With the Trump administration’s relentless attack on women’s rights and the repeated reminders that powerful men can get away with sexually harassing women for decades, it might seem reasonable to be pessimistic about women’s and civil rights in America.
But things might be better than they look, says women’s rights activist and writer Gloria Steinem. While “it’s dangerous to have a president who disagrees on most issues with the majority of the country, and who is not sane,” says Steinem, the Trump election did have the effect of shaking up the country deeply. “I’m not suggesting it’s worth the danger, but it’s a huge, huge wake-up call.”
Steinem, who is curating this year’s Festival Albertine at the New York French Embassy in November, says she’s been observing a growing grassroots participation, from people lining up to attend town-hall meetings with their congress members to college students who’ve traditionally considered politics “dirty” running for office. “In my long life, I have never seen this level of activism in the US,” she explains. “It’s way more than during Vietnam—that was crucial, that movement stopped a war, but it also was concentrated in draft age, young people,” while the so-called “resistance” to Trump is cross-generational.
This importance of this can’t be underestimated, Steinem says. “In a way,” she explains, “if you haven’t organized and struggled to get what you need, you don’t have the muscle and the strength to use it once it’s there.”
The shift is happening in parallel with the resurgence of the cause dearest to Steinem’s heart: Feminism. Seeing women embrace the label of “feminist” as perhaps never before is “a step forward,” says the author., And she is not worried about the possible exploitation of the label for marketing purposes by brands such as Dove. “You know, there’s some people who, when they’re on your side, you know you are winning,” she says, referring to the sudden corporate flaunting of feminist values.
As for the conservative, and in some cases outright xenophobic and racist, reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency, she says, “There seems to be a third of the country that is still in old race-sex hierarchy and resentful of change.” But that is, in a way, to be expected: “The worst time for any ‘out-group’ is right after a victory, because then there is a backlash.”