The first MAKERS CONFERENCE was held in February, including a celebration of the life and work of Gloria Steinem. In honor of her eightieth birthday, it featured a video with touching and funny statements from Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Katie Couric, and others about Steinem’s life’s work that, as Marlo Thomas summarized, “connected the dots between all women and created a sisterhood.” At the end, the screen displayed a simple hashtag, #WWGD, which stands for “What would Gloria do?”
What would Gloria do to resolve the unfinished business of the women’s movement she helped create? On the conference’s opening night she offered advice, in an interview with Jennifer Aniston. MAKERS began with an idea to create a documentary telling the story of Steinem’s life. But Steinem insisted the story of the women’s movement could not be told through the life of one woman; thus, the MAKERS project began, with a goal to collect women’s stories documenting the past 50 years of change.
The conference attendees included 500 business leaders, activists, scholars, and celebrities eager to hear Steinem’s thoughts on how to “reset the agenda” so progress toward women’s equality would continue spinning forward, as emcee Kara Swisher described in her introduction. Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, attentively listened to the wisdom of her foremother, who once penned her own call for a Revolution from Within.
The conversation tacked from social movement philosophy to personal advice, from Steinem’s feminist awakening early in her career, because “it made sense of [her] life,” to her admiration for Native American women, Alice Walker, and India. At each turn, Steinem returned to the theme that fundamental change in gender relations is revolutionary, perhaps even threatening. In fact, feminism became the F word precisely because it represents taking away an unpaid labor force, an underpaid labor force, and control of reproduction, upending society’s status quo, Steinem argued.
What would Gloria tell young women encountering discrimination? Inequality originates not in biology, nature, God, or Freud, but rather in a system that ranks rather than links. Society’s paradigm should be a circle, not a pyramid. Do what you can to end sexism in your home, work, and community, but don’t worry, she counseled. Further, don’t feel hurt by criticism from adversaries, for that is an indicator of success.
She offered advice to employers, educators, and parents too. Women bosses, if you don’t pay your office staff fairly, you’re part of the problem. Schools districts, if you’re dropping sex education from the curriculum, understand that porn (including its violence and female subjugation) becomes teenagers’ sex ed. Mothers, if you look at yourself critically in the mirror, your daughter sees you and absorbs that negative self-concept.
One question from an audience member annoyed Steinem, but only for a moment. When asked if women should use their looks and charm to advance their careers, Steinem said, “if women could sleep their way to the top, there’d be a lot more women at the top.” It’s not worth it, she explained, because you end up being demeaned, being inauthentic.
She repeated that social change comes from the bottom up in organizations and societies. If you sense injustice, listen to yourself, she urged younger women, because “you’re not crazy, the system is crazy.” When someone asked if she thought President Obama could move the dial on equal pay, she reminded that “it’s up to women and men to demand it.” Equal pay, and other issues of gender discrimination, need to become part of the overall fabric of society, she noted, not separate issues.
What can a man do, one asked, to become an ally? Empathize: think about all your education, talents, and ask how you would feel if you were a woman. Think about constraints placed on you by the masculine role and use that understanding to catalyze change.
What would Gloria do about the need for more women in science and engineering, about sex trafficking, about global female poverty? Carry on the work that she and many other pioneers began. “I’m not just a dreamer, I’m a hopeaholic,” Steinem said. And how would she like to be remembered? As a person with a good heart, who tried to leave the world more kind.