The Indomitable Ms Steinman

Gloria Steinman, the legendary feminist, now 82, has been involved recently in a shindig for being a clothes model, and answering questions, in a recent Land’s End catalogue (which is trying to up its sense of style and cultivate younger customers, under its new CEO, Federica Marchionni). The strategy backfired in spectacular fashion. When those loyal customers who objected to a feminist pontificating on this and that in a fashion catalogue and threatened to stop buying Land’s End products, the decision was taken to pull the feature entirely. And then those loyal customers who loved the cut of Ms Steinman’s jib were equally outraged at capitulation to the worst of America’s silent majority and threatened to stop buying Land’s End trousers and sweat shirts.

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Let’s hope as the cynics say that bad publicity is better than none, but the incident reminded me of when I interviewed this redoubtable lady in 1987 for my book Women. As with other interviewees who have been celebrated in this blog, there were no conventional questions and answers but a listing of topics which all the women discussed in my book were asked to comment on. Here are Ms Steinman’s:

My early influences

Books influenced me most, and movies. I still remember movies, even before I could read, as being a very important influence. I didn’t go to school very regularly, and we travelled around a great deal, so the usual kind of community influences were not there for me. No one gave me instructions or was ambitious on my behalf, except to go to college. My mother wanted very much to have both of her daughters go to college. She came from a working-class family, and she and her sister had been put through college by her mother. So she was doing the same thing for her two daughters. That was very important, a big part of her dream. She thought that would help to get us out of the poor neighbourhood where we lived and into a better kind of life. But what we were going to do with our college education was never discussed – perhaps just marry a better-quality husband, perhaps work at something we enjoyed part of the time. I certainly wasn’t urged to have any ambition.

Advantages and disadvantages

I always realized boys had more freedom, but I just accepted it. It was all right for boys to be in the street, all right for boys to sit in the movies and put their feet up over the chair in front of them. Boys threw snowballs at you when you weren’t supposed to tell on them or fight back. In almost every way, boys had more power, but I accepted it. I assumed that that’s the way it had to be. It took a long time for me to realize that perhaps that wasn’t the way it had to be – probably when I was well past thirty years old. There were always certain rules of the game that I assumed were immutable. I assumed I would become who and what I married, that my identity would come from a man, because that’s what I saw around me. Aside from actresses, I didn’t see any women who had their own identity, and even in the movies the story usually ended with her marrying someone. I read very young. I don’t remember learning how to read, I just remember knowing how to read. I was reading books like Little Women and Gone with the Wind before I was nine, I think. Louisa May Alcott was, of course, a feminist from the first suffragist wave of feminism in this country. Her books have a very strong thrust of independence, and morality, and autonomy for women, and I absorbed that. But I also assumed it was impossible to achieve. The only woman I saw who was doing anything admirable was Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was only able to do that because she had been married to Franklin Roosevelt. So you still had to have the luck to marry a President or you couldn’t do anything. I just didn’t see any women whose power was their own.

A woman is not equal under the Constitution of the United States. She doesn’t control her own body to the same degree that men do, legally or medically. If you are a poor woman in this country, you can still be denied an abortion. It’s a sexual caste system; a racial caste system. Both. There are something like 8,000 federal laws that discriminate, based on nothing but gender, and no one knows how many state laws, but possibly many more. If you are a woman in the United States, and in most countries of the world, you can get an abortion under some circumstances. But, in many cases, you may still have to have your husband’s permission or you may have to provide or fabricate medical excuses. You are still a supplicant, you still have to ask someone else to allow you to do this. Conversely, there are still many circumstances under which you can be coerced into being sterilized. Some states here want to pass legislation so that, if a woman is on welfare and has four children, they can say, we won’t feed your existing children any more unless you have an abortion.

We are raised to believe that taking responsibility isn’t feminine. If you are aggressive enough to be ambitious, to do the job well and have a career, you are not feminine. So you are not a real woman. And if you decide you want to be called a real woman, then you can’t be ambitious. The culture gives you a double message.

If women could have slept their way to power, there would have been many more women in power by now. Using your femininity is a double-edged sword. You can use it and get noticed, but the notice you get is not serious; it isn’t as if it’s a great thing.

