Friday 2 November 2018

50 Over 50 - Gloria Steinem

When I first kissed a boy as a teenager, I was terrified of pregnancy. There was no Google to check online and there was no one to consult.  I lived in terror till I got my period and swore that I would never kiss again. Even though I acquired the basics about human reproduction soon after, it was only after I entered IIT Mumbai that I really started paying attention to women’s sexuality and its politics.  I noticed the subtle signals that surround us entrenching us in our gender roles.  At that time, there were 9 boys’ hostel H1, H2,..,H9 and then there was one LH – Ladies Hostel and there was a fight going on to rename LH as Hostel 10. And all the boys used to tease us saying that we are being over sensitive. Thanks for the resilience of our Seniors, it did change from LH to H10 and I began to understand the fight of women to be treated as equals. I also understood that language matters and every small nuance is necessary.  It was in that period, that I first read about Gloria Steinem.

Of all the feminists, she really appealed to me because I felt that she was a great combination of being feminine and being a feminist – a sophisticated beauty with a steely soul.  She came from a small town where she took care of her ailing mom for most of her growing up life. It was in her 20s that she blossomed at Smith College.  She fought a multitude of wars for over half a century for gender equality.

I was overjoyed when I met her while I was at American India Foundation and got to know her over the years.  As part of Lakshmi’s Lounge, I interviewed her in 2007. You can watch the entire interview following the article.

Let me share with you what I learnt from her:

1. The India that was and Could be

Her career began with a two year trip to India in late 50s, way before the Beatles made their way here. She met folks from MN Roy led Radical Humanists and traveled with them for over a year and was deeply influenced by them. She also realised that India placed such an importance on education that many more women were educated in India than even in US. And yet patriarchy prevailed everywhere. She said that if Indira Gandhi had a brother, the story have been different, which I thought was an introspective insight. When she came back to US, she wanted to write about her experiences much beyond the exotic thoughts of India and no one was interested. Today, things are changing but not fast enough.  It’s more important more than ever before to tell a range of stories from India beyond the exotic animals and enchanted forests.

2.  Personal and Professional – It’s all the same

Gloria got married in her 60s. When I asked her as to why she decided to do so  (after a position of being against marriage), her quick answer was – Immigration. Her partner David was a South African who was banned from his country because of his opposition to the apartheid government. She said that she married him so that he could become a citizen. She always fought against marriage because it did not give women equal rights to own property and her bank account etc., Over the years, leaders like Gloria fought to get equal right for women. She said that since all those things that she fought for were indeed accomplished, she decided to get married. That decision came in to be crucial when David got sick later on, he could use the medical insurance benefits. She said that she supported same sex marriage but she realised how important that battle was only after she understood the benefits of a marriage certificate. She was practical enough to understand the reason behind her stance and changed it when she felt that the situation changed. This taught me that it’s important to check your social stance or a business plan periodically to see if you need to pivot the position with time.

3. On Women

This story is the one where I got the most out of my interactions with Gloria. She, along with her friend Devaki Jain wanted to study Gandhian tactics for women’s movements around the world to apply those tactics to the women’s movements. In the 70s, they both went on a trip across India collecting Gandhiji’s letters and talking to his friends. They ended up at the home of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyah, a veteran freedom fighter and close aide of Gandhiji. They told her of their journey to track all that Gandhiji did and asker for her inputs. After patiently listening to them, Kamladevi said “Well my dear! We taught him everything he knew”. That statement while putting a smile on my face also gave a poignant insight that Gloria explained. The independence movement subsumed the women’s movement, which was huge and fighting against practices like Sati (a practice where if a man passed away, his wife who was alive was also sent to the funeral pyre along with his dead body) and adopted the tactics of the women’s movement. And Gloria commented on how our (women’s) history gets lost wherever we are. That ability to win a war without meaningless carnage IS the feminine power that Gandhiji used to get us freedom. Our mythologies talk about women who would stop eating and get into her “Alakagriham” (a room assigned to walk in when one is angry) when she was upset with her spouse and Gandhiji was known for his hunger strikes. He used diplomacy, cajoling and cooperation instead of a cane to bring people together. He used emotion to capture the hearts to create the non-violence movement instead of arousing their anger to go to war. And it is also true that we rarely know the women who stood steadfast to bring us freedom.

I learnt a lot from Gloria about what it takes to build institutions. She persisted for years to be taken seriously and broke all boundaries to create equal rights for women.  One of my favourite quotes by her "We've begun to raise daughters more..but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters" is apt for today where we need to sensitise our daughters AND sons to build a more equitable and just world.  At 84, she remains more active than most and earns a spot on Lakshmi's 50 Over 50.


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