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“Transformative Thought” with Gloria Steinem

5.28.10

At the annual Radcliffe Day luncheon, Gloria Steinem addresses Radcliffe College alumnae, as well as alumni and alumnae of the Bunting Institute and Radcliffe Institute fellowship programs, and other guests of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

At the annual Radcliffe Day luncheon, Gloria Steinem addresses Radcliffe College alumnae, as well as alumni and alumnae of the Bunting Institute and Radcliffe Institute fellowship programs, and other guests of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Photograph by Tony Rinaldo

The first decade of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study ended on a high note with the presentation of the Radcliffe Medal to writer and organizer Gloria Steinem on May 28. “I’m definitely living to 100,” Steinem said, “but now I have to”—in order to earn the medal. A 1956 Smith alumna, Steinem, 75, told in her speech of how, as a member of the Smith College board, she and then-Smith president Ruth Simmons imagined a merger of Smith and Radcliffe in the late 1990s, shortly before the formation of the Institute. Steinem saw Radcliffe, as it negotiated with Harvard, “in the position of an abused woman trying to negotiate with her abusive husband. Ruth and I decided that what Radcliffe needed was a girlfriend.” It turned out to be too late in the process for such a bold initiative. Still, Steinem looks back on those years as an outgrowth of a time when she “finally stopped being retroactively mad at Smith for the very non-feminist 1950s of my student days, which really wasn’t their fault. The 1950s were nobody’s fault.”

With a nod to David Letterman, she next launched into a “Top Ten” list of concepts and principles that she has settled on for living effectively. For example, Number 10: “Don’t ever believe that men can’t change.” She gave the example of a notion that once prevailed: only women possessed the fine-motor skills to type. Then, “Suddenly computers appeared and voilà! Men could type!” Number 9 was: “All grownups should be able to get married as long as they don’t hit each other, but I hope we stop thinking that only lifetime partnerships mean success.” She quoted Margaret Mead to the effect that marriage worked better in the nineteenth century because people only lived to be 50. Number 6 was: “Nothing much is going to change until men are raising children as much as women are,” with its corollary, “Women won’t be equal outside the home until men are equal inside the home.”  She added that “‘Superwoman’ was created by anti-feminists.” Item 4 lamented the fact that young women in their twenties “think that life is over if success hasn’t arrived” by age 30; Steinem countered, “from the bottom of my heart: Life gets greater and more surprising after 40, 50, 60, and, yes, 70.”

Steinem concluded her speech by challenging Radcliffe’s fellows to be “the source of transformative thought” on initiatives that could shake up the world. (When she turned 75, Steinem replied to a reporter’s question as to what she was most proud of by saying, “I haven’t done it yet.”) She was bold enough to declare that Radcliffe might one day even render “all the other so-called ‘tubs’ of Harvard—the Business School, the Law School, the Divinity School—a little boring. Why?  Because you’ll be dealing with causes, and all the rest will be dealing with effects.”

Her first example was from economics. “We can’t plan effectively in this country,” she stated, because caregiving in the home—90 percent of which, she said, is done by women, and which is “an indispensable 30 percent of all productive work in this nation, whether it’s for elderly parents or children”—“has no attributed value.  It could be valued at replacement level, made tax deductible for those who pay taxes, and tax-refundable for those below tax level, thus rewarding work and substituting for welfare. Such an attributed value for caregiving would make the national system of accounts reflect realities, and would be exceeded only by attributing an economic value to the environment. This is a project for a deep thinker at the Institute—we need you.”

 She also probed the connections between violence in homes and in the wider society. “One can directly predict the violence in a country, in its foreign policy, in its degree of reliance on the military, by the normalization of violence in the home,” she said. “Yet, because family forms and child rearing are so often ‘feminine’ areas of study, and foreign policy and militarism are so often ‘masculine’ fields, academia tends to divorce the cause from the effect.” She went on to assert that all violence that is not about money or material gain “is about proving superiority and control. Indeed, so many crimes should really be called ‘supremacy crimes,’ because that is their motive.”

Steinem explained that a woman is in greatest danger of being beaten or killed when she is leaving a violent home—“when she is about to escape or has just escaped. Well, I submit to you that this country is escaping. Think about it. We’re less likely to support foreign interventions, more likely to protest our big financial institutions, far less likely to create hierarchical families, deeply hostile to oil companies destroying the environment, and about to become a country in which European Americans are no longer the majority, for the very first time. And we have elected a proud African-American president and family to the White House. This country is becoming free.” Consequently, she asserted, “This is a time of maximum danger,” but “just as we would never tell a woman to stay in a violent home, we will not stop seeking freedom, either.”

The video is also posted on YouTube

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