Gloria Steinem: ‘The most radical tool we have is empathy’

Gloria Steinem: ‘The most radical tool we have is empathy’

(Leslie Ellis, March 24, 2018)

Detroit, MI- Empathy was the word of the day when feminist icon Gloria Steinem spoke recently at Wayne State University – empathy for women, empathy for men, and empathy for perspectives different than our own.

“The most radical tool we have is empathy, just imagine ourselves in the situation of the other person and ask them to do the same,” she urged the audience.

More than 1,200 people greeted Steinem, 83, with a standing ovation as she took the stage, the definition of cool elegance and down-to-earth relatability.

The often revered and sometimes reviled feminist leader, journalist and activist served as keynote speaker during the Women’s History Month event March 7, titled “#MeToo and Time’s Up: The Future of Feminism?”

The Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society (FOCIS) at Wayne State hosted the discussion as part of its 10th anniversary lecture series, “What in the World is Going On?”

The phrase “Me Too” was coined by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to empower women to speak about sexual violence and harassment. During the past year, “Me Too” has spread from social media and the entertainment industry to other sectors of society. In response, the TIME’S UP movement was created, in part, to provide legal support for individuals who’ve experienced sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace.

During her address, Steinem drew a line from indigenous cultures worldwide that don’t divide people by gender or race to the Me Too and TIME’S UP movements, which encourage human beings to share their stories and support one another in healing.

“We are communal creatures. We are meant to be together sitting in a group, sitting around a campfire telling each other our stories. That’s how we empathize,” she said. “I would say being able to tell your story to others … and listening to their stories is the surefire path out. Because you realize you’re not alone, you’re not crazy. That, first of all, you have a community, which is the single most important thing, and you have support for the next step and the next.

“We can’t live in the future, we can only live in the present, given our five senses,” Steinem said. “So the more community we can produce in the present, the better the future we will have.”

Wayne State University alumna Gayle Watson, 67, said the event exceeded her expectations.

“We women just seem to bond. We have this bonding effect. It’s who we are,” the Detroit artist said. “It inspires me to talk to younger women and to talk to all women. Stand up and say it. Be brave. Do not be afraid. Speak up. Speak out.”

A movement decades in the making

“I thought I would try to progress from the immediate to the eternal in 30 minutes,” Steinem said as she began her keynote address.

“The immediate, of course, is the Me Too and TIME’S UP movement, which we are all aware of and part of,” she said, before giving a brief historical perspective. “You know, one of the roles of us old folks is that we remember when it was worse, so we can bring hope to you younger people.”

The term “sexual harassment” was invented decades ago by women who had gathered in Ithaca, N.Y., to discuss employment issues, Steinem said.

“Then we at Ms. Magazine wrote a cover story about sexual harassment. We used puppets on the cover in order not to be shocking. Even so, we were banned from the newsstands and supermarkets,” she said with a throaty chuckle. “But, what then happened is that Catharine MacKinnon, a great legal scholar who perhaps you know, incorporated sexual harassment into sex discrimination law. There were three very important first cases, all brought by African-American women. Because, you know, it’s clear that sexual harassment is about power. So it’s more likely to happen to people with less power than people with more power. Two (cases) were against the government and one was against a bank. That was what preceded Anita Hill.

In 1991, law professor Hill testified during then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing that he had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Department of Education. Thomas denied her allegations and was confirmed to the bench.

“Now, Anita Hill was the great consciousness-raising moment, when we heard one person’s story, and actually there were two or three other women whose story could have been told, but they were not allowed to testify. But that made a huge difference in consciousness and ever since then we have been proceeding with legal cases. … Until finally, I think now we have reached a tipping point. …

“Now, we’re still in a place where, on campus for instance, it takes on average three women accusing the same man of the same behavior before there is action taken. So you might say that we’re still one-third or one-fourth of a person, legally speaking. And that we understand … the difficulties of proceeding ethically and accurately, which we must do in all cases. But, nonetheless, we have reached a tipping point.”

‘And now, for the eternal part’

“There’s a second level of understanding. And now for the eternal part,” Steinem said.

“We all wonder why. Why? It really is because women, we as women, our bodies are the means of reproduction. And the effort to control reproduction and decide how many workers and how many soldiers and so on, … has turned us into patriarchies, which means that men control reproduction and therefore women’s bodies.

“Of course, wherever there is strong racism as here, or caste as in India, or class anywhere, it redoubles the purpose of patriarchy because you have to control reproduction in the long run to enforce the separation of caste or race or class. So, I think we deeply understand there’s no such thing as combating sexism without also combating racism and no such thing as combating racism without also combating sexism because they are so deeply, deeply entwined.

“There’s also, in patriarchies, a bias against any sexual expression that can’t end in conception. So the same groups that are biased against women’s equality are biased against gay and lesbian and transsexual (people). You know, it all goes together in a way that I think becomes very obvious to us once we understand it’s about reproduction.

