By Marsha Sutton
I never expected tears. But without warning my eyes began to well up when I heard her speak about social justice, the endless fight for gender equality, and the desperate need in the world to embrace our common humanity.
The embarrassing trickle became a torrent when a young woman asked her what was the best part of being a feminist advocate.
“You,” she said without hesitation. That did it for me, as I reached for the tissues.
It’s Gloria Steinem, of course – gracious, lovely, articulate, passionate, full of humility, and inspirational as ever.
Steinem spoke Oct. 3 at Congregation Beth Am in Carmel Valley before a tremendous crowd of 1,300, women and men of all ages, who greeted her with thunderous applause. She was the inaugural speaker of Beth Am’s newly instituted Inspiring Minds Speaker Series, and the title of her presentation was “Feminism: The Longest Revolution.”
News for those who think the revolution is over because so many rights have been won is that setbacks abound. Legal challenges that seek to legitimize discrimination against women and reverse hard-fought battles continue to pop up like Whack-a-Mole.
“We’ve already lost most of Roe vs. Wade,” she said, referring to the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
Steinem said the way women have been “kept in our place in this country is to say how much better off we are” – both geographically, compared to many third-world countries, and historically, given the progress in the last 40 years.
But do we stop caring at the edges of our borders? Have we achieved parity and equal opportunity in the workplace? Is there respect for full-time homemakers? Does domestic violence still exist? Are rape victims stigmatized? Do women have full reproductive freedom?
“To say to girls you can be anything you want to be is a lie,” Steinem said. “Then when they come up against boundaries, they perceive it as their own fault.”
The icon of the modern feminist revolution, Steinem rocked my world.
She was the ultimate transformative figure in my life. She did for me what personal heroes do – provide a “click” in our thinking, a moment that suddenly brings clarity to our lives, explains mysteries of human behavior, propels us to change.
Steinem introduced the concept of the “click moment” – an altered perception of your own life that never allows you to “go back” to being ignorant or uninvolved or self-absorbed. It’s when you suddenly get it – you see the discrimination, feel the wrong, experience the indignity.
She opened my eyes, 40 years ago, in 1972, just as I was entering college. She’s been with me longer than my husband of 35 years, and she changed my life forever.
She raised my consciousness in profound and lasting ways, just as she influenced – and continues to influence – generations of women and men.
Steinem inspired me to join the National Organization for Women, march for the Equal Rights Amendment, fight for abortion rights, demand equal pay, understand that rape victims never “ask for it” or deserve it, keep my own last name, not be embarrassed by my 5-foot,10-inch frame, pay my own way, and speak up for justice, human rights and deeply held values.
One of her most important lessons was the power of language and how it can be used to denigrate, often unconsciously. Demeaning references to adult women – from “girl” to “chick” to “bitch” – were eliminated from my vocabulary after that particular “click.”
Even in the face of alarming political setbacks and abhorrent misogynistic rhetoric today that could never have been imagined 20 years ago, Steinem calls herself a “hope-aholic” and radiates sunny optimism.
Now a magnificent 78 years old, Gloria Steinem is still dazzling.
Her beauty was often regarded as a curious trait. Feminists in the 1970s were derisively characterized as “women’s libbers” and bra-burners and were portrayed as repellant agitators – loud, angry, ugly, masculine and decidedly unappealing.
It was easier for those threatened by the movement to dismiss the message if one could tar the message-bearer as caustic, alienating and radicalized.
But what to do with gorgeous Gloria? It was difficult to disregard and patronize her in the traditional way.
She became the symbol of modern feminism, protesting that women are too often judged by outward appearances when it’s what’s inside that matters.
Is she skilled at her job? Is she kind to her children? What are her talents? Is she honest? Does she listen to others? Will she speak up against injustice? Is she a worthy person?
These are not female traits but are human qualities, and on that we should all be judged equally. The women’s movement, she said, “is about the full humanity of both men and women.”
Many memories came flooding back to me, listening to her speak last week. She and the other early feminists inspired me, empowered me, embraced me, opened my eyes and woke me up.
So there she was, standing 10 feet away from me, my hero at a time in my life when I was desperate for meaning and purpose. As she left the podium and walked past me, I impulsively touched her arm without thinking and thanked her through my tears for changing my life 40 years ago.
“Good,” she said with a smile. “Now you go out and change other people’s lives.”
Quiet but powerful, soft-spoken and elegant, Gloria Steinem is empowering a new generation of young women and is still changing the world – one person at a time, one click at a time.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com