Gloria Steinem says black women have always been more feminist than white women

Gloria Steinem sets the record straight on black women’s leadership.
Gloria Steinem sets the record straight on black women’s leadership.
Image: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Gloria Steinem has been at the forefront of American feminism for a half century. But she’s never seen activism quite like today’s #MeToo movement.

“Clearly, at this moment in time we are gaining our voices in a way that has never happened before,” said Steinem, the co-founder of Ms. magazine and Women’s Media Center, at the Massachusetts Women’s Conference in Boston on Dec. 8. 

Many women have found a sense of unity and purpose in #MeToo—a movement launched ten years ago by Tarana Burke, a black activist, and energized this year in the aftermath of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. But while Steinem is heartened by this moment, she believes the quest for gender equality will not succeed if the mainstream movement ignores an essential reality: Black women have always been at the heart of feminist activism.

Speaking with American comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson, Steinem outlined the #MeToo movement’s blindspots, the importance of intersectional feminism, and how to continue dismantling sexual harassment and misogyny in the months and years to come.

Remember black women’s legacy

“We are kind of at a tidal wave point right now. But we need to remember that this all started over 40 years ago with defining the word sexual harassment,” Steinem told Robinson. In 1975, the term “sexual harassment” was coined by feminists at Cornell University. A few years later, feminist activist and lawyer Catharine MacKinnon developed the legal framework arguing that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination.

Then, Steinem continued, three black women filed successful sexual harassment lawsuits: two against the US government, filed by Paulette Barnes and Diane Williams, and one against a bank, filed by Mechelle Vinson. Vinson’s case, accusing her former supervisor of repeated harassment and rape, eventually led to the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1986 decision that sexual harassment was a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

“All three of these women were black. And these black women now symbolize the fact that [sexual harassment] is certainly is more likely to happen to people with less power in society than to people with more power,” said Steinem. She went on to note that law professor Anita Hill, also a black woman, brought sexual harassment to the forefront of public discourse with her 1991 testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Yet more often than not, white feminism and mainstream American culture has overlooked the invaluable contributions of women of color. This injustice has led many, including Quartz’s Corinne Purtill, to rightfully charge that #MeToo hijacked black women’s work on race and gender equality.

Foreground intersectionality

“Women of color fought the battles that brought society to this point, where even the faint hope of change seems possible,” writes Purtill in Quartz. “To use that work without ensuring that this broken system is replaced with one inclusive of race, in addition to gender, is not partial victory. It’s complete failure.”

Steinem echoed the same message when Robinson asked whether today’s feminists fail to uphold the importance of intersectionality—a feminist theory introduced by civil rights advocate and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, also a black woman. Intersectional feminism examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face, based not just on gender, but on race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and other marginalized identities.

“The problem, and what [many feminists today] are not saying,” said Steinem, “is that women of color in general—and especially black women—have always been more likely to be feminist than white women. And the problem I have with the idea that the women’s movement or the feminist movement is somehow a white thing is that it renders invisible the people who have always been there.”

If you don’t believe her, consult statistics, says Steinem: In the early 1970s, when Ms. Magazine published its first national poll, over 60% of black women said they supported the women’s movement and feminist issues. Just 30% of white women voiced support, says Steinem.

Things aren’t so different today, Steinem explained, pointing out that black women voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, while a majority of white women voted for Trump. Steinem attributed part of the split to the way that married white women vote “in the interests of their husbands’ income and identity, because that’s what they’re dependent on.”

Women of color, by contrast, are necessarily aware of systemic biases in their everyday lives; they are far more likely to actively oppose oppression. Said simply: We are not born sexist or racist. Rather, systemic racism and misogyny socializes us, in Steinem’s words, “to believe that we are ranked, when in fact we are linked.”

Raise our girls to be more like cats

Given the pervasiveness of sexism, sexual harassment, and misogyny, Steinem says we must actively shift the way we socialize young girls and women. Her solution: Raise them to be more like cats.

“Have you ever tried to touch a cat,” Steinem asked me, when I inquired how we should raise the next generation of feminists. I nodded, and she made a swatting motion with her hands. “Cats don’t let you touch them. Cats tell you what they’re going to do, and that’s that.”

