Gloria Steinem Delivers Moving Speech at Northeastern
Last week, Gloria Steinem—the pioneering feminist activist, journalist, and cultural icon—spoke at Northeastern University. The event (which was open to the public) drew some 500 people. Steinem’s speech—on the role of the contemporary activist—was less than rigorous, but ultimately moving, and slightly enchanting. The speech was in many ways Gloria Steinem 101. She touched on themes of equality, compassion, understanding; the importance of listening, intersectionality, and respect—all hallmarks of her 50 year-plus career as an activist and organizer. Steinem—perhaps more than any of her peers—has evolved gracefully between the various schools of feminist thought. Sometimes, transformative thinkers can become locked in the discourse they bring about. Betty Friedan, for example—whose 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” is credited with launching the second-wave of feminism—spent her career focused only on the lives of white, middle and upper-class American women. (In her 1984 book, “From Margin to Center,” the black feminist bell hooks called “The Feminine Mystique” racist and classist, among other things.) Steinem, rather than honing her message over the years, has sought to make it more inclusive. She works alongside civil rights leaders, LGBT activists, and labor unions around the world. In her words, this intersectionality is critical to the survival and growth of feminism. She said during the speech, “We are at a time of rising consciousness…We are learning that black lives matter, that trans lives matter…That we are all in this together.”
Not only has her thinking aged elegantly. Steinem, at 82—82!—looks healthy, energized, and ready to take on the world in her middle-parted hair and black quasi-catsuit. (Steinem is not quite through with the ‘70s.) It’s not anti-feminist for me to describe her appearance in this way, because—as Steinem has repeatedly explained—looks are part of the package, another means of agency. She told a generation of women, you can be feminist and be beautiful; and taught them to reclaim the male gaze and refashion it.
During the second half of the evening, Steinem took questions from the audience. A line of young women assembled at the microphone. Most began by describing the impact Steinem has had on their lives, on their choices to become journalists or go to law school. Their questions were sharp and incisive. “How do we fight the institutionalized misogyny and racism within college administrations?” one student asked. “It’s complicated,” Steinem said. “But it begins by getting in the same room as [these] administrators. Letting them listen to you. Listening to them.” Listening, listening, listening. This may be Steinem’s not-so-secret means of revolution. And how simple!
Steinem spoke in a lot of similar aphorisms. “Nothing is small. Everything is big,” she said at one point. Could it really be this simple? Maybe so. Steinem, late in her speech, described an early epiphany; a seemingly small moment that launched her into this impossibly bright career. She watched a friend, an artist, walking down the street in New York: “She was in a long, flowing cape, and cowboy boots, and her head was held high. She just looked so … free. I wanted to be that. I wanted to be free.”