‘If We Each Have a Torch, There’s a Lot More Light’: Gloria Steinem Accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom

"I'd be crazy if I didn't understand that this is a medal for the entire women’s movement," Steinem told a gathering at the National Press Club Monday.

(From left) Ms. Magazine and Women's Media Center co-founder Gloria Steinem, National Press Club President Angela Greiling Keane, and Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal at the National Press Club lunch. © Jenny Warburg

The first time journalist, organizer, and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem graced the podium at the National Press Club, it was as the first woman ever invited to do so. However many points one might give the club’s members for having chosen the country’s most famous feminist for that honor, some must be subtracted for their having handed her what was then the standard thank you gift to Press Club speakers: a man’s tie.

When Steinem took the podium on Monday, it was to mark her impending receipt of a far more welcome piece of neckwear: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to be bestowed on her by President Barack Obama at the White House Wednesday. “There is no president in history from whose hand I would be more honored to receive this medal,” she said.

“I’d be crazy,” Steinem told the Press Club audience, “if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement. It belongs to Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink.”

She noted that President Lyndon B. Johnson declined to give Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger the medal because, Steinem said, “he feared reprisal from the Catholic church.”

Radicalized by Abortion

Before she was known as a leader of the movement then called, in the popular lexicon, “women’s lib,” Steinem was the glamorous “girl writer” who had gone undercover as a Playboy bunny in an investigation for Show magazine, and whose male colleagues at New York Magazine, which she helped found, told her, she said, “You write like a man.” (That was intended as a compliment.)

Steinem’s “a-ha moment,” the thing that spurred her to the world of activism, she said, was a reporting assignment to cover an “abortion speak-out,” a gathering where women who had had abortions, which were then illegal, told their stories.

“And then I had an epiphany, which was related to my own experience. … I realized that I had not told the truth about having [had] an abortion myself at 22, and why?” she asked the Press Club audience. “If one in three American women, approximately, has needed an abortion at sometime in her life, why not? What was secret about it? And then as soon as I started to speak about it … I discovered it was often part of other people’s experience, or their families’ experience.”

She went on to tell her oft-repeated story of sitting in the back of a taxi in Boston with Florynce Kennedy, the movement pioneer who was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Columbia University School of Law. They were discussing Kennedy’s book, Abortion Rap (co-authored with Diane Schulder), when, according to Steinem, “the old, Irish woman taxi driver—very rare, probably, as a taxi driver—turned around to us, and she said: ‘Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.’”

“A woman’s ability to decide whether or when to have a child is not a ‘social issue.’ It is a human right,” Steinem said. “It is the biggest indicator of whether she is educated or not, can work outside the home or not, is healthy or not, and how long she lives.”

The Perfect Messenger

In 1972, when Steinem, together with Patricia Carbine, Joanne Edgar, Nina Finkelstein, Mary Peacock, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founded Ms., television had just come of age. (Full disclosure: I worked at Ms. for three years during the 1980s.) With her big brain, quick wit, stylish good looks, journalism bona fides and ready laugh, Steinem was the perfect messenger for a movement so often maligned as humorless and sexless. Her one-liners are legendary: Asked why she hadn’t married, she said, “I can’t mate in captivity.” At a party thrown for a milestone birthday, she replied to a reporter who said she didn’t look her age: “This is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?’

Taking questions after her remarks this week at the Press Club, Steinem was asked to name “a seminal moment” in her journey to feminism. “It would be an ovarian moment,” she quipped, before telling the story of covering the abortion speak-out.

One thing is certain: Whatever Steinem, with her rare combination of intelligence, talent, and riveting physical presence, had chosen to do with her life, she was destined for stardom. That she chose to use her gifts in the service of the feminism changed the lives of generations of women (mine among them), and continues to do so.

For if there was any overriding message of Steinem’s talk, it’s that there’s plenty of work to be done, and she’s all about doing it. (In 2005, for instance, she co-founded, with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, the Women’s Media Center, and she’s still constantly traveling, lecturing, and organizing.) And she expects you to be, too.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

In response to a question on the paucity of women’s history taught to school children, Steinem lamented the fact that textbooks skim over the history of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the struggles and triumphs of Native Americans.

