I don’t know if you guys know this, but Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright made a whole bunch of people mad recently.
Was it the smartest thing either of them have ever said?
Oh, no. Of course not. No, and I’m not going to pretend that it is.
Gloria Steinem remarked on an episode of Bill Maher, on the appeal of Bernie Sanders to young, millennial voters:
GLORIA STEINEM: When you’re young, you’re thinking, you know, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie …
And Madeline Albright, while stumping for Hillary Clinton, had this to say:
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.
Cue the the backlash, the vitriol, and the anger. Cue the thinkpieces. All of which point out — and they are not wrong! — that it’s pretty anti-feminist to assume that women are basing their political preferences on the availability of single men on the campaign trail, or that women should be shamed into voting for a particular candidate based on gender, and not on issues. They’re obviously not wrong. Those statements were pretty dumb.
Even though Madeleine Albright has been saying that statement for twenty years. Even though that statement has appeared on a Starbucks cup. It was a dumb thing to say, at the time that she said it.
And hoo boy, are we still reminding everyone that it was a really dumb thing to say.
Read that again, because I’m still re-reading it: How Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem Betrayed Women Everywhere.
Okay. Let’s take a breath.
Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright said something dumb that neither of them thought through all the way.
They did not “betray women everywhere.” Come on now. Just … come ON.
Think back on the last time you said something dumb, that you would feel pretty stupid about if it was ever repeatedly publicly, outside of context. Good? You remembered a time you did something dumb? Probably in the last day and a half? Yeah, me too.
Now. Imagine that your grandmother has invited you over for dinner. It’s delicious, because it always is, and you and your grandmother are drinking and eating and laughing together, and she begins to tell you what her life was like when she was your age. And as you’re sitting together, marveling at this woman who remembers iceboxes instead of refrigerators, who lived through her own version of Mad Men, who has lived a history that you can only understand through books; as you’re sitting there looking at this incredible woman, awash in the power of all that she has given to the world in her lifetime, she says something that’s a little dumb. Maybe even more than a little dumb. Maybe it’s pretty freaking stupid.
You could say nothing and let it go and have a second helping of pie. You could even maybe gently challenge her on that idea.
But can we please just all agree that you probably shouldn’t flip the tables over, light everything on fire, and start screaming FUCK YOU, GRANDMA?
It’s been over a week, and both women have since offered statements and apologies. Madeleine Albright’s remarks are in the form of a New York Times editorial titled “My Undiplomatic Moment,” and it is a piece of writing that is worth reading.
I absolutely believe what I said, that women should help one another, but this was the wrong context and the wrong time to use that line. I did not mean to argue that women should support a particular candidate based solely on gender. But I understand that I came across as condemning those who disagree with my political preferences. If heaven were open only to those who agreed on politics, I imagine it would be largely unoccupied.
However, I do want to explain why I so firmly believe that, even today, women have an obligation to help one another. In a society where women often feel pressured to tear one another down, our saving grace lies in our willingness to lift one another up.
I’ve been reading Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road. I’m only about halfway through it, so perhaps I simply just haven’t arrived at the section where she rips off her alien flesh-mask and proceeds to pledge her loyalty to Zorp while drinking the blood of a puppy. So far, it’s just the thoughts of a woman who, without question, helped make the life I am living right now possible.
Really, you guys? This is the person who just “betrayed women everywhere?”
I can’t pick a favorite section of this book yet because so far it’s all my favorite.
Maybe the part where she’s asked to speak at the Harvard Law Review banquet in 1972, and she thinks it’s a practical joke: it’s notoriously all-male. She can’t pass the invite off to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a young lawyer she admires, so it’s up to her to walk onto the Harvard Campus, conquer debilitating stage fright, and address a room filled with political leaders and prominent scholars on the topic of her choosing.
The topic she chose was “Why Harvard Law School Needs Women More Than Women Need It,” and she chose it after arriving on campus to discover that women, who make up seven percent of the law students, have just finished “Ladies’ Day”– an annual tradition that on one day a year, women would be permitted to be called on in class. Her speech included the line, “From now on, no man can call himself a liberal, or radical, or even a conservative advocate of fair play if his work depends in any way on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women at home or in the office.” She was booed and screamed at by a professor in a tuxedo until the ballroom settled into an uncomfortable silence and she was quietly able to leave.
For the record, the latest incoming class of students at Harvard Law School is now 47% female and 44% students of color. Thanks, Gloria.
Maybe I like the part of the book best where as a young woman she describes attending a march on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An older black woman befriends her in the crowd, and points out the lack of female speakers at the podium.
I hadn’t even noticed the absence of women speakers. I felt a gear click into place in my mind. I was impressed. Not only had I never made any such complaints, but at political meetings, I had given my suggestions to whatever man was sitting next to me, knowing that if a man offered them, they would be taken more seriously. You white women, Mrs. Greene said kindly, as if reading my mind. If you don’t stand up for yourselves, how can you stand up for anyone else?
Maybe I liked the part best about how she organized fifty-six open, racially and economically diverse conferences for women in each state, where delegates would be elected and then go on to a national conference for women to assemble the country’s first forum on women’s rights. It’s close to my favorite, that part where she managed to criss-cross the entire country to assemble a summit of women to debate, argue, explain, listen, speak, and vote on the issues that mattered most to them.
Or maybe it was the part where she traveled on airplanes more frequently, and began helping the stewardesses campaign for better working conditions. We maybe wouldn’t have the term “flight attendant” now if it weren’t for Gloria, alongside many other activists, helping these women campaign for their hiring and firing protocol to be based on their intensive six-week training of first aid, emergency procedures, underwater rescue, and plane evacuation … not their height, weight, appearance, race, marital status, age, or how well they filled out their slinky, sexualized uniforms.
Maybe it was the section where she describes meeting students at the Gallaudet school for the Deaf and recognizing that there’s an entire other civil rights battle still yet to be fought. Maybe it was the throwaway reference to Mitt Romney’s “Binders of Women” gaffe — referencing binders full of women candidates, properly vetted and prepared by the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, an offshoot of the National Women’s Political Caucus that Gloria helped found.
Maybe it was just the repeated reminders that a movement like feminism can’t succeed without a comprehensive understanding that race, age, class, and ability are all part of the intersectional puzzle that must be navigated together to get the oppressed on the same footing as those in positions of power. Maybe it was just the humor and strength and courage evident in every line, as she chronicles her extraordinary decades of travel, writing, speaking, organizing, and politicking.
So forgive me if I’m not willing to light the woman on fire for saying something a little bit dumb. I’ve said a whole lot of dumb shit myself, and I hope that I’m never pilloried in such a brutal manner for whatever dumb shit I will inevitably say next.
The feminist activists who came before us were trailblazing in ways that you and I cannot possibly imagine. What’s the hardest, most difficult thing that you’ve ever had to do in the name of the feminist cause? I dunno, publish a blog post? Sit down.
Those women said something kind of dumb, and you get to call them on that. Right after you write them a thank-you note, after studying what they did with their lives. In the wake of some stupid comments, perhaps it would serve us all well to remember that humans are imperfect, and these imperfect women have made the world a better place for my messy, female, and altogether far-from-perfect self, and yours, too.
The world is a better place for women now than it was forty years ago. It’s also still a mess. We still need to talk about the wage gap and our country’s abysmal maternity policies. We need to talk about the ways that race and gender and class and ability intersect with oppression. We need to talk about healthcare and reproductive rights. We are not done fighting those fights, and I’d like to get back to fighting them, rather than tearing apart the women who have spent their lives making my world a better place to be.
Thanks, Madeleine. Thanks, Gloria. Thank you for everything.
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