In the first post in this series, I shared Gloria Steinem’s reminder to us all that “Dreaming is a form of planning.” Considered the Mother of Feminism, Gloria Steinem’s activism spans across decades and movements. Over the course of her long career, from being a Smith College graduate who went undercover as a Playboy bunny to a leading spokeswoman and champion of the feminist movement, Steinem has dreamed, planned for, and helped create the better world that she imagined. In this piece, I share a few influential moments from Gloria that have left lasting impressions for me.
I can still remember the feeling—maybe it manifested into a scream?— when Gloria Steinem was being interviewed just eight feet from me on a makeshift stage in the West Village.
To the question, “What is the most important thing we can do for girls?” she replied, “Get them involved with sports. If you want girls to think of themselves as instruments and not ornaments, get them involved in sports.” I stood up and shouted, “YES!” Ok, actually, that part was in my head... But there is something incredible about hearing an icon like Steinem state something as simple and powerful as “get her involved in sports.” This is a statement that hundreds of women’s sports activists, athletes, feminists, coaches, teachers, and researchers have said for decades. But here we were in 2010 and here was Gloria Steinem at a funky off-broadway theater in New York again stating the obvious…
A few years earlier, I had met Steinem backstage at the Waldorf Astoria. She was presenting an award at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Annual Salute to Women in Sports. Billie Jean King was to join her on stage and before going out there, they took a moment for a quick Twitter-like exchange. Gloria told Billie, ”I finally got it! The women’s movement isn’t just from the neck up.“
Billie was her enthusiastic, fist-pumping self and said, “YES! You got it!” For embodied leaders like me, I knew we had arrived when Steinem said yes, our bodies are a part of our feminist leadership and voice. My Life on the Road, where Steinem writes, “You’re always the person you were when you were born, you just find new ways of expressing it.” Looking at how we use our unique bodies and minds, it is so easy to get pulled into the expectations of others. Some people think there is one right path or too many limits. But through her life and her leadership, Steinem shows us how this is never the case.
Steinem was put down for using her body to infiltrate the system. She was shamed for being too pretty, too fashionable, too bold, or too fun. Sound familiar? To expose the atrocities faced by women and change the system, she had to follow the rules of that time. We have made so much progress, yet we are still dealing with most of the issues Steinem exposed then.
Steinem dedicated My Life on the Road to the English doctor, Dr. John Sharpe, who, she writes, was the physician who gave her an abortion—another action that often brings tremendous shame and pain to women. Unlike many men of his generation, Dr. Sharpe told her to “live the life she wanted” as a condition of the abortion. With that, Steinem has lived the life of the woman she was born to be. She has totally owned her body and mind. And when Steinem centered sports as important for women, she centered the fact that we own our bodies. We embody them as we walk through the office, as we check someone on the field hockey green, and when we stand before an audience in an auditorium. As we move forward in our movements for social justice, we use our bodies, minds, history, and lessons (from women like Steinem) to shift the world.
And now, in the wake of the 2016 election, feminism of all forms is back to centering our bodies. We’re fighting for control of our own bodies, thinking about how we choose to use our bodies, and exploring where we can get resources of all forms to better care for ourselves. Now more than ever, the powers of our bodies need to be used and centered as ours. Arguably, shortly prior to 2016, the feminism that Steinem and so many others fought for and had finally felt possible had hopes of flourishing. Now, the abortion rights we won in the 60s and 70s are being scraped away by state and local governments and the Supreme Court. The same woman who infiltrated the Playboy Club to expose the atrocities towards women’s bodies and unrealistic exceptions on women’s bodies is now living through the #MeToo Culture. She is witnessing the fall of so many male predators with zero impulse control and distorted ideas of what respecting women and all humans looks like.
I believe all of the minor movement buildups throughout time have led us to this point. Women have been silenced, shamed, and objectified for so long. But the pent up energy and the work of activists before us will cause a volcanic release so large “they” won’t be able to silence us again.
Steinem has shown us in her work and activism that telling truth to power is not for the faint of heart. Look at the legacies of Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, Dolores Huertas, Marsha Johnson, Malala Yousafzai, Monica Lewinsky, and more. Speaking powerfully with passion and anger about a violation of your body, brain, and spirit takes a particular form of courage. Imagine walking into fire to retrieve a loved one. In 2017, I think we are walking into the fire to retrieve our collective ancient wisdom. I keep reminding my women friends—most of whom can or have grown a human in their body!—to channel that power and deeply rooted innate genius. How we choose to use this newly inspired strength remains to be seen.
So, what do I wish for the future?
I wish that the men who have abused and acted in violent, hostile, and non-loving ways are called out and challenged by their peers. We must uncover the scab of toxic masculinity, reset it with tenderness, and demand from men that they embody a dignified, equitable, respectful relationship with the women in their life. We must demand this as well from those men who perform allyship as a shield to the harm they inflict, for example, as Weinstein did when he “funded a gender studies professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name, attended the Women’s March, campaigned for the first female presidential nominee by a major party and produced a documentary about sexual assault.” What men choose to do as allies at this time in history has immense possibilities. The #ThemToo movement can be a powerful step. Allyship must be more than window dressing and performative.
I wish, as Steinem wishes, that the energy released, the emotions shed, and vulnerability and strength being exposed right now is accompanied by strong financial support and investments in good women's rights groups! There are so many that are worthy depending on your focus and intent.
And I very much hope that we keep on encouraging each other. I think back to my encounters with and memories of Gloria and her wise words of encouragement often these days. Two of my favorite phrases, “Equality Rocks” (on my business card!) and “Eroticize Equality” (on my favorite shirt! Steinem explains the idea here) showcase exactly the energy we need to bring to the movement.
This is not at all the time to back down, so we absolutely must keep speaking truth to power and cheering each other on. We need all the energy and sass we can get.
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