What’s phenomenal, says Steinem, is that before children are fully socialized to fulfill traditional gender roles, they instinctively act like cats. “Babies are not born as ‘girls’ or ‘boys.’ Babies are born human, period,” Steinem explained. “And little kids say it so wonderfully when they say things like, ‘It’s not fair,’ and ‘You are not the boss of me.’ Those statements are the basis of every social justice movement. We need to hang on to that.”

Such cat-like instincts were quite literal for Steinem, who did not attend school much until she was 12 years old because her father moved frequently. Subsequently, she says, when someone attempted to kiss her on the cheek as a young girl, she literally bit him, breaking his skin and making him bleed. 

But sustaining this attitude is nearly impossible when we constantly teach little girls to be pleasing. “We dress girls in dresses that button up the back, in clothes they can’t even dress themselves in. There’s so much training to be passive, and to wait for somebody else,” Steinem explained. “So we need to look for and demand internal changes in the way we act, and the way we treat our family and friends, in addition to demanding external changes.”

Fight for bodily integrity

The patriarchy will not tumble overnight. Steinem believes that many people still misunderstand what drives sexual harassment. ”I think we still have not quite got it out there that sexual harassment and assault are about power, not sex,” she said. Understanding that sexual harassment is about the drive to dominate, humiliate, and demean other people can help provide clarity about what constitutes inappropriate behavior, especially for men who ask questions like, “Can we not hug women anymore?

“The fact that our bodies belong to us, that’s the beginning of democracy in my view,” said Steinem. “Women have a harder time with democracy because we happen to have wombs, and patriarchy wants to control reproduction. And racial cast systems only make democracy harder for women of color. But the fact is for both men and women, our right to govern our own bodies, and use our own voices is fundamental to democracy. So if we can carry it forward in that way it’s very helpful.”

One of the most important ways to carry forward this bodily integrity, says Steinem, is to acknowledge that not everything is sexual harassment, and that we all are responsible for calling out behavior that feels inappropriate so to ensure lines do not blur.

“If a guy is commenting on our appearance in a flattering but uncomfortable way, if we comment back, they’re shocked, because we’ve taken the ability to define our boundaries, and our desires,” said Steinem. “So we need to keep talking to each other—we can’t have men take this moment and say, ‘now I can never interact with women,’ or vice-versa.”

Activism doesn’t stop with social media

Among the many lessons to learn from black women’s leadership in the fight against sexual harassment, says Steinem, is that activism requires real-life, consequence-ridden work. Social media posts followed by complacency does not count.

“Obviously it’s a great gift to be able to communicate [on social media] and know you’re not alone. This is huge. But we also have to remember that pressing send isn’t actually doing anything,” said Steinem. “So we need to focus on the practical steps we take in the world. The obvious ones are how we spend our money, who we reward and who we don’t, and who we vote for.”

This is not to say that tweets and Facebook posts are meaningless. When it comes to real-life and social media activism, Steinem says it’s not an “either-or” situation, because activism is “an arc.” ”Consciousness always comes first, before action,” she said. “And consciousness can come from typing #MeToo, and knowing that you’re not alone—knowing that the system is crazy, not you. It’s not about making a value judgment, it’s about seeing a full circle from consciousness, to activism, to change.”

Remember the simple rules of democracy

If you’re not exhausted by today’s political climate, Godspeed. For the rest of us, it’s okay to acknowledge that we’re overwhelmed, and probably craving hibernation, says Steinem. Waves of exhaustion and even hopelessness are inevitable in the fight for social justice, she assures.

However, to prevent ourselves from normalizing sexual harassment, we need to ground our activism in two fundamental values: intersectionality and democracy. Steinem explains:

“If you have more power, remember to listen as much as you talk. And if you have less power remember, to talk as much as you listen. That can be hard when you’re used to hiding. Keep yourself in the present, and don’t obsess over what you should be doing, or could have done differently. Talk to people, don’t get isolated, and remember to empathize, because almost everybody can be changed and transformed.”