How I Got into This Room

Writer, activist, and feminist Gloria Steinem was named the 2012 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association and was presented with the award at the AHA’s 71st annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 8, 2012. The following is adapted from her acceptance speech.

Thank you for this award. Coming from the great hearts and good minds in this room, from some young idealists and a lot of long-distance runners, it really means so much.

I’ve been thinking about how I got into this room. And I think that each of us has a quite amazing story of how we got here, to humanism. I also think that part of the reason we have a hard time with our campaign is that we’re perceived negatively for not believing in God, as opposed to being seen positively for what we do believe. And we lack a proper narrative: after all, the human brain operates on narrative and imagery. In other words, we haven’t been sitting around campfires for millennia telling stories for nothing.

So I thought I would tell a few stories of my own. And I look forward to your stories, or your questions, or your answers, even your announcements of upcoming troublemaking. And most of all, I look forward to overcoming this old-fashioned structure we continue to use. We’re a lot of people, and here I am talking to you and you’re looking at each other’s backs. This is a hierarchical structure based on patriarchy. Patriarchy doesn’t work anywhere anymore, including in this room. So I’ll talk for a bit, but then I’d like us to turn into a circle and truly learn from each other.

When I first graduated from college, I went to India. My mother and grandmothers were theosophists, so I’d grown up with coloring books called Lotus Leaves for the Young, and so on. I also went to India because I was engaged and trying not to get married, so I had to go very far away. The entire time I was there—with no money, moving from one place to the next—I was hosted and helped and treated kindly by groups of radical feminists throughout the country. I certainly learned from that, and will maintain forevermore, the idea of what “radical” truly means—not the military meaning but the primary meaning, which is “arising from or going to a root.”

During my time in India I became friends with the widow of the man who founded the Communist parties in India and Mexico, M.N. Roy. Roy had ceased being a communist because the party had failed to support the independence movement in India and had very clearly become controlled by the Soviet Union. He had also concluded that Marxism’s great error was its dictum that the end justifies the means when, in fact, the means are the end; you can’t kill for peace, for any reason other than immediate self-defense, and you can’t destroy the village in order to win the war. Roy realized this and wrote extensively about it, converting most of the people who followed him in the Communist Party, along with many others. And what did he call his new philosophy? He called it Radical Humanism.

Other things in my life have brought me to this room. For instance, I took a trip down the Nile, through one of the oldest continuous areas of human creativity. Getting off the boat in the very oldest parts—the most African-Nubian parts—I noticed that the carvings and the temples, what was left of the human record, showed that the so-called divine, or essence of godliness, is in everything. There was papyrus featuring men and women, and butterflies and birds. This is what they worshipped, the divine as present in all living things.

Further down the Nile, it was a thousand years later. In the temples and artifacts there, God had been withdrawn from some of nature, which was less represented. You’d see a goddess with a son and no daughter and fewer kinds of carvings. Then you’d get back in the boat and go a little further and it was another thousand years later. The son of the goddess had become a consort, and there was much less nature depicted. This would continue as you went until the artifacts showed the goddess reduced to a throne for the pharaoh. Nature was essentially gone.

Then, finally, as Islam came along, there were mosques often built on top of what existed before. And in the mosques there was no representation of females or nature whatsoever. Instead there were abstract designs. It’s fascinating—this withdrawal of God from women and from all of nature in order to make it okay to conquer them both. It was an actual process.

At the time I was reading James Henry Breasted, the great Egyptologist from the late 1800s and early 1900s who said that monotheism is but imperialism in religion. It kind of takes your breath away, right? I mean, there it is. Of course, for us religion is still politics—it’s just politics you’re not supposed to criticize. But seeing the process was a revelation. How did that happen over those millennia?

Here’s what I think happened. Through a series of natural disasters, there came a period in which the people who had suffered came to take the land of people who were better off. And since theirs were matrilineal cultures—not matriarchal but matrilineal—land titles were passed through women. They married the women in order to get the land, then gradually began to force women to have more children than they wanted, raping them in order to produce more soldiers and more workers, and so on.

There’s an exceptional book by Sven Lindqvist, called Exterminate All the Brutes, about the invention of racism to justify taking over land in Africa and the Americas and so on. We can still see that wherever there is more racial division, there is more sexism. Wherever there is one kind of caste system, there is another. We can exactly predict the amount of violence in a society by the amount of violence in a family, which comes up in order to control women as the means of reproduction. The more hierarchy there is in the family, the more likely people are to believe in other hierarchies based on race and class. So it is a profoundly, deeply political process. And we’re still experiencing the demonization of any sexual expression that doesn’t end in conception and doesn’t take place inside patriarchal marriage.

