Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gloria Steinem

By Juliet C. Bond

I am the child of a feminist.  
One of my earliest memories is of being plopped onto a wide summer lawn alongside my sister, watching as my mother joined a group of women who chatted and adjusted their signs.  I remember the warm sunshine and the eager energy around us.  The women's faces lit up with the joy of feeling powerful; a rare experience during a time when women still couldn’t get a credit card unless it was in their father or husband’s name.  In fact, there were so many things women couldn’t do in the seventies that we take for granted now.

·       In junior high, girls took home economics and boys took shop, 

·       Babies were automatically given their father’s name at birth.  If there were no father, the certificate was stamped, “illegitimate.”  

·       There were few childcare centers available to women who needed to (or wanted to) work.

·       In elementary schools, virtually all of the teachers were female.  In fact, there are a few states where it is actually illegal for men to teach grades lower than sixth, on the basis that it’s unnatural or dangerous.

·       The National Honor Society kicked girls out if they “got themselves pregnant” (this one is still true today.)

·       Only two percent of the military were female, and those were primarily nurses.

·       Women workers could still be fired or demoted for being pregnant.

·       Women made about fifty-two cents for every male dollar.
      Over the next twenty years, women fought and won the right to end sex discrimination in hiring.  They went to battle to win the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, Title IX, housing discrimination protections and won the right for married women to legally access contraception. They even pushed so hard for the Equal Rights Amendment (first proposed by Alice Paul in the 1920's) that, for the first time in fifty years, it passed through congress.

But it didn't pass the ratification process.  

The Equal Rights Amendment is now in it's 112 year before the senate, still unratified, and its supporters are still fighting for the simple words, "equality of sexes," to be added to the U.S. Constitution.

Growing up, I learned that all of these issues were still, in many ways, problems for the women of my generation.  I faced my own repeated experiences of sexual harassment and even assault.  I found myself belittled or ogled at by male employers and I constantly got into arguments with my male friends when they made sexist jokes.  

    (My little brother, me and my sister.  I'm about 17 years old here 
and just coming into my own as a feminist.)

In college, I chose classes in gender studies because the second wave made those classes a reality.  And while working as a social worker, I was keenly aware that the welfare system was the literal bottom of the barrel for America.  This was the place where poor women and children scraped and scrambled for bare bones survival.  I remember a client who lost her baby’s formula when the state found out she had a live-in boyfriend.  After all, a male presence automatically assumes that women have a secondary form of income and no longer need the state to be, "her man."  Of course, without food, the children became officially neglected, placed in foster homes and fell into my lap.  Another client had so many roaches in her cheap, government subsidized housing, that they were crawling in waves across the kitchen.
After fifteen years of working within this system I needed a break and began teaching part time while I raised my three children.  My first classes were solely Social Work and Justice Studies but I got a call one day.  Would I be willing to teach a class on Women in US Society?  I jumped at the chance.
I have been teaching this class for almost six years.  We go over women's history before moving into contemporary issues and my students are enthusiastic and outraged when they learn about the long hard fight women have been waging for over one hundred years.  Most of the time, my students have never heard of the first wave feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Mary Wolstonecraft or Francis Willard.  

They have no idea that women traveled the country for years fighting for voting rights, that they legislated for the right to divorce and were even tortured in their efforts to gain the legal freedoms we enjoy today, And to my students, even the second wave leaders like Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem or Dorothy Pitman Hughes are only vaguely familiar names with no knowledge of their accomplishments to back up the name recognition.  It's not their fault.  These women, their battles and achievements, are not in their high school textbooks.

I teach my students about these women.  I'm proud to do that.  I'm excited to walk into class and share their stories every day.  I not only owe it to women like my mother - who fought so I could be hired as a college professor and even make the same pay as my male colleagues - I owe it to my daughter and her contemporaries too.  I love the looks on my student's faces, their righteous indignation and their sunlit expressions as they rev up their engines.  They will be the next generation of strong leaders who make the world a less hostile place for women.  
So when I got an email from a colleague with the question, would you be willing to have the writer/activist Gloria Steinem in your class next semester?  I nearly fell off my chair.  

                  Gloria Steinem the Gloria Steinem, is coming to my class!

                  I called my husband.
                  "Wow," he said.  "That's like Buddha visiting a Buddhism class…"
                  I laughed out loud.  Yep, I thought.  That's exactly what it is.  
On February 7th, I will host the most famous and arguably, the most influential, living feminist leader.  This time, I'm no little girl sitting in the grass.  This time, I get to join the group of women standing on the lawn, preparing for the protest.


  1. “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”-Gloria Steinem

    Wow! Juliet, what an amazing experience. I can;t wait for you to share it!

  2. I know! I am so excited. You will be here shortly afterwards so I will tell you all about it!

  3. How wonderful for you! And how wonderful for her! She'll be meeting a very impressive feminist, too. Enjoy it!

  4. Great post! I remember my mom working on the era and being so confused when it didn't go through. A few years back I told a 12 year old girl about it - man was she pissed!