Q&A: Gloria Steinem
Activist icon is the 2016 Liz Carpenter Series Lecturer on Wednesday
By Jessi Cape,
12:35PM, Mon. Sep. 12, 2016
Political activist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem is the 2016 Liz Carpenter lecturer at the University of Texas LBJ Auditorium on Wednesday, and her talk is entitled “For Want of a Nail – the 2016 Election and YOU."
Steinem’s 2015 book My Life on the Road details her decades of travel and how conversations change the world, and the recent paperback release (Random House, $18) features a new chapter, “Secrets.” The Chronicle caught up with the powerhouse by phone to chat about her friendship with Carpenter, her views on the expectations of Trump v. Clinton, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and what she orders on her pizza.
Austin Chronicle: You mention Austin and Texas several times throughout the book -
Gloria Steinem: I still have a shirt somewhere that says The People's Republic of Austin.
AC: That’s us. A little blue island in a sea of red. You recount a conversation with a former prisoner in an Austin bar. I'd like to get your thoughts on the DOJ’s [Department of Justice] recent announcement that they're going to end contracts with private prisons.
GS: Yes, I was so grateful that it happened. There are still, I believe, 30 states who do have prisons run for profit, so we have a long way to go, but this is going to make a big difference - I hope - in the state legislatures as they vote on this issue.
AC: Agreed. In other recent news, there is the Dakota Access Pipeline. You talked about your conversations with Native American groups a lot in the book, so I want to get your thoughts on the DAPL and President Obama's halt on it [Friday].
GS: Yes, yes. I am grateful for that, too. Those demonstrations have been going on for a very long time, at very great sacrifice. It's about every possible kind of issue: sacred land, the environment, the water table. I've been trying to support and send out messages of support. It's hopeful, isn't it, that actions from the ground up can really make a difference.
AC: It is, and I think it speaks to the power of protest and civil disruption, and how it can make a difference. You're certainly an expert on that …
GS: You know, I think that part of our problem as a country is that we think change comes from the top. We don't understand that, like a tree, generally speaking, it grows from the bottom. To some extent, this has been foisted on us. I’m old enough to remember when Richard Nixon invented the election tactic of saying, "Politics is dirty. Your vote doesn't matter," and so on. Because he could only win with a low voter turnout. So I hope we take this to heart and transfer it to the election.
AC: Seems like the exact same thing happening now. I think a lot of people are so discouraged with the craziness this election cycle is bringing, and that's what your talk is about for the Liz Carpenter series.
GS: Yes, I'm very glad we have a chance to talk about it. I'm really looking forward to it because I get to talk to students first [at a student-only seminar hosted by UT professor Alexandra Wettlaufer], which is very helpful to see where we are. Maybe we can share their messages at the later lecture. We just need to realize that the voting booth is the only place on Earth where the least powerful and most powerful are equal. And consider the fact that in India the voting turnout rate is greater than ours, despite all the problems of poverty and illiteracy. Obviously, it isn't all we can do, but it's something we can't live without.
AC: I think voter turnout will largely determine this election, too. It’s interesting how mainstream media are portraying the differences in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I know you're a big Hillary backer. Did you catch the news today, and social media’s response to her issuing an apology for saying half of Trump’s supporters are ["deplorables"]? … I wonder if you think there's a gender bias there. Trump never apologizes for saying way worse things.
GS: There is an overall bias because we respond to people based on our expectations of them. We have such low expectations of Trump that it's very different. We have high expectations of Hillary Clinton, so we may become hypercritical. There is also a gender element, conscious and otherwise. And, actually, I myself don't remember enough until I'm in another country and see exactly the same things, like when I was in Australia. [Prime Minister Julia Gillard] got all the same kinds of hatred as Hillary is getting: "You're too ambitious; you're dishonest," and so on. If you Google it, you'll find a speech she gave about it.
AC: It’s fascinating to watch this whole cycle, and I've never seen anything like it. Have you ever seen an election like this?
GS: No. No. Because Trump says things every day that would scuttle a whole campaign of the past. He probably should be hospitalized rather than elected. [Laughs]
AC: Seems reasonable to me. I found a picture of you with Liz Carpenter before the opening of the first National Women's Conference.
GS: Yes, it's both sad and celebratory for me to be giving a lecture in her name, because I miss her.
AC: She was a friend?
GS: She was a friend, yes. As part of the White House under the Johnson administration, she was, nonetheless, part of the women's movement. She was present at a lot of major events: the founding of the National Women's Political Caucus, Democratic Conventions. We once campaigned together. I forgot what the year was, but it was in a van that she had a name for … the Grasshopper Express, I think. We would stop in supermarket parking lots and have rallies. Liz had great energy and humor and was very all-encompassing, with many, many different kinds of people. She made it fun.
