Gloria Steinem: Encouraging trouble-makers – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Whatever your political leanings or beliefs about feminism, there is no denying that Gloria Steinem’s life has been an extraordinary one.

Cover of My life on the roadAt the Auckland Writers Festival recently she discussed her beliefs, hopes for the future, and life’s journey as encompassed in her memoir My life on the road.

The audience was full of feminists of all ages. Teenagers to grandmothers, gathered to hear what she had to say. And as it turned out, to talk to each other about it afterwards. By far, of the all the sessions I attended at this year’s festival, this was the one that had the most noticeable sense of community about it, even as disagreements occured – but more on that later.

I arrived early, and was treated to an unexpected glimpse of the woman herself – off to the side in a roped off area in the balcony concourse of Aotea Centre – Gloria Steinem was addressing a small crowd in some kind of reception hosted by the US Embassy.

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem addresses a small gathering organised by the US Embassy, Auckland Writers Festival 2016, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00954

Later when she walked out on stage to sit down with Nick Barley, The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, there were a higher than average number of “whoops” from the crowd, which led me to wonder if the Americans in the audience might be responsible, and sure enough, Steinem herself confirmed that the mayor of Los Angeles was in attendance.

Given the incredible life that Steinem has had, it’s difficult to recap that here and this session, even with it running slightly over time, was never going to be long enough.

But here are just a few things that stood out for me the most –

Steinem reading out the dedication from her book which is to the English doctor who provided her with an abortion when she was 22 years old, had just broken off her engagement, and was en route to India. It was illegal at the time and the doctor made her swear to secrecy. This is not a topic that women often discuss this openly and plainly and for that reason alone it made an impression.

Her discovery in India of “talking circles” and the realisation that the ability to talk about terrible experiences is transformative.

All movements start this way, with consciousness raising groups – now we call them book clubs…

Gloria Steinem at the signing desk
Gloria Steinem at the signing desk, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-13-DSC00942

Her mild (I can’t believe it’s only mild) annoyance that, in her eighties,  she’s still described by people as an ex-bunny because of the 1963 exposé she wrote on conditions for the women working at the Playboy Clubs. She was a journalist and went undercover for a time as a bunny in order to reveal shocking practices like telling women that they were required to undergo an gynaecological exam in order to serve liquor in New York State.

At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. It has been a blight in some ways… People say “What does she know? She was a bunny”.

Her thoughts regarding feminism and the trans community.

Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing… It’s fundamentally the right thing because it’s dispensing with false categories.

On the younger generation of feminists, and the concerns that some mothers have that their daughters aren’t sufficiently well educated about feminism.

Women say to me with some alarm, “my daughter doesn’t know who you are!”

But does she know who she is? Because that’s the whole point.

As you would expect there were some really challenging questions from the audience covering topics as broad as decriminalising prostitution, if feminism is supportive enough of women in non-Western countries with different cultural norms, how to promote feminism at your high school (answer: find something that’s sexist and unfair and fight to fix it) and abortion law in New Zealand (over which there was some confusion and disagreement in the audience, but is, as one woman asserted, covered by the Crimes Act 1961.) One woman read out a question which she had rather appropriately written on the back of her birth control prescription!

But probably the best part was that Steinem threw the mic open, not just to questions, but to women wanting to make announcements for upcoming events and “troublemaking meetings”. She also encouraged everyone, as they left, to talk to two or three other people and to try and make connections. Because, I suppose, this is how movements that aren’t just book clubs happen.

No doubt there was a lot of talking and making of connections in the book-signing queue after the session as it was so long it nearly made it out the door and into Aotea Square. An hour later Steinem was still signing.

Signing queue for Gloria Steinem
Signing queue for Gloria Steinem, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00957

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The State of America – Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem, and Thomas Mallon at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem
Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem and Thomas Mallon. Image supplied

Before the Auckland Writers Festival began, possibly even before I finished reading the programme, I’d picked yesterday’s The State of America session as a must-see.

I’m happy to say that my intuitions were bang on. It was a cracker of a panel, with smart people saying a succession of smart (and sometimes profane) things. Put it this way – if you think Donald Trump’s an idiot and enjoy listening to smart people elaborate on just how true that is then you probably would have enjoyed this hour of the festival as much as I did.

Guyon Espiner, (who drolly summed up his career as writing for newspapers “when they were still a thing” followed by television journalism, which was also alluded to as a thing that had gone the way of the dinosaurs – this got a laugh) was in the enviable position of not really having to do much beyond throw out the occasional question, such was the calibre of the panelists and the flow of the conversation.

And what panelists. Janna Levin is an astrophysicist with a PhD from MIT in Physics. Espiner rattled off a list of her achievements (including an award winning novel) that seemed longer than the queue to get into the auditorium and then followed up with “…but can she explain Donald Trump’s popularity”. To which her response, with reference to her astrophysics background was, “I’m not interested in anything that happened more recently than 500 million years ago”.

Thomas Mallon, who I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with was more conservative in his politics (he didn’t vote for Obama but still wept when he won because of what an amazing thing for America that was), but he was certainly just as scathing of Trump as anyone and possibly more critical of the Republican party and the predicament it finds itself in because of his history of leaning that way politically.

And of course, Gloria Steinem, who if you were looking for a polar opposite of Donald Trump, would make an exceedingly good candidate. When she walked out on stage she was greeted as a rock star, and in her leather jacket, Steven Tyler-esque scarf and silver belt, she did very much look the part.

One thing that Gloria Steinem talked about was the insidious and pervasive influence that whole industries have on the US political process. She puts the lack of a functional public healthcare down to the insurance industry, and says that members of the legislature are often Insurance Agents by trade. When something seems nonsensical or against what most people want, if you follow the money it leads you to the source of the issue (like the NRA’s power to halt gun control laws). This somewhat mirrored Susie Orbach’s comments from yesterday in which she pointed out the various industries that make money from creating and exploiting feelings of inadequacy about our bodies.

Even so, Steinem still claims to be a “hopeaholic”, and thinks that things will change.

Possibly wanting to give the American panellists a break from the negativity, Espiner asked each what was cool about the US. This lead to discussions of the strength of diversity. The belief in innnovation, and an openness that Levin claimed shows on American faces.

There were many laugh out loud moments during the hour and some marvellous quotes, like the following.

I had the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer.

Thomas Mallon on the disability afforded him by a stable upbringing.

On Donald Trump

It’s a death knell for critical thinking.

Janna Levin

The only ideology he has is himself.

Thomas Mallon also described him as “grotesque and dangerous”.

We didn’t take it seriously soon enough. And by “we” I mean “sane people”.

Janna Levin

He’s a kind of proxy insulter.

Gloria Steinem

We survived Benedict Arnold. We survived Lee Harvey Oswald… We will survive this preposterous son of a b****.”

Thomas Mallon not mincing his words.

On Social Media

It’s a terrible way to discuss ideas.

Thomas Mallon on the limitations of Twitter.

I’ve been maligned a lot but not with such brevity.

Gloria Steinem on being misquoted and copping flak about it on Twitter.

On who could be the president

I want the girl to win.

Levin’s 9 year old daughter is Team Clinton.

Oh, I live for the day. A single, gay, Atheist. The only thing better than an Atheist would be a Pagan.

Gloria Steinem when asked whether an Atheist could ever be president.

It’s going to be hard to top this session for smart, wry, commentary. I think it may well be my favourite session of the festival.

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