Inspiring women. Trailblazers. Those who’ve cleared the path for others to lead in their wake. This is who Gloria Steinem is for me.
When I was 12, I submitted a story to Ms. Magazine and Steinem, who co-founded both Ms. and New York Magazines. Instead of dampening my desire to be a journalist, the rejection letter I received merely fueled my journey. That path led to countless media jobs I’ve loved, including my current position as Parentology’s senior editor.
So when Parentology received a call to hear Steinem speak with the members of the nonprofit Visionary Women, I jumped at the opportunity. On November 18, I joined the very inspiring members of Visionary Women, riveted as the legendary writer, speaker, activist, and feminist organizer shared stories, including some from her recently released book, The Truth Will Set You Free: But First It Will Piss You Off: Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion.
Here’s some wisdom the 85-year-old powerhouse shared pertaining to families, women and today’s youth.
Gloria Steinem Talks on Family
Steinem’s mother and grandmothers were Theosophists with the child-rearing approach of, “You as a parent, or a family, are responsible for helping this child become who they already are, and that’s so much different to having to conform.”
Despite this parenting approach, Steinem felt her mother was never able to be her authentic self. “I suppose I’m living out the unlived life of my mother in some ways. I bet a lot of us are doing that.” Steinem’s hope, “There will be a time in which each of us lives out our own lives.
Family = Politics
“I think our initial politics of power relationships come from the family,” Steinem says. “And if the family isn’t democratic, then it’s much harder for us.”
Steinem wasn’t speaking of political parties, of course. Rather, the way parenting has evolved over time. “For most of human history, we were traveling in small bands in which men raised children as much as women. Men become whole people by being raised as boys to be someone who can raise children — whether they have children or not — or actually raising children.”
How this impacts politics? “We have pretty hierarchical, patriarchal families for the most part, which trains us to think this [family structure is] normal and natural.”
When looking at cultures prone to violence, Steinem says the biggest indicators aren’t poverty, access to natural resources, religion or democracy. Rather, it’s violence against women. Seeing this within a family leads to the belief one group has the right to dominate another. “It normalizes our unequal power relationships in the family.”
A societal mistake, “Women’s model of leadership, or governance, comes from within the family,” she says. “We feel we have to include everybody because you can’t put somebody outside of the family.
The Power of Listening
A guideline Steinem recommends in relationship dynamics and positions of power is the reminder, “I have to be able to listen as much as I talk.”
What listening can result in? Instant democracy. “You don’t learn when you’re talking. You learn when you’re listening,” Steinem says. “Balancing those two things is an organic, everyday democracy.”
On the Wisdom of Children & the Interference of Screen Time
“I think little kids are so revolutionary because all over the world they say some version of, ‘It’s not fair,’ and ‘You’re not the boss of me.’ That’s the basis of every social transformation.”
Different generations can learn a thing or two from one another, Steinem says. They need each other. “The Native Americans have a saying that the very oldest and the very youngest [generations] understand each other best because they’re closest to the unknown.”
Facilitating this intergenerational exchange can be accomplished, she suggests, by invitation. “Invite the group that isn’t usually present to be present,” Steinem says. “And I want to put the emphasis on present, because as we look at screens, the truth is, we can’t empathize with each other unless we’re together with all five senses.”
Though not anti-devices, Steinem has witnessed their downfall. “I do think the higher incidence of sadness, depression, and even suicide can be correlated with the advent of so much technology in our lives.”
Magical, special and unexpected. This is how Steinem refers to Talking Circles, the modern incarnation of “swapping stories” around the campfire. “We were meant to be sitting together telling stories, listening to each other, discovering we’re not alone.”
Steinem tells Parentology there are ample opportunities for participating in Talk Circles – at home, in the office, on public transportation… “We need the physical presence of other people in order to stretch our unbeknown, to know we’re not alone and to be able to act. Every revolution I know of… started with a small group of people.
Why she feels acting in concert is important, “We need that as part of our lives and as part of our activist lives, because it allows us to say, ‘I believe in doing this.’ Get advice, get companionship and really move forward one step at a time. It’s way more likely than if we work alone.”
It’s through these Talking Circle conversations we find a middle ground. “We exchange all kinds of information and we argue — it’s important to argue,” Steinem says. “It’s a recognition of uniqueness and a furtherance of that uniqueness.”
This uniqueness is making itself known more now than at any other time in history. “People are crossing boundaries in a wonderfully brave way,” Steinem says, referencing everything from gender to race. “Sometimes I think our world is divided into two kinds of people, those who divide everything into two and those who don’t,” she says. “We’re gradually becoming people who see unique individuality and shared humanity, rather than categories.”
Gloria Steinem Talks of Hope
Steinem is a self-proclaimed hopeaholic. “I think hope is a form of planning. If our hopes weren’t already real inside of us, we couldn’t even hope them. So, it’s completely crazy and self-defeating to let people take hope away from you because it’s an idea of what could be. That’s what movements are based on.”
A way to spread hope? Laughter. Steinem says, “Laughter is the only free emotion. It happens when two things come together and suddenly make a third, and you see something, or learn something, for the first time.”
Steinem says Native Americans believe “If you can’t laugh, you can’t pray… And if you’re laughing, no matter how occasionally, no matter how difficult and how painful, if there’s laughter present, you’re having moments of freedom.”
Gloria Steinem Talks — Sources
Visionary Women: Visionary Women is a Los Angeles-based, non-profit forum for women leaders across various fields to connect around important topics impacting women today.