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Gloria Steinem, Activism, and Oberlin

March 7, 2011

Oberlin's second convocation of the semester took place last Wednesday. The speaker was Gloria Steinem. It wasn't the first time the famous feminist has been at Oberlin--she was here in 1972--and, listening to her talk, I wondered how the political and activist atmosphere here has changed since then.

Ms. Steinem's speech was engaging and inspiring, though there were aspects I wish she had gone into more detail on. Much of the talk dealt with the need for people today to recognize that we are not a "post-feminist" society, that feminism is inextricably linked with nearly every other progressive movement--that all the issues boil down to different aspects of control. "Sometimes people ask me why the people who are against lesbians are also against abortion," she said, to scattered laughter, "and I tell them, well . . . ."

She spoke particularly on the attempts to separate racism and sexism, which she says are different sides of the same coin. While I agree on the whole, she went about it quite differently than I would have, arguing that both are means of controlling reproduction, "constraining white women and exploiting women of color." I suppose that argument makes sense, assuming a patriarchy desperate to retain power in society. Controlling reproduction controls women and the numbers of people in each social class, nicely unifying many disparate social struggles. What I thought of, however, was a discussion I had with my mother during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Mom had read an article or a series of interviews with black women feeling very torn about whether to vote for Obama or Clinton. As she described it, they felt they had to decide whether more of their problems were because they were black or because they were women. Mom said it really wasn't fair, because our society doesn't work like that--many of their problems were probably unique to black women. I'm sure she doesn't remember that conversation anymore, but it stuck with me. Social ills are not additive, they are multiplicative.

Incidentally, when I told Mom that I was going to go hear Gloria Steinem give a convocation, she wrote that she and her peers at a small Minnesotan Catholic women's college in 1979 "needed her a lot more" than Obies do today. I think she has a good point, and so, apparently, did other people. Over the weekend, I read a few of the articles about the convocation in The Oberlin Review. One of the editorials is titled "Obies: Too Progressive for Our Own Good." Again, I'm not coming at this from the same angle as the author, but I find it telling that this article even exists. It says something about Oberlin students, though I'm not sure what.

Here's an excerpt from the editorial:

"Steinem and her rhetoric are a time capsule, a peek into a time when women were married with kids by their early 20s and only men could pursue a lucrative career. Her brand of feminism predates even Betty Friedan; Steinem wrote her first article on choosing between marriage and a career for Esquire magazine a year before Friedan's explosive manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, hit bookstores.

Although Steinem's ideas on basic gender equality are still considered radical in some parts of America, the average Oberlin student finds them somewhat antiquated."


Now, the response to Ms. Steinem's speech was definitely positive overall (witness two other Review articles, an editorial, and a feature), and the women and men in Finney Chapel that night clearly had very strong feelings about feminism--there was a lot of cheering. Drawing on the basis of that one speech, I can't really agree or disagree with the author of this more critical editorial. I think that what the author sees as Steinem's "brand of feminism" is indeed a matter of common sense to most Obies, but that wasn't what the convocation was about. She repeatedly urged those of us in the audience to open up to each other, to take the excitement and potential-filled atmosphere and put it to good use beyond the confines of that room and that hour. And that, I think, is just what Oberlin needs.

Only one thing about Steinem's speech seemed out-of-place to me, and that was framing feminism (and activism in general) as a struggle against "The Patriarchy." It seems like a method best suited to the beginning of a cultural revolution, not to wherever we are now. We're largely past the issue-recognition stage--most people pay at least lip-service to the notion that men and women are equal, more or less, in most fields. The challenge today is getting people to honestly internalize those perfunctory attitudes, which is probably going to be even harder. There's a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart that's a pretty good example of the struggle today: federal regulations that prohibit discrimination, managers who continue to do so. Here's a link.

I'm not disputing that straight white men who went to Harvard hold a frighteningly disproportionate percentage of the power in our society: they do, and it disturbs me. But I think that referring to them as though they planned to be such is an inefficient way of going about real change. It is our entire society that maintains and facilitates this status quo. Prejudiced attitudes are not strictly top-down, and they never have been. There are women who firmly believe themselves to be inherently inferior to men. Overthrowing an outside force is easy to conceptualize; the hard part is finding and coping with the insidious flaws in ourselves--and, even more difficult, in our friends.

I hope I'm not coming across as an out-of-touch middle-class liberal arts college student; I have a sinking feeling that, unavoidably, I am. I know that there are countless people still trying to gain equal respect to that given to rich straight white men and that there are countless people who still deliberately discriminate against them. I know that I don't know how lucky I am to have the opportunities I have and to be surrounded by people who treat me as an equal.

