USC welcomed Gloria Steinem, an internationally recognized feminist leader, on Wednesday night in an event that covered her life as a prominent activist, a journalist and a woman living through the gender revolution.
Steinem was interviewed by David Belasco, co-director and adjunct professor at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. The event was hosted by Program Board and sponsored by USC Visions & Voices, the USC Speakers Committee and the USC Marshall School of Business.
Belasco opened the nearly two-hour interview by asking Steinem about feminism and the long-debated and often misrepresented definition of the term amongst the public discourse.
“I don’t know how to say this, but it means what it says in the dictionary,” Steinem said. “It’s when a male or female believes in the full socio-economic, political equality and humanity of women.”
The conversation turned to Steinem’s upbringing and the realization of her feminist principles through witnessing her mother’s effort to balance career and family, all while struggling with her mental health.
“She tried to entertain her career as a journalist, she was the editor of a newspaper, but she had daughters and she had a supremely, wonderfully kind but totally irresponsible husband,” Steinem said. “But she just couldn’t do it. She suffered what they used to call a ‘nervous breakdown’ and was in a sanatorium for a couple years. She just gave it up.”
Steinem went on to describe the paralyzing effect of her mother’s predicament, contrasted with the freedom given to later generations to pursue their ambitions. In Steinem’s case, she went on to study at Smith College and began a career in journalism.
“By the time I knew her, she had given up everything she loved, everything she cared about,” Steinem said. “I became aware very early, once I became a writer, that I was living out her unlived life. There’s nothing sadder than wasted talent.”
Belasco asked Steinem to describe her switch from writer to activist, the latter of which defined her career as a symbol for the women’s liberation movement.
“I went to cover a protest over the New York legislature trying to decide whether to legalize abortion, this before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.” Steinem said. “So they provided 14 men and one nun to testify. I was magnetized by it.”
Steinem spoke of the galvanizing power of the protest, which stunned her as a young reporter in the 1960s.
“I heard for the first time in my life, women standing up telling the truth about something they weren’t supposed to tell the truth about, and something that only happened to women,” Steinem said.
Steinem went on to pay tribute to the fellow activists who pushed the women’s liberation movement over the decades. Steinem paid special mention to the African-American women she had worked with throughout her career, including Florynce Kennedy and Dorothy Pittman, with whom she took the now-infamous raised-fist photograph.
“Dorothy Pittman was married, she had children, she’s African American, and she’s fearless,” Steinem said. “So I asked her to come speak with me. Together we understood how important it was to be together.”
After the event, Steinem spoke on intersectional feminism and the stiff definition of feminism that continues to exclude women of color. She mentioned the biased reception of the press, which assumed a distinction between women’s struggles and the struggles of African Americans.
“It’s always been a feminist issue, and this misunderstanding has always been the same,” Steinem said. “For instance, when I was traveling with Dorothy Pittman or Flo Kennedy or Margaret Sloan, we would have a press conference after a lecture on campus. And the press would ask me about the women’s movement, and Dorothy or Flo about the civil rights movement.”
Steinem ended the conversation on an encouraging note, as she described the source of her boundless activism — the gratification of progress.
“What keeps me going is not what needs to be done, but the excitement of the ways to do it,” Steinem said. “It’s that ‘a-ha!’ moment.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.