At the podium, with the new medal around her neck, Steinem described herself as a “hope-aholic,” full of a controlled optimism about what lies ahead for American life, decades after the feminist storm she helped to create in the 1970s.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Wanted: Big thinkers

6 min read

At Radcliffe, feminist Gloria Steinem outlines the challenges ahead

Iconic feminist, writer, and activist Gloria Steinem spoke in Cambridge today (May 28), outlining her hopes for the future as she addressed a luncheon sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which awarded her this year’s Radcliffe Institute Medal.

The institute, the successor to Radcliffe College, presents the medal annually during the Radcliffe Day lunch. The medal always goes to women famous for rocking boats, including in the past jurist Sandra Day O’Connor and author Toni Morrison.

During an introduction under a cavernous tent staked into Radcliffe Yard, institute Dean Barbara J. Grosz called Steinem, a 1956 magna cum laude graduate of Smith College, a “relentless pursuer of fairness,” and a signature American activist known for an “ability to disagree without demonizing.”

At the podium, with the new medal around her neck, Steinem described herself as a “hope-aholic,” full of a controlled optimism about what lies ahead for American life, decades after the feminist storm she helped to create in the 1970s.

“I live in the future,” said Steinem, who offered a reason for her mindset: “maybe because I spent my teenage years trying to get out of Toledo.”

The future includes a need for the kind of “big thinkers” that academic seedbeds like the Radcliffe Institute can provide, she said, fueling creative minds to grapple with the emerging issues of the age “as if females mattered.”

There is a need, for instance, to capture the true economic value of care giving in the home, which she called unheralded toil that is “an indispensable 30 percent of all work in this nation.” Make it tax deductible for those who pay taxes, she suggested, and tax refundable for those below the poverty line.

And what about the true economic value of the environment? “This is a project for a deep thinker at the institute,” said Steinem, with Harvard President Drew Faust looking on. “We need you.”

Another issue needing a deep thinker is a study of where violence originates, she said, pointing out that even nation-scale outbursts often originate in “a normalization of violence in the home.”

Then there is the need for “laws against bodily invasion,” said Steinem, which might also protect against “involuntary testing, DNA theft, and the dangers of organ transplantation.”

Society needs to study religious cultures “in which godliness resides in all living things,” she said, in a refutation of the inbuilt patriarchy of monotheism. “God was withdrawn from females and from nature in order to justify conquering females and nature.”

These are grave issues, but Steinem seldom discussed them gravely. In fact, she used part of her acceptance speech on a David Letterman-style “Top 10” list.

“There were so many things to say in a short time,” said the co-founder of Ms. magazine.

Steinem started with No. 10, though it was not the point of least importance: “Don’t ever believe men can’t change,” she said, recalling the days of secretaries who did nothing but type. “Then suddenly computers appeared and — voila! — men could type.”

No. 9: “All grownups should be able to get married, as long as they don’t hit one other,” said Steinem, but she added that lifetime partnerships should not be the only measure of success. “As Margaret Mead often pointed out, marriage worked better in the 19th century because people only lived to be 50.”

No. 8: “Nobody prepares you for this, but former lovers become family,” she said, recalling a college fiancé “who remained my friend, as did his daughters, and at least one of his wives. When that wife asked me to speak at his funeral, though she wasn’t going to speak herself, she said: ‘I would be angry and inappropriate. You weren’t married to him. You’ll be fine.’ ”

No. 7: “We’ve demonstrated to the American majority’s satisfaction that women can do what men can do. But we haven’t convinced even ourselves that men can do what women do,” said Steinem, giving her a segue to the next point.

No. 6: “Nothing much is going to change until men are raising children as much as women are,” she said to wide applause. “Women won’t be equal outside the home till men are equal inside the home.”

No. 5: “All parents, men as well as women, need to get mad,” said Steinem, about what our modern democracy lacks, including a national system of child care, family-friendly work policies, real sex education, “and, yes, government health care. Get mad.”

No. 4: Pay no attention to the idea that life and looks disappear under the cloak of childrearing after 30 — or even the modern idea that success has to appear by then. “From the bottom of my heart, I want to say life gets greater — and more surprising — after 40, 50, 60, and, yes, 70.” The crowd, which included tables of Radcliffe graduates going as far back as 1936, roared.

No. 3: “From nation states and national borders, to gender, race, and even generations, all categories are fictions,” said Steinem. “Reality isn’t about ranking, it’s about linking.”

No. 2: “Women got in this jam because our bodies are the means of reproduction,” she said. “The only way out is to establish reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right.”

No. 1: Issues of race and sex are intertwined. “The past, present, and future truth is that racism punishes all women because our bodies are controlled in order to maintain that racial difference,” said Steinem.

She called for “one, true movement” combining those oppressed by racial and sexual injustice. “Imagine how that coalition would grow,” said Steinem, “if it were not cynically divided.”

But despite all that, she found room for hope and optimism. “This country is becoming free,” she said of the transformative cultural unhinging under way in recent decades.

Then again, the first moment of freedom is the moment of “maximum danger,” precisely as it is for a woman just escaping from an abusive marriage, said Steinem. “But we will not stop seeking freedom, either.”