And yet it is, though doubtlessly irritating to older generations, a good sign that liberal-arts brats like me exist. It shows that our parents have done something very, very right. To them, it may be obnoxious for us to blow off the rhetoric or champions of the past (and I am far from comfortable doing it myself, as I hope I've made plain). We may come off as disrespectful, clueless, even arrogant. But if the argument of reform is that everyone is entitled to equal rights, the children of that reform are going to feel, well, entitled. This is the result of the last wave of reform: a generation of college students who say that well of course women are just as intelligent and stable as men and deserve the right to the same job opportunities as men, and equal pay for those jobs, and access to reproductive health care; of course people deserve to be treated the same regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation; of course people should be able to choose what to do with their lives, unfettered by any meaningless social constructs--it's all very obvious. This isn't a result of overcoming prejudices, it's a result of having never formed them. (Or, perhaps, of forming them only weakly and working hard to get rid of them. Even at Oberlin, prejudice hasn't been entirely washed out of us yet--but maybe in another generation or so . . . .)

Which brings us back to what I found to be the most Oberlin-relevant part of Steinem's speech: her call for connection, communication, and organizing, and for people to talk about it when they see sexism or other injustice. I have always been a little surprised by--not exactly the lack of activism, but the cloistering of it on campus. I came as a freshman expecting to be one of the less politically involved students, at least at first, and was actually somewhat anxious about that. This was Oberlin! Everyone was going to be out to change the world, weren't they? That used to be its recruitment slogan, after all.

Turns out it's a little different. There's a lot of revolutionary fervor in certain quarters, I think, but it isn't evenly spread at all. We have, rather, a nearly apathetic open-mindedness. It's obvious that everyone deserves equal treatment--that's taken for granted. Some people here work hard at achieving absolute political correctness on campus, while others shrug it off because Oberlin is already above average on the PC scale. The world outside Oberlin is even farther from perfect, and will require even more effort to fix, and the divide gets sharper when you look at broader activism. Some people are gearing up in high idealism to try to fix society, but others find it not worth the effort, especially if they personally can avoid geographic or social regions of high injustice (e.g. staying out of politics, the Bible Belt, or Wal-Mart).

I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for this--apparently overwhelming challenges, a cynical public culture, high-sensation/low-content media, ambitions being directed into obtaining internships and professional networking instead of activism . . . the usual explanations. I can understand people simply being too busy to commit to a serious protest movement or advocacy organization. However, you would expect people to at least discuss the issues over dinner or late into the night in the lounges. In my friend circle, at least, this doesn't happen often. Injustice doesn't often even come up in conversation. Current events do, now and then, but hardly anyone mentioned it when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, and I'm sure there are plenty of people, even now, who are unaware that there's anything going on in Libya.

Lest it be said that I am merely complaining of my own minor disillusionment (or that I'm hanging out with unusually apathetic people), I should add that I'm not the only one who feels this way. One of my friends, who grew up here in Oberlin and knows its history pretty well, said over Winter Term that this is a low point in the history of college activism (which does fluctuate, even here) and it's rather unfortunate for us. You can find places to volunteer, certainly, and there are various advocacy groups on campus--but it's far from pervasive.

This is what makes Steinem's message important. Unite these disparate groups, she told us--communicate between organizations, communicate between individuals, don't let problems go by unnoticed. Sharing complaints can be powerful; it can lead to organization and then to serious reform. I hope Oberlin takes that to heart. Oberlin is, after all, a microcosm of society. Just as it's ineffective to treat sexism as something entirely imposed from outside, it doesn't work to view student apathy as solely the product of an apathetic society. Steinem is still powerful. Oberlin is still powerful. A little good old-fashioned moral outrage and college-student irritation can still have an impact. Collectively, we have the motivation, I think, to continue trying to fix what's wrong in the world--but first we each need to realize that we're not the only one who's bothered.


Before I close, I would also like to mention that the crowd attending Steinem's speech wasn't just made up of college students, and I suspect the others may have appreciated her more. There was a student from the high school who talked about being one of three girls in her history class and the only one who spoke out against the hegemonic views emphasized in the textbook, who was tired of being labeled as "that kid"--the irritating one who argues with everything--but didn't want to let it go unchallenged. There were women from labor unions who had heard her speak eleven years before. There was a black woman from the town who is running for town council against a black man and who was advised to abandon her campaign for the solidarity of the black community (she hasn't).

Furthermore, many of the people there were adults. I imagine that, no matter how conscientious people my age try to be, having Gloria Steinem come and speak means more to people who remember the days before Title IX, Roe v. Wade, or Hillary Clinton having a serious shot at becoming President.

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