“If women could sleep their way to the top, there’d be a lot more women at the top,” said Gloria Steinem during a Q&A with Jennifer Aniston last night at the first-ever MAKERS Conference.
The documentary “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” narrated by Meryl Streep, aired in February on PBS to 2.6 million prime time viewers. The production was a joint venture between PBS and AOL, parent company of the Huffington Post, which hosts the MAKERS website — which has the largest video collection of women’s stories on the Internet.
According to the organizers, the purpose of the two-day gathering in Palos Verdes, California is to “gather prominent leaders and innovators from corporations, not-for-profits, and government organizations committed to women’s and working family issues for a 48-hour action plan to help defined the agenda for women in the 21st century.”
Conference speakers include Sheryl Sandberg, Geena Davis, Gloria Steinem, Martha Stewart, Gwen Ifill, Gabrielle Giffords and Chelsea Handler.
HuffPost Women attended the one-hour long conversation with Steinem and Aniston Monday night. Here are some highlights:
Jennifer Aniston: This is so unbelievably exciting. First of all, I just want to start by saying that I am an actress, not an interviewer. And although I have the utmost respect for Barbara Walters, I am not Barbara. So I hope that this goes well. When the amazing women of MAKERS called and asked if I would sit here with this incredible legend, trailblazer, goddess, my friend — I of course said yes.
I’m going to jump ahead and ask about some of the reactions that came out of feminism. You talk about being very thin-skinned, which I am actually surprised by, because you’re this amazing powerhouse. What was the most hurtful thing you found yourself coming up against as you were fighting this fight throughout the years?
Gloria Steinem: The most hurtful thing is not what comes from our adversaries, it’s what comes from our friends. Because for the most part, if my adversaries liked me, I would know I was doing something really seriously wrong [laughs]. Being misunderstood by people whose opinions you value is absolutely the most painful.
JA: Have you stopped feeling misunderstood?
GS: No. I try to realize that some of it is my own feeling of control. You know, “You don’t agree with me? Let explain it again.” So I try to be self-critical.
JA: You have always been very outspoken about women and body image. I read a quote recently that I loved. You said, “Boys are told their bodies are instruments, but women are made to feel that our bodies are ornaments.” What did you mean by that?
GS: We are made to think so much about how we look on the outside. That’s why I think sports for girls is so important. It depends on strength and agility and it’s one of the ways we learn what our bodies can do. Boys actually suffer too. If you ask men about their body image, they will tell you they look better than they do. And if you ask a woman, she’ll tell you she looks worse. So I think we each need to come to some point of reality.
JA: The public has a great interest in our personal lives. I know you’ve come up against this, and I certainly have too — where being a woman and our value and our worth is basically associated with our marital status or whether or not we have procreated.
GS: Well, I guess we’re in deep shit.
JA: That’s what I thought. Just wanted to make sure that was the case. That we are, in fact, in deep shit [laughs]. In the ‘60s and the ‘70s, as a woman who was fighting for women and our equality and our rights, how did you deal with that? Women weren’t seen as much as a voice but more barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
GS: I accepted it for a long time and I thought, well okay, I’m getting married and I’m having children. I’m definitely doing that. Just not right now. I’d put it in the future. And then, fortunately, the Women’s Movement came along and made me realize I was actually happy. And that there were more ways to live than one. So it came as a great revelation.
GS: In a community center in India once, somebody said, ‘aren’t you sorry you don’t have children?’ And I thought if I answer truthfully, I will lose them, because it was a very different culture and a different place. And then I thought what’s the point of not answering truthfully? So I told them the truth — I said not for a millisecond. And they all applauded [laughs]. Because they’re living in a culture where they had to have children.
JA: In the President’s State of the Union speech recently, it was very exciting to hear him talk about equal pay for women. Do you think that it is a true priority or that he will be able to move the dial on that issue?
GS: It’s sort of up to us as much as it is to him. I was grateful to hear him say it in a speech and he also talked about Gay and Lesbian and Transgender issues. No president has ever done that before. But I think that we have to demand it. We have to say it. Men have to say you’re not paying this woman equally, so I’m leaving. We all have to work on it.
We also have to understand that equal pay for women is not just for women — it would be the greatest economic stimulus this country could possibly have. If you just paid women equally to men for the work we’re already doing, it would be $200 billion more a year into the economy. Women are not going to put it in a Swiss bank account. They are going to spend it. It’s going to create jobs. But when you hear about economic stimulus, you hear about rescuing crooked bankers. You don’t hear about equal pay for women.
JA: Why have you never run for office?
GS: My job is to make people in office look reasonable. I would not be good on sewers and highways. I would not be a good elected official. I can’t even campaign for people as part of their campaign; they have to disown me. Because then I can only say what they say or believe. So I campaign separately.
JA: Now I’m going to ask you about the F-word. Why is it such a complicated word, Feminism?
GS: Because it’s a big revolution. Feminism, or Womanism, or whatever it is you call it, is taking away the single biggest unpaid labor force in the world, the single biggest underpaid labor force in the world. And it’s taking away control of reproduction. And reproduction is even more important than production. So it is a serious threat. It’s common sense — most people believe it. But it isn’t in the power structure. Some people are against it because they don’t know what it means. Some people are against it because they do know what it means.
JA: And that terrifies them. When did you realize that this movement was your job? That this is what you were put on this planet to do?
GS: I don’t know that I ever thought that. It’s just that it made sense in my life. I suddenly thought: I’m not crazy after all. The system is crazy! And I thought it would help so much, if men raised children as much as women do, for instance. And I was lucky to have a father who did that — which saved me from many terrible men — because I knew that there were good men.
