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Gloria Steinem “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, it doesn’t feel like I should be doing anything else”

A highlight of Festival of Debate 2022 so far, Gloria Steinem spoke of reproductive rights, not having children, Ms Magazine, and the importance of humour in activism. 

Hillary for Minnesota's Vote With Gloria event in Minneapolis
Lorie Shaull

In conversation with Gloria Steinem was a definite highlight from this year's Festival Of Debate, hosted by Desiree Reynolds. Gloria shared her experiences as a lecturer, political activist and feminist organiser.

Desiree discussed how the Toni Morrison quote, “If you can’t see yourself in what you’re reading: go ahead and write it”, is relevant to Gloria’s life and what she accomplished.

Gloria and Desiree first spoke about Gloria’s father, who made travelling accessible from a young age and showed Gloria some of what the world had to offer.

Gloria said: “He was a very interesting man. He had two points of pride: he never wore a hat, which men in his generation were meant to do and he never had a job where he worked for anyone else.”

She showed her fathers vintage business stationary and added: “He was like a showman. Even though he was just running a small summer resort, he felt himself to be in show business.”

Speaking about her mother, Steinem said: “By the time I was nine, the roles were reversed and I was looking after my mother because she wasn’t well. This might have been why I never felt tempted to have children because I had already filled that hole of being a carer.

“I grew up prematurely because I became responsible earlier than most at that age. Growing up in the 50s in a very conservative time, I thought that I would have to marry and have kids, but I could never imagine it.”

Desiree Reynolds

Gloria spoke about Ms Magazine, which she co founded, the first magazine that was for women and controlled by women. She said: “Women’s magazines prior never actually reflected women’s lives.”

For Gloria, writing is her true love. She said: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, it doesn’t feel like I should be doing anything else.

“We each have our own voice and we all feel comfortable expressing that in many ways. For me, my expression is within my writing. Believe it or not, public speaking used to feel like a nightmare for me.”

Gloria also spoke about the importance of laughter, saying: “A revolution without humour can’t really be that effective.

“It turns out that laughter is the only emotion which can’t be compelled. You can make someone afraid, you can even make someone fall in love if kept captive and dependent for long enough, but you can’t force somebody to laugh.

“That says to me that it is a proof of freedom. If you’re in a place where you can’t laugh, then there is a lack of freedom there. We need to value and seek and treasure laughter more than we probably do.”

On the increasingly important topic of reproductive rights, Gloria spoke of them as an essential human requirement, saying: “You really can’t have democracy if you don’t have freedom over your own body.

“Women’s body’s have a unique procreative function and therefore are sometimes controlled.”

She spoke about reproductive rights as the most important feminist progression that she has seen in her lifetime. Since the event, the Roe v. Wade case means that there is discussion about taking away the right to have an abortion. This would be an incredible step back for women and their rights to make decisions involving their own bodies.

An audience member asked: “As a Gen X, my life has been made better by women like you, so what can I do to help millennial and Gen Z women? What’s the next thing we all should do?”

Gloria responded: “We need to do the most that we can with our unique and individual self. It’s about being who you uniquely are and finding a community that supports you."

Desiree said one of the things she has read that resonated with her was "one of the first things we can do in activism is to listen."

Gloria added: “Democracy, which we think comes from the government, actually is more like a tree. It grows from the bottom upwards, so if we practice democracy in daily life, like listening as much as we talk, just equalising talking and listening makes a huge difference.

"Also, creating democracy in the home is very important. For example, fathers are parents just like mothers; are they taking equal parts in childcare? Do women have as much life outside the home as the man? It’s about equalising the circles and institutions that we are a part of every day.”

Learn more

Find upcoming Festival of Debate events, including Shon Faye and Jeremy Corbyn, on the Festival of Debate website.

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