When confronted with the idea of inviting distinguished feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem to be this year’s Rachel Phillips Belash Speaker, Branksome Hall’s principal Karen Jurjevich thought, “But surely, she [Steinem] will never accept.”
Gloria Steinem however, accepted the invitation to be this year’s Rachel Phillips Belash Speaker, and visited last Monday for a conversation with the girls of Branksome Hall in the morning, followed by a sold-out public talk held at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall in the evening. The Rachel Phillips Belash Annual Lecture Series was established in June 1998 to honour Rachel Phillips Belash, the sixth principal of Branksome Hall.
Having played her role in founding the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Women’s Action Alliance, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Media Center, and Ms. Magazine, Steinem’s voice is one that audiences listen to with deference on discussions related to the development of girls and women.
Moderated by journalist Amanda Lang, the first question of the night regarded a statement that Steinem had made earlier in the day about the lack of division by gender in the Indigenous cultures that first existed among this land. Steinem mentioned the importance of acknowledging the history that has been studied since the appearance of the Europeans, and added, “The kind of hierarchical structure we have with gender and race and class […] is relatively new in history.”
Given our constructed reality of societal division, Steinem said that it is necessary for us to unlearn our ways. She noted that it helps immensely to be physically present among other people, not among things. In being together, Steinem emphasized, we should encourage one another and avoid criticizing ourselves unnecessarily, as this can lead to any observers, especially young girls, learning such self-deprecating tendencies.
Lang furthered the discussion by asking Steinem, with her decades of experience in activism, to comment on the progress in gender equality advocacy she has witnessed over time. Steinem joked, “One of the good things about being old is that you remember when it was worse.” Steinem said that although she does see progress, “Yes, slavery was abolished, but the racism that justifies slavery is still with us.”
Regarding feminism, an audience question for Steinem was whether she could characterize the difference between feminism today versus feminism back in the 1970s. “No,” the activist explained, “The fundamental idea of challenging hierarchy and challenging roles […] is still the same.”
Another question addressed if “women can have it all.” To this, Steinem replied, “You can’t have it all if you have to do it all.” She further suggested the idea that it’s not necessarily beneficial for a woman to be both a successful career woman and caring mother, as this may blind children to the ability of men to be just as loving and nurturing as women.
Later in the talk, the topic of the recently circulating #MeToo campaign arose.
The #MeToo campaign began over Twitter as actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to share their personal stories of sexual harassment. Steinem interestingly noted that sexual assault is not a matter of sex but of power. One can see this in prison, where men, who are not homosexual, will nonetheless sexually assault more vulnerable men in their presence to assert their masculine dominance. Such victims have told Steinem that in the absence of women, they have been used as women. Steinem noted that it’s unfortunate only then do some men understand the severity of sexual assault, which is common for women.
Closing the last questions of the night, a student of Branksome Hall asked about choice feminism and Steinem’s thoughts on the idea that women should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, inclusive of using the term “bitch” in an empowering way. Steinem responded, “It took me a long time to realize […] if someone had called me a bitch, I said, ‘Thank you.’”
A recurring idea in Steinem’s talk was the notion of togetherness. In the moments that we gather together, it is important for us to listen to each other.