Activist, writer, political activist, and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem's vision for a more equitable future requires acknowledging progress in the women’s movement, voting in local elections, and promoting equity within family units.
Steinem shared her insights on the state of women in the world on the “Women of Influence: The Power of Gender in Shaping Culture” panel during the inaugural Global Citizen NOW thought leadership summit in New York Cityon May 23.
Musician, filmmaker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Pharrell Williams and Grammy Award-winning composer and vocalist Arooj Aftab joined Steinem in the conversation, moderated by CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King.
More than 200 speakers from the public and private spheres joined the two-day summit, including heads of state, scientists, activists, celebrity advocates, and corporate executives, discussing the overlapping crises that affect communities around the world — from the climate crisis to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to gender inequity. They also explored the opportunities that can arise when different sectors work together to achieve the United Nations’ Global Goals.
The summit featured panels that sought to instill a greater sense of urgency throughout the gathered audience in their efforts to break the systemic barriers keeping people in poverty, protect the planet, empower women and girls, end conflict, and much more.
King kicked off the “Women of Influence” panel by musing on the relevance of singer Aretha Franklin’s hit cover of the Otis Redding song “Respect” in 2022, as COVID-19 continues to set back progress on gender equality and reproductive rights are under threat. She also offered up Steinem’s famous quote, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”
Steinem, a pioneer of the US feminist movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, said that despite the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade announced weeks prior, she felt reassured by the fact that the majority of Americans believe individuals should have the right to abortion.
“Some people are going backwards, yes. But I think most people are going forward,” she said.
“Maybe because I'm so old and I remember when it was way worse. I'm really an optimist. And I think when we look at the polls and see the huge majority support for reproductive freedom, against racial distinctions, the majority of the country is there.”
Steinem urged members of the audience to run for office, whether it’s on a local school board level or for state legislator, to help keep laws intact that protect human rights.
“Also I think we have to humanize the situation because we don't relate to statistics, we relate to actual human beings,” she said.
Steneim explained she started wearing a Prisoner of War-style bracelet (popularized during the Vietnam War) again following the leaked draft on the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Her bracelet commemorates Rosie Jimenez, one of the first people to die of an illegal abortion because of the Hyde Amendment that forbade the use of federal funds to cover the procedure.
Banning abortions will not prevent them from happening, Steinem stressed, and she highlighted the suffering and danger that went into finding illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade passed in 1973.
“Obedience cannot be secured by unjust laws because people just don't obey them,” she said.
Abortion rights came up during several discussions throughout Global Citizen NOW.
Erna Solberg, the former prime minister of Norway and Global Citizen global board member, emphasized during the “Gender Equity Now” panel that banning abortion ends up harming women living in poverty the most.
“If you don't allow abortions, it's not abortions you are abolishing; it is safe abortions you are abolishing,” she said. “More women will die because they are poor because they will try to stop the pregnancy. All of these things will happen. We know this from history.”
Statistics prove Solberg’s point — around the world, criminalizing abortion disproportionately affects marginalized people in poverty, leading to 25 million unsafe or dangerous abortions each year.
Meanwhile, during the “Catalyzing Investment in Marginalized Groups” panel, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, president and founder of Umlambo Foundation and Global Citizen board member, called for the need to stop politicizing the medical procedure.
“Reproductive health for women — from prevention to termination — is a health issue, an economic issue, and not be treated as a political football,” she said.
And during the fireside conversation “Putting Women and Girls First,” Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi shared that the Catholic archbishop in her district decided she would not be able to receive communion, a ritual that is central to the faith, because of her views supporting abortion rights.
“Our faith is very important to us, so this is not insignificant to me,” Pelosi said of her and her family. “But the fact is, is that it's up to women to choose.”
King closed the “The Power of Gender in Shaping Culture” panel by asking each guest to share what they wish for men and women in 2022.
“I want women and men and everybody to be able to do anything they fucking well please,” Steinem said.
Focusing solely on making big institutional changes can be daunting, she explained, and she called for grassroots change. Equality can start in the home by ensuring men are sharing chores and child care with women, as well as pooling income, according to Steinem.
“I think change is like a tree — it doesn't grow from the top down, it grows from the bottom up,” she said.
“Even if we can do the smallest thing, to say ... how come parking lot attendants who are men get paid more than child care attendants, who are mostly women? Do we care about our cars more than our children? I don't think so.”