“[T]he textbooks of Texas are a pretty good example of eliminating the history of social justice movements, because Heaven forefend we learn how it was done before, we might … do it again,” Steinem said. “However, having said that, if you gave me a choice between knowing history and getting mad about the present, I would say, get mad about the present.”

“I didn’t walk around saying, ‘Thank you for the vote,’” she continued. “I don’t know about you—I got mad because of what was happening to me. And I don’t think gratitude ever radicalized anybody.”

As Steinem explained, there’s a lot happening to a lot of people right now that is not so good: a barrage of anti-choice laws, attacks on voting rights, and targeting of immigrants. And thanks to the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts by right-wing Republicans who wound up in control of a total of 25 state legislatures and 29 governors’ mansions in the anti-Obama backlash that characterized the 2010 mid-term elections, the 2014 elections promise to be tough for liberals.

Asked if the nation was “moving backwards” regarding reproductive rights, Steinem noted that while progress has been made in terms of public opinion, the nation is moving backwards on access to abortion, because of the action in the state houses. When the question is phrased to ask a respondent whether the government or the individual should decide whether to continue a pregnancy, Steinem said, a majority of Americans come down on the side of the individual.

“[A]s we can see, the anti-choice forces have not been too successful in Washington, so they have moved to state legislatures,” Steinem said. “Though they murdered abortion doctors and firebombed clinics, that has proven not to be as successful as what they’re doing now, which is getting state legislatures to make impossible-to-fulfill rules for local clinics. And the only way we can change this it to pay attention to our state legislatures.

“So, our response has to be organizing,” Steinem continued. “Most Americans don’t know who their state legislators are, and that’s why … an anti-choice right-wing minority is able to do this, state by state.”

Steinem sees the frenzy of state-level anti-choice legislation as a backlash to the demographic shifts taking place in the United States, ramping up the fears of a segment of the non-Hispanic white population that it will soon be in the minority. She explained, “I mean, they’re very clear. ‘White women are not having enough children,’ they say to me. It’s why the issues all go together: the anti-immigration, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, and so on. So we have to take back our state legislatures.”

Not Giving Up Her Torch

In her one-hour talk, Steinem addressed an array of issues yet unresolved, unrealized, or unappreciated: equal pay, the Equal Rights Amendment, the scourge of domestic violence, work-life balance, the underrepresentation of women as pundits and news sources, the untold wisdom of indigenous cultures on matters of fertility, and the control thereof. She spoke poignantly of accompanying her friend, Wilma Mankiller, the late chief of the Cherokee nation, to the White House to receive her own Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998. (When Steinem married David Bale in 2000, at age 66, it was Mankiller who performed the ceremony. Bale died of cancer three years later.)

Asked by National Press Club President Angela Greiling Keane if she’d ever “wanted to hang it up,” Steinem replied, “Well, where would I hang it?”

An audience member wanted to know what issue, over the course of her career, she wished she had “been more fired up about.”

“What I should have been more in an uproar about is monotheism and religion,” Steinem said. “I mean, religion is, too often, politics you’re not supposed to talk about. Spirituality is democratic and in each of us; it’s a different story. But institutionalized, monotheistic religion—if God looks like the ruling class, the ruling class is God, let’s face it.”

Inevitably, the feminist leader was asked to share her words of wisdom for young women. “My big, serious message is, don’t listen to me; listen to yourself. That’s the whole idea. The best thing I can do for young women, I think, is to listen to them, because you don’t know you have something to say until somebody listens to you.”

I can attest from personal experience that Steinem means what she says. When I was at Ms., she listened as intently to a young staffer who piped up in an editorial meeting as she did to anyone else. But she’s not in the business of anointing, even, as she said, “I’m trying to absorb the fact that I’ll be 80 next year.”

“You know, people often ask me, at this age, who am I passing the torch to? And I always say, first of all, that I’m not giving up my torch, thank you very much,” she said to appreciative laughter from the audience. “But also, I’m using my torch to light other people’s torches. Because the idea that there’s one torch-passer is part of the bonkers hierarchical idea—and if we each have a torch, there’s a lot more light.”