AC: Tell me about the title of your talk, “For Want of a Nail: The 2016 Election and YOU.”
GS: If you look in my road book, in the chapter called "The Political Is Personal," there is a parable about following the pattern “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.” [It deals with Anita Hill challenging Clarence Thomas as a member of his staff.] He was visible in Washington as a rare black right-winger who was willing to go against his community and tried to dismantle the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]. Clarence Thomas ends up on the Supreme Court as the deciding vote to deny a recount for the election that should have elected Al Gore instead of the second Bush. And because of that, we then got a long path to economic polarization, the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, two wars in Iraq, Afghanistan. It just goes on. You'll see it.
It's true today, especially because this is the first national election in a very long time without the Voting Rights Act and federal supervision, and in many states, there have been restrictions on voting, closing on university campuses, and in poor neighborhoods. We may need to not just vote, but to fight the vote. We've gotten some court rulings, and they, too, are being challenged, so we really need to be vigilant. Some of what we can do is drive other people to the polls or take care of their kids. We just need to think in a communal way and look at the people around us.
AC: Yes, transportation is a big deal, and it speaks to the way America holds our values in terms of communities. I like to meet my neighbors because it makes me feel safer, but a lot of people don't feel the same way. I think that contributes a lot to the divisiveness we see right now.
GS: Yes, I think so. It’s part of the reason that in surveys, New Yorkers are found to be happier than other Americans because at least we see each other. We walk to the drug store, to the shoe repair. We meet our neighbors, we take communal transportation. It’s very different. We’re not locked up in a tin can as much.
AC: You’re kind of forced out into society, where you're inevitably going to make conversation, which is what you talk about in the book. How conversations with strangers open our mindset.
GS: Right. It’s a form of meditation because it causes you to be in the present, to be open to it. The goal of meditation is to be fully alive in the present, and I think that being open to the people around us and listening is meditative therefore.
AC: Absolutely. Your world travels and [those resulting conversations] are a large part of the book as well. Do you have a favorite place? Is that even possible?
GS: It is hard, I have to say. Obviously this country is my home, and New York is my home, but traveling is my life at the same time. Which, as I say in the book, is probably how we evolved. We were following the crops, the animals, the seasons. The whole community traveled. The idea that you have to settle down is probably the result of industrialization, when people began to have jobs and salaries instead of living with the natural cycle of growth and seasons. I wonder if our cellular structures are adapted to travel, expecting to travel.
AC: Makes sense to me, and reminds me of the Werner Herzog doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams that I just watched. Have you seen it?
GS: No, what's it like?
AC: It's great. Kind of poetic and a little creepy. The whole premise is that there's a huge cave system [Cave of Chauvet Pont-d’Arc] in France where they've dated the cave paintings to around 30,000 years ago. They were able to piece information together and figure out different patterns of the Paleolithic people and animals.
GS: I'd love to see that.
AC: It's on Netflix now. But back to books. Do you have a favorite book or author or genre?
GS: It's hard to pick favorites, but my favorite genre is an essay. You start in one place, to tell a story, you have the magnetism of narrative, and you end in a place you couldn't have predicted in the beginning but is absolutely right by then end. I think Alice Walker is the master of the essay form.
AC: She is so wonderful. What would advice would you give someone who wants to be a journalist or a writer of any kind?
GS: Follow your interests. We are probably more perceptive and accurate when we're following what we care about, or what affects us, though we need as journalists to be able to take assignments as well. And remember to make clear what is a fact and what is opinion, but also give the reader your own eyes because you are present and you need a narrative in order to allow the reader to see through your eyes. I would not say that we don’t need to follow anymore of the old "who, what, when, why, where" formula with the inverted pyramid, with all facts so that the telegraph operator could cut it off from the bottom up. That was a function of linear technology and transmission, so we’re better able to tell stories again.
AC: It makes that link back to when stories were primarily oral.
GS: I think so, too.
AC: Last question. Several of us are wondering what you order on your pizza.
GS: [Laughs] Well, I'm a vegetarian, so everything that's available that isn't sausage.
Gloria Steinem delivers the 2016 Liz Carpenter lecture “For Want of a Nail – the 2016 Election and YOU" Wed., Sept. 14, 7pm, at the LBJ Auditorium, 2313 Red River. All tickets have been claimed, but to add your name to the waitlist, visit here.