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Gloria Steinem visits Minnesota

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For over 40 years Gloria Steinem has fought for social justice and equality. As a leader in the women's movement the author, lecturer, and editor has changed the way women live their lives today.

Steinem recently spoke at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park as part of its Inspiring Minds Speakers Series.

"The purpose of the Speaker Series is really to appeal to the broader community," says Jill Hapler, co-chair of the event committee. "While we certainly advertise to our own membership within Beth El, we really are reaching out to the entire Twin Cities community to engage in an interesting conversation."

Previous speakers have included Deepak Chopra and Jane Goodall, and Beth El was eager to welcome Steinem to speak this year.

City Pages sat down with Steinem before her speaking engagement to discuss feminism, politics, and the future of the women's movement. [jump]

What inspired you to become involved in the women's movement?

Gloria Steinem: Being born female. During that time, there were no feminists -- I'd never even heard the word. I thought that you had to conform to the rules and work hard, and there was no alternative. It wasn't until my early 30s that women began to speak out about the unfairness, especially within the movements we loved like the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Civil Rights movement. If there was still unfairness there -- where women were still making the coffee and doing the mimeographing -- in these idealistic, admirable movements, then people began to realize we really had to have an autonomous women's movement.

Growing up, did you see a future for yourself that differed from the traditional path of getting married and having kids?

No, there was no alternative. I realized that some women stayed single, but the only ones I knew who were single were regarded as crazy. There seemed to be absolutely no choice. I grew up reading Louisa May Alcott, and she remained single in real life by choice, even though she wrote about marrying off her characters. But that didn't seem very practical, and that seemed to be in the past. I didn't think I could become a writer either because I didn't see any women writers. I read all the time, and I loved to read books, but I didn't think it was practical.

You've spoken about your mother's mental health [Gloria's mother, Ruth, spent time in a mental hospital for anxiety], and how you were a caretaker for her at a very young age [Steinem's parents divorced when she was 10 years old]. In a recent interview with Oprah you said, "It gave me a great sense of 'Bring it on! I can survive anything!'" Do you feel like that prepared you for some of the difficult moments later in your personal life, like being diagnosed with breast cancer and losing your husband [David Bale, father of actor Christian Bale, who died of brain lymphoma] after three years of marriage?

I don't think she was mentally ill; she was just born into a patriarchy. She was a perfectly normal person whose dreams were taken away from her. After I wrote about her, I wrote a long essay, "Ruth's Song (Because She Could Not Sing It)" in a book called Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. When I was on the book tour people would respond and say, "Are you afraid it's hereditary?" I was stunned. I said, "No, only patriarchy is hereditary."

Even after she'd been in a mental hospital for a year or two, there was no diagnosis except for anxiety neurosis. I remember saying to the doctor, "Does that mean her spirit was broken?" He said, "You could say that." I think many of us -- myself included -- are living out the unlived lives of our mothers because they couldn't realize their dreams.

With my mother, I was a small child taking care of an adult some of the time or much of the time. It was healing to take care of David, because I was an adult taking care of an adult. So, I could actually do it.

Secondly, I feel almost guilty saying I had breast cancer because it was so minor. It was nothing like what other women go through. I had a lumpectomy and radiation and that was it. I went dancing that night. There is a moment of hearing the diagnosis when you think, "Oh, so this is how it's going to end." But really it turned out to be quite minor.

You said that many women are living out the unlived lives of their mothers, which is largely due to the barriers that you've helped break. What do you think that your mother would say about the life you've lived so far?

She was here during a lot of it; she died in her 80s. I think she was proud that I was a writer. Long before I was born, she had been a pioneer newspaper writer, so I think she liked that a lot. She was worried about me because she was afraid that I couldn't support myself. I would come home, and she was living with my sister -- who was married age 30 (late for her generation), had a career, and then had six children -- and she [my mother] would say to me things like, "Your sister just got a new winter coat, and she didn't have to pay for it herself." Never mind that I was probably making as much as my brother-in-law! She was anxious because she was worried I couldn't survive on my own, but I think she was proud of it.

Did you ever have moments where you were worried that you couldn't make it on your own?

Sure. We're all full of doubt. I do not think I could have done what many women do, which is to also support a child. I barely had faith that I could support myself. I imagined myself as a bag lady. I think that's a very common fantasy -- that you're going to end up a bag lady. Incidentally, it's a fantasy of middle-class women because poor women have always had to support themselves, so they're less likely to doubt that they can do it. Middle class women have more likely been told, "Well, if you're a teacher or something it's something to fall back on," but the supposition is that you can't take care of yourself.

Where did you find your strength?

Other women. Absolutely 100% other women. You can't do it by yourself.

What do you think are some of the biggest struggles that women face today?

It's hard to prioritize what the greatest danger is because for some women it's water. If we take the overall, I think probably the greatest two dangers are violence and not being able to control our own reproductive rights -- to not be able to decide when and whether to have children. That's the biggest element in whether we're healthy or not, or whether we're educated or not, or how long we live: whether or not we can control reproduction.

Why do you think that contraception is still an issue in 2012?

Because it's the whole ball game. It's the whole thing. If our bodies weren't the means of

reproduction, we wouldn't be in the jam we're in. That's the name of patriarchy game: to control reproduction and how many children and who owns them. That is the bottom line.

I'm not surprised that it's still the bottom line. If they lose control of that, they lose control of nationalism, racism, class -- everything.

What do you hope to see in terms of women's rights in your lifetime?

I would like to live to see reproductive freedom, at least as basic as freedom of speech. That means different things in different countries. In some places, it's child marriage as well as contraception. In other places, it's female mutilation in an effort to control reproduction.

What do you hope the future holds in terms of the women's movement?

Everything. Reporters sometimes say to me, "Aren't you interested in anything but the women's movement?" I say, "Tell me something that's separate from the women's movement." In 40 years, no one has ever been able to come up with an answer. The women's movement transforms everything. It transforms families; makes them democratic. It transforms the whole idea of leader and lead and who cooks and who eats. It transforms everything.

There's nothing that the women's movement doesn't change. For instance, as I was looking up statistics for today I learned that if women only had equal pay as men for comparable work, you would -- in this country -- cut the poverty rate in half and every woman would get an average of $150 dollars more per week. Women of color would get an average of $350 more per week. We'd have $200 billion more circulating in the economy. And yet that is not spoken of when we read reports about the economy.

You are a role model to so many people. Women like Ann Curry and Joy Behar have spoken about how you've inspired them. How does that make you feel?

It's very moving and satisfying. I think we all want to have an impact on the world for the better, so it's very rewarding to think that that's true. It's a chain. As they say, you can't be what you can't see. I got that from other women -- and some men were encouraging too -- but mainly from other women.

You speak at a variety of engagements throughout the year. What do you hope people take away from hearing you speak?

It's hard for me to say because people take away different things. I hope that they take away an increased sense of possibilities and diminished boundaries, wherever that is in their lives.