“I don’t know about you, but I find hope in the fact hat it wasn’t always this way. This is a relatively new human invention. … The many different tribes and nations that were here before Europeans showed up had cultures that were, first of all, circular not hierarchical. People were linked rather than ranked. And even the languages, Cherokee and many of the other languages, did not have gender, did not have he and she. People were people. What a concept. They didn’t have a word for race either. They had descriptive words, you know, a hundred different words for different kinds of snow that were really different. But people were people. And each individual was and is unique, a combination of heredity and environment and each one of us could never have happened before and could never happen again. And, at the same time shared humanity. It was a balance between uniqueness and humanity, not hierarchy by group.

“…I think now we are beginning to understand that this is in our cells, don’t you think? It’s in our cellular memory that once upon a time, we were linked, not ranked. And now we are coming back to that place.

“It’s not going to be easy because there are many people, as we see in our political scene right now who have been raised … to believe in the old hierarchy and they feel themselves to be displaced … sometimes when I’m wandering around the country, a man will say to me, a white man, will say to me, ‘A black woman took my job.’ And I will say to him, ‘Who said it was your job?’ … A sense of entitlement, with which we need to have empathy because that person didn’t invent that, they got born into that and is isolated because of that … .

“The way that men come to their full humanity is often either raising children or being raised to raise children because the qualities that are (normally) called feminine are all those qualities that are necessary to raise children. Men have them, of course men have them. It’s a libel on men to say that they do not. Women come to our full humanity often by being active outside the home and discovering that we also have those qualities of daring or ambition … that are wrongly called masculine. We all have those human qualities. And the idea of dividing us into masculine and feminine has made us into semi-people, always searching for the rest of ourselves.”

Panel discussion highlights

After Steinem’s keynote address, she joined a pair of visiting scholars to discuss Me Too, TIME’S UP and other issues.

Moderator Pamela Trotman Reid, a Wayne State University senior scholar and University of Saint Joseph president emerita, fielded questions from the audience and artfully guided the conversation, highlights of which follow.

Reid: Do you think this is really a movement or will it be a moment?

Lilia Cortina, professor of psychology, women’s studies and management at University of Michigan: I think it’s a little too soon to tell. Me Too has caught on like wildfire in a lot of industries. We’re seeing men going down in flames in entertainment, politics, rightly so. But, by and large, what’s leading the country to call for their hides are the most physical, sexual and serial acts of abuse. … But, what about all the other harassment that happens out there? I’ve been studying sexual harassment for my entire career and, more often than not, research shows us sexual harassment is a put-down not a come on. So, its most common form is gender harassment. So verbal and visual conduct that disparages people based on their gender and their race, often simultaneously without any kind of sexual overtones. So, comments like, “Women don’t belong in science,” “Girls can’t do math,” “The auto industry is no place for a woman.” So what are we doing about all of these everyday slights and indignities that combine to relegate women, especially women of color to the margins of many industries? What are we doing to transform our organizations to be more respectful, more hospitable, to treat our people with dignity, no matter their sex or their race or their sexuality? I think if we can answer some questions like those, we might make a dent in sexual harassment and then we might have ourselves a movement.

Georgia T. Chao, professor of management at Michigan State University: … As a professor, I’m going to have to say it’s “D, none of the above.” … To me a movement implies there’s got to be a target goal. There’s got to be some kind of thing that we can finally achieve and I don’t think we can finally achieve no harassment. I think instead of a movement or a moment, I’d just like to say I hope this Me Too or TIME’S UP is just accepted, it’s accepted the way we accept – I’m trying to figure out the right analogy. And I think maybe this will work: When your home gets burglarized, when your home gets violated, most people would then immediately call the police and immediately try to catch the person who did this and do things to make their home whole again. When a woman is violated, the immediate action has to be call the police, catch the person who did this and take steps to make yourself whole again. We don’t think that the house was asking for it. We’re not going to be ashamed to say that we’ve been burglarized. You know, it’s just got to be accepted.

Steinem: I agree with everything that has just been said. But what feels different to me is that for the first time, women are being believed. Not all the time, not across the board, but in a general public way people are being believed, where before, the burden of proof was always on the survivor or the victim, not the other person. Now the burden of proof is beginning to shift. … My old lecture partner Florynce Kennedy, who I hope some of you remember, always said that a movement was “anything off its ass.” There is no actual definition of a movement, right? So I would say it feels to me like a movement because there are so many asses involved here … Whereas in the beginning, it felt like a rebellion. Now it feels at least at the consciousness level more like a movement. It does not mean it will succeed because we do have a backlash from very powerful folks and we do have a sexual harasser in the White House. …

Reid: There’s been some (talk) about backlash. (Some people) say that we’re treating everything from the smallest slight to assault in the same way, you know the idea that our only tool is a hammer and everything looks like a nail. … How do we help people get other tools besides just firing people the minute they’re accused?