It just made sense. And I wanted to explain it, which is how I got out there speaking in public, even though I didn’t want to do that.
JA: How did your father and mother react to that?
GS: My mother was living with my sister, who had six children, and when I came home to see her she would say your sister got a new winter coat and she didn’t have to pay for it herself. And that was not because she didn’t support me; she had been a newspaper woman who had to give up her work. But she was afraid for me. Afraid that I didn’t have protection — meaning a man who would take care of me. Even though I was making more than my brother-in-law, who bought my sister the coat.
And as for my father — my father was a special case, actually. He thought I was overeducated because I had gone to college and he hadn’t. He would send me ads from Variety. There was one for Las Vegas and it was an ad for a chorus line and all you had to be was under 22, 5’ 7” or more and have a Phi Beta Kappa key. So he wrote me and said, “Kid. Here is something, finally!”
JA: You describe your father as a dreamer. And you’re such a realist.
GS: Well I’m a dreamer too because I’m not just a dreamer, I’m a hope-aholic. I think it’s all possible.
JA: Let’s do the speed round. Fill in the blanks. “The best advice anyone has ever given me was…?”
GS: Don’t worry about what we should do. Just do what you can do.
JA: “The best word to describe me would be…?”
GS: A hope-aholic.
JA: “Above all, I’d like to be remembered for…?”
GS: Ugh. You know I used to ask this question when I was an interviewer. And now it’s my punishment! A person who had a good heart, and tried to leave the world a little more kind than it was when I got here.
JA: “Three things I always carry in my purse are…?”
GS: My house keys if I’m lucky. What else? My house keys, money and some kind of lipgloss.
JA: “If I could have dinner with one historical figure it would be…?”
GS: It would be one of the women who was here before the Europeans showed up, when there were about 500 or so different cultures here but they were egalitarian. These were the women who inspired the suffrage movement. I would like to talk to one of them to understand what it was like to live in a society in which people were linked and not ranked. Where the paradigm was a circle, not a pyramid. Because that’s what was here before.
JA: “The question I’m most sick of people asking me is…?”
GS: There are all kinds of peculiar questions. Here’s the worst one: “Where has the Women’s Movement been and where is it going?” It’s like describe the universe and give two examples. You want to kill yourself. It’s huge. You can’t answer that.
Below are a selection of questions from the audience:
QUESTION: What do you think the most important thing the next generation of feminists can do is?
GS: I think they know and they don’t need me to tell them. They are living both in a world I know and in a world I don’t know. They are living in the future and I’m here to support them. When people say to me, ‘what should I tell my daughter?’ I always say, ‘I don’t want her to listen to me. I want her to listen to herself.’
QUESTION: What do you think the biggest problem with feminism today is?
GS: Anti-feminism [laughs]. The work that women do is given no economic value whatsoever. We could go on about that. But we all know that. What we don’t talk about enough is religion. I think that spirituality is one thing. But religion is just politics in the sky. I think we really have to talk about it. Because it gains power from silence.
QUESTION: How can we build bridges across racial lines?
GS: In the first issue of Ms. Magazine, we did a poll about feminism and it was the first of women about women’s issues. And African American women by 60 percent supported the issues and white women only by 30 percent. The truth of the matter is women of color have always been in the leadership of this movement and far ahead for a series of reasons. We need to know the history. If we behave as if this movement belongs to white women, then we render invisible all of the women who are real leaders. When it comes to us as individuals, I think we just need to know each other. Nothing works without trust. This works as a great rule: if you buy shoes together, you can do politics together.
QUESTION: As a man in the room, what is one thing we men can do to keep this issue moving forward?
GS: Just think about fairness. Suppose you were the same person with all the smarts and humor and everything that makes you unique, and you were born female. How would you feel and what would you want? It’s all about empathy. There’s no emotion more revolutionary than empathy.
QUESTION: Do you feel that the portrayal of women in film and TV is improving?
GS: We are younger than the guys on screen, that’s a problem. Women reporting the news are 15 years younger than men. Couples in movies — it’s okay for a guy to be 60. It’s not so okay for the woman. What I’m even more worried about is pornography. Because there’s now such access to it technologically. Pornography is about violence. Rape is not sex, it’s violence. Porn means female slavery. Erotica is something quite different. Eros means love and free choice. But the combination of the right wing suppressing sex education in the schools and the availability of pornography is making pornography into sex education. And it’s really very dangerous.
I support the first amendment. We are not going to sensor people. But we can say I am not having this in my house, I’m not pretending this is okay. Pornography is to women what Fascist literature was to Jews.
QUESTION: How do you feel about women using their sex appeal to advance their careers?
GS: If women could sleep their way to the top, there’d be a lot more women at the top. I’m just here to tell you it doesn’t work. You just end up humiliated and inauthentic.
QUESTION (asked by actress Jane Lynch): What makes you hopeful, optimistic?
GS: Just listening. Because I’m accidentally recognizable as part of a movement, I get to hear stories. People come up to me in the street, in the supermarket and tell me how their lives have changed and it is just so incredibly moving. There is one story that always comes to mind. A woman came up to me in a book signing line. She was an African American woman, wearing an elegant red suit. And as I’m signing, she said I first read Ms. Magazine in prison. She was in prison for prostitution and after she read the magazine, she wondered why the John was not in prison. So she asked for law books but in that state, they only had law books in the men’s prisons, not the women’s. But she eventually got them and started to help the other women with their child custody problems. And she got out and worked at a law firm. And she told me, “and now I’m a lawyer. And I just thought you’d like to know.”