saw a stray dog or animal. He lived in the present more intensely than anyone I’ve ever known. I tend to live in the future, because I’m organising something, or hoping we can achieve some change. He inspired – and kind of forced me, especially by his illness – to live in the present. In a way, we helped each other, in the way perhaps we were intended to.
Does your own death play on your mind?
It certainly should. [Laughs] The odd thing is that, even as old as I am, I still go right on in the moment, thinking about the future.
Does the concept of death frighten you?
Not really. I don’t believe in a life of punishment or reward after death. I think there’s a cycle of life, in which we return to the earth. I hope I won’t die saying, “But –”. [Laughs] I hope I manage some kind of completion.