Lack of confidence, lack of self-esteem, is the single greatest affliction of any discriminated-against group. It happens to Jews, it happens to blacks, it happens to poor people, and it happens to women. We absorb society’s assessments of our group: society says that we are inferior and we come to believe it ourselves. So it erodes our self-confidence. It doesn’t spell it out in the same way that it did a hundred years ago when women could be owned like furniture can be owned, when women had no legal citizenship, no legal identity. Clearly, we’ve moved forward from that point. Women are citizens now; but we’re not equal citizens.

Economic power has been defined in male terms. Woman still suffer from a kind of semantic slavery in that those who work at home are called women who don’t work, which is ridiculous. They work harder than any other class of workers in the United States, and deserve all the kinds of protections that workers, in general, should have. A woman who works outside the home has two jobs because one of her jobs is not counted.

I feel that we have to take whatever is given to us and use it. When I turned forty, I turned forty publicly at a press conference, because I realize that women have a problem at that age. When I became fifty, I had a big dinner party, I became fifty publicly. So I try to use this to make change, because it is true that women are still more penalized for ageing than men are. This is because women are supposed to be valuable for child-bearing, so as soon as our child-bearing years are over, we are less valuable, whereas men are powerful in the world so they can be quite old and funny-looking and still be thought attractive.

I would always rather be the victim than the victimizer. Because I don’t want to grow callous. If you victimize other people, then you grow callous and your feelings become deadened. You use whatever is available to you to survive, of course. But the point is to equalize the powers so we can be friends. A room with the door locked is a prison, but the same room with the door open is a nice room. What matters is choice and the power to make the choice.


Part of the antagonism towards Mrs Thatcher may be because, in a deep sense, we fear women having power in the world because we associate that with childhood. That’s maybe an underlying reason. But it’s also that she’s not there representing women as a constituency. The first Jewish person in power is usually anti-Semitic; it’s the same phenomenon. In societies that have a strong class or caste system, you may get a woman in the top job first, like Indira Gandhi. If Indira Gandhi had a brother, she never would have been chief of state, but she didn’t and the patriarchal family name was even more powerful than the anti-female bias, so she became chief of state. Thatcher represents class and political interest. So even though she was a woman, she was allowed to become chief of state. In the United States, we are much slower in getting women in those top jobs, but when we actually get one, she usually represents women, she represents sexual equality. As Geraldine Ferraro did.


I don’t think there’s really a big difference in men’s and women’s sexual needs. After all, the sex organs essentially come from the same cells; the clitoris and the penis come from exactly the same substance. I don’t think there is a major difference. Men can experience orgasm without an erection; many men report having multiple orgasms without having an erection. They may do it by masturbation or some other way, but without a full erection, and they can still have an orgasm. If there’s any difference, it is that women have more orgasms. If women don’t have orgasm, it’s because they have bad lovers or not enough knowledge of their own anatomy.

Sexual attitudes are changing now. For instance, some women go to male prostitutes. They are called escort services, and in some cities in the United States they are listed in the telephone directories. A man can get a female escort or another man, or a woman can get a male escort. There’s discrimination even here, because it costs more to get a male escort than it does to get a female escort. If you look in the phone book in Miami, you’ll find that. The woman prostitute has fewer alternatives economically, and the main prostitute has more, so he charges more and she charges less. But the fact is that some women do go to male prostitutes.


The first thing I would do if I were omnipotent is give women control over their own bodies, so that they, and they alone, made the decision whether they would have children, and where, and how many, and under what conditions, and with whom, and so on. That would be first. And I would be just as likely to fight for the right of a woman not to have an abortion as to have an abortion. But the point is that she makes the decision. If it’s going to be traumatic for her, she shouldn’t be forced, or encouraged, or pressured to have an abortion. I’m not saying that abortion is good; nobody wants to have an abortion, it’s not a pleasurable experience. I’m just saying that women must have the power to make the decision to have children or not have children: reproductive freedom, as we would say. Because it is an event that takes place for nine months in her body and uses all of her blood vessels, and heart, liver and lungs, so naturally the decision has to lie with her. In terms of the law, if a woman has to get a man’s permission to get an abortion, it would be the most intimate form of slavery. To be forced to be pregnant for nine months and risk your health because the law was forcing you to, that’s not acceptable. The law has to give women the right to decide.


