It was a moment I’ll likely tell my granddaughters about – the night I was in the same [very large] room with Gloria Steinem.
While the feminist movement is blessed with many thousands of incredible women, there is only one reigning queen. On Saturday night, she swept onto Auckland’s greatest stage, bringing her 82 years of wisdom with her and leaving a trail of girl power in her wake.
She sat mere metres away, her characteristic wit flashing as fiercely as the studs on her blazer. She was the perfect antidote to a week that contained a rather notorious column and enough The Bachelor drama to make even the most relaxed feminist want to dash their brains out.
The only downside? Of all the considerably talented, famous and respected Kiwi feminists the Auckland Writers Festival organisers could have chosen to interview the leader of the movement, they instead opted for a British man. I’m sure Nick Barley is an esteemed chair, but on this occasion he was woefully out of his depth, and a widely unpopular choice, judging by the conversation in the foyer afterwards. Thankfully, Steinem was able to gradually lead him in the right direction as he floundered through questions phrased as statements that she’d already answered in her latest book, extrapolating answers to offer special insights to an audience hungry to hear from their idol.
Amid quips about the progress of the movement (from consciousness-raising circles to their modern day iterations – book clubs) she offered a glimpse into her early career, including her notorious stint as an undercover reporter at the Playboy Club.
Barley (somewhat embarrassingly) led with his assumption that Steinem’s Playboy exposé was one of the great turning points of her career. She dispelled the illusion swiftly. Serious journalistic stories she had lined up to cover after the Playboy feature suddenly disappeared. Her credibility was questioned. She is still to this day sometimes introduced as a “former bunny”.
A great career highlight it was not, but Steinem said she was glad that she’d written the story, citing the example of the compulsory gynaecological exams the bunnies were forced to endure that were quickly discontinued after the article was published.
Steinem has never been afraid to challenge the patriarchy, even when it penalised her for it. Post-Playboy, she went on to found the iconic Ms Magazine – to this day the only American women’s magazine that is owned by women.
It wasn’t always plain sailing, however. “There were moments when I used to fantasise the building would burn down,” she confessed. “Then I would be free of it and it wouldn't be my fault.”
She was unperturbed by Barley’s questions about trans rights – a line of questioning that has derailed contemporaries like Germaine Greer spectacularly in recent years.
Gloria Steinem’s opinion on trans rights? “Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing.” She’s in favour of “dispensing with false categories”.
Steinem’s greatest moments of the evening came as a result of questions from the floor, when women were allowed to lead the conversation. Asked a question about abortion, which set the a large proportion of the audience tittering in their ignorance of the still-criminal nature of the procedure in New Zealand, Steinem responded, “the power of the government has to stop at our skins,” qualifying that, “seizing control over our reproduction – it even sounds radical.”
“Children have a right to be wanted,” Steinem said, “there is nothing more sacred than having control over our bodies,” she finished, to rapturous applause.
She made sport of anti-abortion campaigners (“maybe they don’t read books”) and apologised on behalf of the US for inflicting Donald Trump on our screens. She believes that Hillary Clinton will win, and that there are things young feminists know that she doesn’t – although she generously offered practical advice to a 14-year-old feminist who wanted to know how to spread the word to her peers (“it’s not the word – it’s the substance,” she counselled, suggesting that she should find an example of inequality – such as the girls’ athletics team receiving less fundraising than the boys’ team – that would bring feminism to the fore).
She was, simply, everything. Intelligence, honesty, humour and an organiser to the end. Her last instruction of the evening? That anyone who had announcements to make about feminist gatherings should come to the microphone to share them with the whole room. Which they did.