There are some moments at festivals that leave you shaken and inspired. That happened tonight.
The ASB theatre at the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunnels for an evening with Gloria Steinem, and it quickly became clear that the title was spot on: we were with her in a profound way.
The interviewer, the director of the Edinburgh Book Festival Nick Barley, could not have mattered less. It was annoying that they’d shipped in a British bloke to interview Steinem when we have people right here steeped in the history of NZ feminism who could have brought valuable insight to the stage, but never mind. If his questions were anodyne, he at least had the sense to mostly listen.
The interview part of the session was thus mostly a retread of Steinem’s greatest hits. Even though she’s been talking about this stuff for literally decades, she still shone with mana, humility and generosity.
Where the session really got going, though, was with the audience questions. For a start, we weren’t limited just to questions. Steinem invited us to comment, to give answers – “you all know things I don’t know” – even to make organisational announcements. The magic was that it felt genuine. We really all did feel that we were with her, talking in what used to be called a consciousness-raising group (“now we call them book clubs”).
One young woman asked where Steinem sees feminism in fifty years’ time, and she said “I want it to be wherever you want it to be”. Although she is rightly hailed as a leader of the feminist movement, Steinem came across as genuinely non-hierarchical. She gave us all the sense that it is within us to shape not only feminism but our society and politics at large. Steinem said some women bemoan the fact that their daughters don’t know she is, “but if your daughter knows who she herself is, that’s the whole point”.
Another young woman – and it was very heartening to see so many young people present tonight (she says at the grand old age of 35) – asked about nomenclature, which I sometimes think is the bane of feminism today. Steinem said “it isn’t about the word, it’s about the issues”. A 14-year-old girl asked how she can be a feminist in her high school when most of her peers don’t know what feminism is. Steinem told her to find an instance of injustice (try comparing the budgets for boys’ and girls’ sports teams, for example) and organise to challenge it: “change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”. The doing is the thing.
A couple of women asked how to stay motivated in the face of apparently unending sexism and prejudice. The answer is to stay connected: “We are communal animals and need each other … if you have support you can go forever and it is the greatest life in the world”.
Although of course the crowd mostly comprised her admirers, I was pleased to hear some people challenging Steinem on some topics – critical debate is important and too much sycophantic devotion can’t be good for anybody. Yesterday at The State of America a woman in the audience asked her to explain her comment about young feminists supporting Bernie Sanders because that’s where the boys are. She said she’d been cut off mid-sentence in that interview and was making a larger point, although unfortunately she was then cut off again before she could fully explain. She did comment wryly on the Twitter storm: “I’ve been maligned a lot in my life but never with such brevity”.
Tonight one woman got up and challenged Steinem’s stance on sex workers’ rights, and there was a short, lively argument about whether or not the Swedish model criminalises sex workers’ clients (the audience member said it did, Steinem said it didn’t). There was another interesting argument – between audience members, mostly, rather than with Steinem – about abortion in Aotearoa, how legal it is and how feasible. That was when I particularly wished the chair had been a New Zealander with the appropriate expertise, so they could have added some clarity.
Two women availed themselves of Steinem’s invitation to make organisational announcements: one spoke about a new website for young Kiwi women who are struggling, which will be launching next month, and another about how Thursdays in Black has been relaunched on campus to protest against sexual violence.
Before her well-deserved standing ovation, Steinem urged us to connect with each other, to talk to a couple of people we don’t know right now and share ideas. There was a real buzz in the Aotea Centre after the session, as we lined up in the signing queue (nearly out the door) and people just generally hung about to chat. I got talking to a few different women and connected in person to people I’d only seen on Twitter, it was great.
And then, after about twenty minutes in the signing queue as I got closer to Steinem, I started fighting back tears. All of a sudden it was my turn. I gave her my copy of her latest book My Life on the Road, told her my name. She signed it for me. I tried to put into words the profound effect feminism continues to have on my intellectual and emotional development, and the depth of my gratitude to the women who have come before me – are still around me – and who have fought for my right to be recognised and treated as a human being complete unto myself. I tried to tell Steinem that she is my forebear and that her work and legacy has helped to shape me and my sense of myself; my sense of who I can be and what I can do in the world; my sense of my own value and voice. I wanted to convey my visceral feeling that in some fundamental sense I come from her, that she is part of my whakapapa. I wasn’t very articulate; I think the actual words I spoke to her included the phrase “you are the grandmother of my brain”. She smiled at me and looked me in the eye and said “someday, someone will thank you in the same way”.