Cortina: … You may have heard the term now, “the Mike Pence effect,” this idea that you can’t meet privately with a woman or else she’ll accuse you of doing something. I hear professors at the University of Michigan say they’re not going to meet privately with women graduate students anymore because you never know. That always frustrates me. A lot of mentoring and training in a lot of fields really depends on one-on-one relationships. … The answer is not cutting off women trainees from important opportunities like that. And, also, a lot of this backlash is grounded frankly in myth, myth that false accusations happen all the time. They don’t. We know the research. In fact, most women, when they are sexually harassed, never file a report, never make a complaint, never say anything. And that might be changing now. But I don’t think that HR departments are being overwhelmed with floods of women coming forward with their complaints. …

Chao: … The backlash, I think, can be easily handled with just a little common sense. … We can train people so that men and women can work positively together, have an intense professional relationship and not worry about any kind of harassment charges. … Simple training, simple policies might be able to dispel a lot of the myth that can occur. … It’s got to be not just some artificial PowerPoint training, that people do, but some real culture change in which everybody’s going to have to be adult about this. …

Steinem: … I think there are common sense responses. To the person who’s saying that he won’t meet anymore with young women who are looking for advice. OK, he can’t meet with young men by themselves either. There’s a certain common sense to it that sometimes escapes us because the nature of the bias is so not-common sense. You know? But, if you just try to reverse everything you see what that situation would be were it involving a man or a different kind of discrimination. … Yes of course there is a backlash, there’s never a frontlash without a backlash. It’s sort of proof that you’re doing something. But I think the empathy comes from understanding that they’ve been brought up with a different set of rules. We just continuously have to say, “OK, suppose you were exactly the same person that you are, with all the same talents and smarts and everything and you’d been born female. What would your life be?

Reid: How do we engage men and even those 52 percent of white women who voted for Trump?

Steinem: I would just like to say it was … white married women, not single women. So it tells you, I’m not trying to oversimplify because there’s religion, there are all kinds of reasons. But I think that when we are dependent on another person’s income and social identity, we vote for their income and social identity rather than for our own. … African-American women have been far less able to be dependent on anybody else, and have experienced race discrimination. … Ninety-five percent of African-American women voted for Hillary Clinton. So you know there’s a huge lesson there. I would just like to back that lesson up and say that this has always been true and not been recognized that the women’s movement has been way disproportionately women of color in general and black women in particular. … So I just hope that we take this insight form the election and revise our vision of the women’s movement because we have rendered invisible a lot of the African-American and other women of color, but especially African-American women, who have always been the pioneer feminists.

Reid: How do we address … discrimination … when we’re not in a position of power?

Steinem: It usually comes from talking to a few other people in the same situation. So first of all you have your reality confirmed and also you’re stronger because you have other people. Then you can figure out to whom you can speak. It may not be HR, which is sometimes is there to pacify not to change. … It’s kind of fun to sit down and think, OK how can we fix it? This is what makes movements exciting. Here’s this wrong that’s going on. Let’s think about all the things that we can do about it. That guy’s wife is a feminist, maybe if she knew what he was doing, she would make life miserable. By any means necessary. I remember sitting in a congressional hearing, which we had one recalcitrant congressman watching his daughter go up to him at 20 minute intervals and whisper in his ear, “You make me ashamed.” He changed his vote. I can’t prescribe all the ways. But I can just say look for common sense ways in addition to the ways that have been put there for us. …

Cortina: … Record what’s happening. Save every inappropriate text or email. Take a screenshot. What you see on social media, save those posts, because that could help should you decide to make a formal report later. Formal reporting is not necessarily a fun or easy process. So, I don’t necessarily go, say, march down to HR and tell someone about it. It depends on the place, whether they handle it well. …

Steinem: And there is an interesting technological resource coming along called Callisto. It started on campuses in California and was invented by … women techies. (It’s) a website where if you’re sexually harassed or assaulted on that campus, and it can be adapted to many different communities, obviously, you can record in a secure way on the website the circumstances of your assault or harassment. When there are similar circumstances or the same person or the same pattern reported by other people, you are notified. That allows you to come forward together, which is a much strong position obviously. …

Reid: A couple of people have put in questions, as parents, as moms, about raising their sons but also about the conflict that mothers often have in terms of trying to move forward in the workplace and to juggle that. … Are there … things we should tell especially mothers of boys to help raise feminist men?

Steinem: When you were saying that, the first thing I’m thinking is why is it only mothers? It’s parents. What kids do is what they see. So, if they see men who are treating other people equally, they will do that. If a single mom is raising a child, male or female, … she can try to expose her kids to nurturing men so they understand they exist. If you want proof of this just look at women with terrible fathers and how many terrible relationships, they have in life. … It’s deep. The more we can make sure that kids have role models of behavior that is open and free and human and not confined by sex and race and all these boxes, the more free they will be.


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