Gloria Steinem keynote speech

Gloria Steinem speaker
Photos by Nina Zacuto

By Lygia Navarro, JAWS Fellow

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem awed the JAWS crowd by revealing that she is nearly an octogenarian. Every morning when she wakes up, Steinem joked later, she feels shocked that there is “a 78-year-old woman in my bed.”

When an audience member fretted about the gap between the feminist icon and teenaged girls who have never heard of Steinem, Steinem responded with: “I don’t care. Does she know who she is? If you give me a choice between knowing the past, and getting mad about the future, I’ll choose the future every time.”

And in brainstorming how to get younger American women engaged with feminist action and how election politics affect them, she said, “I’m not giving up my torch. I’m using my torch to light everybody else’s torches. I think the key to it is not to worry about what we should say to [young women], and just listen to them. Say, ‘What’s unfair in your life, and how can I help you fix it?’ The only way we know we have something to say is if someone listens to us.”

An example of listening closely to global problems facing women came from a trip to Zambia, in which Steinem met with a group of sex-trafficked women. The conversation went round and round, Steinem remembered, and finally she asked the women what they really needed to improve their lives. The answer? An electric fence to surround their maize fields—so that elephants wouldn’t keep coming in and eating up the crops that should bring income to pay school fees for the women’s children. With several thousand dollars from donors, Steinem helped the women to buy that electric fence.

“There’s enormous activity everywhere,” Steinem said. “It’s there if we know it and support it.” The crowd exploded in laughter when Steinem recounted news of women in Saudi Arabia riding donkeys instead of cars—because they’d heard that women rode donkeys in the Koranic era. “They’re riding donkeys to the big shopping centers and demanding parking spaces!” Yet media coverage of stories of women working for equality, she lamented, is still severely limited. “I would like to see that we get coverage that lets us know [the global feminist movement] is reignited big time.”

Despite her optimism about the future for women around the world, Steinem was less sanguine about the future of American women if Mitt Romney wins next month’s election. She decried how women’s issues are relegated to the backburner in political rhetoric, labeled “a social issue, not an economic issue, and every other kind of issue.” Citing Romney’s stringent position against abortion, Steinem said she was concerned that women she’d meet on the campaign trail didn’t believe that Romney would outlaw abortion (except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life), as he has stated he would. “They can’t believe that he would actually do it. It’s so far beyond their imagination that they think he wouldn’t really fulfill that argument. I hope that we can just get the facts out there and realize that these are not just social issues to be dispensed with. The voting booth is the only place on earth in which the least powerful equal the most powerful.”

Steinem and crowd
Photo by Nina Zacuto

In addition to reproductive freedom, Steinem called on the JAWS crowd to pay closer attention to violence against women—and to bring stories of that violence to their readers. While the United States rate of murders of women, or femicide, is not the highest internationally, it is “much higher than European countries, than Canada, than New Zealand,” Steinem noted. “Since 9/11, more women have been murdered by their husbands or their boyfriends than all the people killed in 9/11 and all of the [soldiers] killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.” That violence, Steinem continued, has far-reaching effects. “In more than 100 countries, the single highest determination in whether a country is violent with its neighbors, is not because the country is poor, suffers from natural resources, not religion, not even degree of democracy,” Steinem said. “It’s violence against females.

“Whatever [a country’s problematic] situation is,” Steinem continued, “it’s more likely to be solved by negotiation and without violence if the country doesn’t have a profound tradition of violence against females. This is the first form of violence, domination, power we see as children. It normalizes every other form, and offers the pattern of violence. Where is this knowledge in our foreign policy? And we dare to call it a social issue.”