Some of the roughest, toughest, most masculine men are homosexual. The paradigm of a love and sex relationship is the passive, dominant paradigm, it is a female/male paradigm. So until fairly recently, you got both lesbians and homosexual men, in couples, playing roles. One would have to be the female, the other one would have to be the male, which was obviously crazy on the face of it since it just wasn’t biologically possible. More recently, you get lesbian women and gay men having more equal relationships because the paradigm of what a sex or love relationship is is beginning to change. I would not venture to say what causes homosexuality. I just think homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. We are all probably bisexual, it’s just a question of training, opportunity and so on. But when you see men who behave in a very feminine way, studies show that frequently their childhood has been one in which men, their father or whoever, were very cruel. So, as children, they said to themselves, if this is what it means to be a man, I am not going to be a man, it’s too painful. I am not going to go out and shoot small animals and beat up people because I don’t want to do that. So the only way of doing that was to behave like a woman, because that was the other model of behaviour.

There was a wonderful study of sexuality done in, I think, Seattle, and whereas most sexuality studies are done at a particular point in time, this one was done over a four-year period and included a massive sample. What they often discovered was that, out of a heterosexual married couple, perfectly happy in year one, and maybe even homophobic besides, one of them was living in a gay relationship in year three; and conversely, out of a gay male couple in year two who said they would never be heterosexual, one of them was married in year four. So sexuality really seems to be a continuum, not a box. In different times, different circumstances, we have different people. People love each other for a whole panoply of reasons. Once I was giving a lecture, and a woman in the audience got up and said this wonderful thing that really made sense. She said, look, human beings are the only animals who seem to experience sexual pleasure, and orgasm, and sexual intensity, as much when they can’t conceive as when they can. All the other animals seem to have periods of oestrum, or heat, when they are focussed on sex. Human beings uniquely don’t. So, for human beings, sexuality is a mark of our differentness from the other animals, like our cerebral cortex, our ability to reason. Sexuality for human beings is uniquely and naturally not just a way we procreate, but also a way we communicate, also the way we reach out to each other and express love and caring. So I think it’s wrong to label people gay or whatever. We have to use these labels for the moment and to make them honourable, if you know what I mean. As long as they are dishonourable, they can be used to stigmatize, but the truth of the matter is probably that people are sexual, period. And under some circumstances, they may love one of their own gender, and under others, someone of the opposite gender.

I used to be seduced by power because I thought the only way I could ever have power was through men. But I don’t think that any more. I discovered that two things fell away as I began to do work I cared about myself. One was that I didn’t have to make men fall in love with me any more, which is the way women show power. Men go to bed with women and that’s a sign of power; they’ve got her, they go to bed. Obviously that doesn’t work for a woman because she’s the one, theoretically, being conquered. So women get men to fall in love with them. That’s where we get our feeling of power. And secondly, there’s shopping, which is one of the few places women have power, because they are consumers. In the department store, people are nice to you because you are spending money. But I no longer need to get men to fall in love with me, and I no longer need to go shopping. I don’t get a kick out of either any more.


I believe that the individual difference is bigger than the group difference. That is, the individual difference between two men, or between two women, or between two black people, is greater than the differences between males and females as groups. The difference between two five-year-old boys is bigger than the difference between boys and girls as groups. So what we need to do is throw away the labels and try to let individuals be their real selves. Behaviour in the animal kingdom varies completely from species to species. A lioness takes care of the cubs, but male penguins hatch the eggs and cough up the contents of their gullet to feed the baby penguins. I mean, you can find everything. The male supremacists always choose apes, and usually apes in captivity, in order to demonstrate. But if they used elephants they could come out with something completely different: the female elephants are very often the leaders of the pack. So you can take the differences, and you can argue female superiority and you can argue male superiority. But the truth is that we share much more than what differentiates us. It’s the individual difference that’s the important one, not the group differences. In any group difference you take, no matter what it is – upper body strength, aggressive behaviour in teenage boys or whatever – you will always have at least 30 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women that overlap. So why make such a big deal out of the two polar opposites? I don’t think there is such a thing as male and female aspects. There are human aspects and we have them in different mixes. Masculine or feminine are culturally imposed ideas.

Women are connected to children and men are not. Men are external authorities, making the money and so on. Children learn by what they see, and that’s what they see. However, we are breaking the cycle now. Now we have all these children’s stories and songs saying to little boys, it’s alright to cry. Men should not have to grow up with problems of stress and heart attacks and heaven knows what, just because they have been taught not to release their emotions. The male role, the masculine role, is killing men. This image of John Wayne, of rock-like inflexibility and being right all the time and earning a lot of money: it’s impossible; it’s not a human image.

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