She turns 80 in a couple of months but you’d never guess that from her slim, sprite-like figure, unlined face, head full of grey-blonde hair and general youthful demeanour. But then she is Gloria Steinem, the American feminist icon who, as a young woman in the 1960s, passed off for a Playboy Bunny and pulled off, what in today’s parlance would be called, a “sting operation” on the abysmal work conditions at and sexual exploitation of these scantily-clad waitresses at the Playboy Clubs.
Steinem is the star attraction on Day One of this year’s Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, the first stop on a publicity tour for The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader: As If Women Matter, a collection of her well-known essays published specially for the subcontinent in association with Apne Aap Worldwide, an Indian NGO that works against trafficking of women.
Steinem is no stranger to India. She came here first in the late 50s and lived here for two years, traipsing around villages in Bihar as part of Vinoba Bhave’s Gandhian satyagraha and has kept coming back over the decades. No wonder she speaks with first-hand familiarity of places like Sonagachi (Kolkata’s well known red-light district) and the problem of women panchayat heads acting as a proxies for their male relatives.
“But that’s also how it began in the US, where the only way a woman could hope to be governor was if her husband died in office,” she says, implying that women substituting for men is not particular to India, and more of an evolutionary hiccup in women’s march towards a more active political role. “Now, of course,” she continues, “you have many more elected women, but even so a Hillary Clinton was forced to step aside,” says Steinem who in 2008 had actively supported Clinton, but shifted her loyalty to Barack Obama later.
Though Steinem is one of the most eminent leaders of the “second wave” American feminist movement, and in the 60s and 70s, fronted several successful campaigns in favour of abortion rights, for better wages and work conditions for women, and of late against child abuse and human trafficking, she realises that women even now are far from getting a fair deal. In fact, Steinem feels that women now suffer from the pernicious belief that “I can do it all” — work outside the home, as well as do the housework and bring up the children. “It’s the ‘get out of my kitchen syndrome’. Men suffer from no such anxiety to do it all,” she says, “So why do we?
Obviously, the real work revolution won’t come until all productive work — including child-rearing and other jobs done in the home — and men are integrated into so-called women’s work as well as vice versa.” The problem she says, repeating a phrase that she has become famous for coining, is that “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
Steinem is wary of applying the lessons and triumphs of the Western feminist movement unthinkingly to India. “The freedom to name is sacred because words have consequences. When we coined the term ‘sex work’ to reflect the dignity of labour that was due to women engaged in prostitution, we did not think that it would be used to deprive women of state security. In several states where sex work is legal, women are actually being pushed into sex ‘work’ so that they get off the dole,” she explains. Which is why Steinem was rather stumped to see, on a visitto Sonagachi, among all the graffiti written in Bengali on the walls everywhere, the words “sex work”written in English. “It gave a dignity to their movement,” she felt.
When: 12.30pm, Friday