The good news is we’re communal creatures. And what’s both good and bad about being human is that we’re adaptable. We survive because we’re infinitely adaptable (we come to feel that what we’ve experienced as normal is normal), and we’re vulnerable because we’re infinitely adaptable.

But I’m proud to be with you here, because this is a room that celebrates the invisible in our spirits, and the visible in the world. This is a room that understands that what is valuable is the now, is us, that we are linked and not ranked, that we are striving to be in a circle again, and that religion is literally the deepest form of politics in the sense of power structure. And only when we see beyond that and look at the reality of each other, do we understand that there are more differences between two individual women than there are between men and women as groups; that there are more differences between two white people (actually, beige) or between two African American or Latin American or Asian American people than there are between those so-called racial groups. Indeed, race itself is a fiction, a minor adaptation to climate, as we all started from the same place.

I made a button that said: “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” But I think there’s still something left of the 95 percent of human history before all of this division happened. It is in our imaginations, in our capabilities, and I think in our dreams of connecting with each other.

So I’m here to declare this the first meeting of the post-patriarchal, post-monotheistic, post-nationalist, post-racist, post-sexist age. Now, any organizing announcements you want to make? Any questions I might be able to answer or any things I should know?

(What follows are responses to questions posed by audience members at the Humanist of the Year banquet on June 8, 2012.)

Gloria Steinem’s advice to a self-identified troublemaker on how to stay balanced and keep it fun:

Always remember that change starts at the bottom. I think we’re disempowered by the idea that it starts at the top, when really change is like a tree. It does start at the bottom.

Also remember that we’re communal creatures; we need each other. If we’re by ourselves, we do come to feel crazy and alone. So if I had one wish for the feminist movement worldwide, for the democratic movement worldwide, for the humanist movement worldwide, it would be a kind of revolutionary AA, a network consisting of small groups that one could easily find, small enough so that everyone can speak and everyone can listen. We need these kinds of revolutionary cells. It’s the soul of the Chinese revolution. It’s the soul of the Civil Rights movement. It’s the soul of the feminist movement. We need these groups of diverse people with shared purpose, who meet regularly, support each other, and create another reality because right now we’re swimming in someone else’s reality much of the time.

Lastly, keep in mind that you never know which thing you do is going to turn out to be important. I’m sure we’ve all done very small things that had very great impact and very big things that didn’t make any difference. So, create the means that best reflect the ends we want. Try to make each moment authentic, and you’ll get to an authentic end.

…on what secular parents can do to help instill feminist values in their children:

In a way I don’t feel right about giving advice because only you know your child. But in general, we know we’re worth listening to because someone listens to us. We know we’re lovable because someone loves us. We do what we see, not what we’re told. So, if your daughter sees you respecting yourself, and saying what you really think and believe, and being full of joy, or being angry, or being an authentic person and standing up for yourself, she is much more likely to stand up for herself. And if her father listens to her and pays attention to what she says, she will understand that men can do that too. It’s a libel on men to say they’re not as loving and nurturing as women.

…on the idea that when people say, “bless you,” they’re celebrating female fertility because the verb “to bless” derives from the Germanic noun “blood,” and so literally means to mark with blood:

It’s a great observation. So often it isn’t the thing itself, it’s whether it’s perceived as being possessed by a powerful group or not. So if men could menstruate, we would know about it and menstruation would be honored and bragged about, and there would be a national institute of dysmenorrhea.

I’ve noticed that anything that is perceived as being superior takes the noun. And anything that isn’t, that’s judged as inferior, requires an adjective. So there are black novelists and novelists. There are women physicians and physicians. Male nurses and nurses.

I was on a plane the other day and there was a young man sitting next to me. They gave us a selection of movies to choose from, and he said, “anything but a chick flick.” It’s really interesting, I thought, that this poor guy is very oppressed because nobody is describing the kind of movie he wants. So I wrote this whole essay about “prick flicks,” featuring more weapons than dialogue, more people dying than living, and so on.

…on how the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association can move forward in confronting more current issues:

Reporters will still say to me, aren’t you interested in anything other than the women’s movement or other than feminism? And I always say to them, tell me something that wouldn’t be transformed by feminism. And in forty years, nobody has ever been able to come up with anything that wouldn’t be transformed by feminism, by looking at people as people, without gender labels.

For instance, we read articles about poverty. If we just had equal pay, the poverty rate would be cut in half in this country. So just take whatever issue it is that this organization is facing, or one that’s coming up politically. Look at it as if women mattered equally, and it will transform the issue.

Despite a pre-dawn pick-up and early flight the following morning, Steinem remained in the banquet hall long after her speech, posing for pictures with conference attendees and talking with all who had questions or thoughts to share.