Gloria Steinem redux

IMG_1932 AGloria Steinem

An interesting comment occurred after Gloria Steinem‘s Koryne Horbal lecture when a female student in the audience asked Steinem how she could answer her friends who start their conversations with “I’m not a feminist, but ….” Though she responded with the flippant comment that “sometimes sending them to the dictionary works,” Steinem did not offer this young woman (who could have been her granddaughter) a practical answer.

Ms. Steinem has been on the world stage for over 40 years and for many people serves as the figurehead for feminism in this country. Yet, much like her response to this student’s query, she has not defined what feminism is or what it is supposed to accomplish. Such a laissez-faire stance may well be in keeping with her educational philosophy of tailoring the form of the pedagogy to the talents of the student, but it also serves as a clever way to evade responsibility for making the decision of defining what or who one is. One defining characteristic of leadership is making tough decisions and accepting responsibility for the outcome(s). If an individual cannot honestly define what he or she stands for, that person does his or her cause an injustice, even if that cause is freedom, the ostensible topic of her speech.

She alluded to this issue earlier in her speech in her dismissive mention of reporters asking her what a feminist society would look like. If such a society would tear down the remaining vestiges of the patriarchy as “an experiment that failed,” a fair question to ask would seem to be the nature of the society that would replace it. Though she identified three freedoms such a society would have–freedom to be connected, freedom to be unique, and freedom to be educated according to one’s interests, the power to accomplish such a transformation could never occur “until we solve the masculinization of wealth.”

This statement reflects a criticism leveled at the feminist movement since its inception–that its goals reflect the ambitions of the members of the social class that founded it. Many women and many men who support them emotionally and/or financially do not aspire to membership in the corporate boardroom and question how equal female representation in such institutions would improve the welfare of the general populace. Some would point to the corrupting influence of the corporation itself as the proper target for replacement or removal.

Almost all women and many men have neither the wealth, the influence, nor the aspiration to succeed to the boardroom, but they do seek the same freedoms Ms. Steinem identified in her speech. If she had been able to define feminism with a vision that reflected true equality of the sexes rather than replacing the tyranny of one gender with that of another, she could have alleviated the reservations of her student questioner and of the many who share a similar vision for American society.

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