Gloria Steinem on population, sexual pleasure, and creating better fathers
Photo: Tom MarksWriter and activist Gloria Steinem has been involved in feminist and other social-justice movements for more than 40 years. She cofounded New York magazine, Ms. Magazine, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and Voters for Choice, and she’s an advisor to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Equality Now, the international human rights/women’s rights organization. She also serves on the program advisory board of Population Media Center.
Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges the world faces today, and why?
A. The biggest short-term challenge is violence. Our first normalizers of violence are gender roles that convince us that dominance and submission are normal, and that allow child abuse and any violence within the family. If we raised even one generation of children without violence, we have no idea what might be possible.
The biggest long-term challenge is the degradation of our water and air and environment. All are linked to overpopulation and failing to allow women to control when and whether to give birth. Women have the motive to control how many children we bear.
Q. What do you think is required to overcome these challenges?
A. To meet both these challenges, we need societies that encourage men to be nurturing parents, too. Men who raise children are much less likely to insist on having too many. They also raise children who humanize the gender roles because they know that men can be as nurturing as women — just as women can be as achieving in the world as men. When men are equal parents, women no longer have two jobs, one outside the home and one in it. And men have developed all their human qualities, and no longer are limited to proving “masculinity” by being in control or even violent and conquering. Both men and women raising children — and both women and men using their talents in the world — are crucial to developing our full humanity, and to escaping the gender roles [that] normalize injustice.
Q. In an interview with Feminist.com, you said, “all women need to separate sex from conception for our health, freedom, [and] survival.” What exactly did you mean by that?
A. Human sexuality has always been marked by the ability to experience equal pleasure whether one can conceive or not — we don’t have periods of heat or estrus like other animals — so sexuality is not only a way we procreate, if we choose to, but it’s also a way we communicate and express love and caring. To deny women the right to separate sexuality from conception — by child marriage, suppressing knowledge of birth control, normalizing rape and marital rape, restricting women’s ability to move in the world — is also to rob women of the right to control our own bodies. In fact, the ability to decide when and whether to have children is the greatest determinant of whether we’re healthy or not, educated or not, able to participate in society or not, and how long we live.
Q. How is this decision affected by patriarchal models?
A. To establish patriarchy, women were punished for and deprived of the means of controlling their own fertility, a knowledge that had probably always been present. Sexuality became about dominance and submission instead of mutuality. The major lie about human sexuality that patriarchies and their religions told — and still tell — is that it’s only moral if it can end in conception and takes place within patriarchal marriage. At least, it tells that lie to women — there often was and is a double standard for sexual male behavior.
All the various kinds of patriarchies have one thing in common, and that is controlling women’s bodies as the means of reproduction. It gives a patriarch ownership of children through paternity, and gives a patriarchal government the ability to control the number of workers, soldiers, [and] citizens, and also to maintain separations of race and class. The good news is that for 95 percent of human history, societies were much more matrilineal and about balanced between females and males, humans and nature. You still see this in original cultures, whether they’re Native American or the Kwei and San in southern Africa or the Dalits in India. The paradigm then was the circle. Patriarchy changed it to the pyramid.
Q. How do you think educating people globally on reproductive health and contraception has bearing on elevating the overall status of women?
A. It’s the single most important element in the status of women. Child marriage, unchosen or forced pregnancies, sexual assault, social pressure to bear children, son preference, female infanticide — all these are the indicators of female status. Right now, women are often not only deprived of an education on contraception, but they are punished and forbidden from using the contraceptive knowledge they may already have, and even from deciding when to have intercourse.
In all the situations I’ve ever seen, women who are allowed to make decisions over their own lives and bodies bring the population to slightly above replacement level. This can’t be done by imposing orders from above, as in China, and making everyone conform to the same number of children. Some women may want one child, some six, others none. But as long as women’s bodies are the means of reproduction, it must be up to us to decide what our health and wishes and abilities allow. It’s not only important for women — and for the survival of environment for both men and women — it’s also crucial for children. Every child has the right to be born loved and wanted.
This interview has been republished courtesy of Population Media Center; check out the original version to see what Steinem has to say about PMC’s work.