Gloria Steinem is recognized widely known as a feminist icon, as through all of her extraordinary activism, writings, speaking and books—as well as helping to found hugely influential media outlets and organizations such as Ms. Magazine, the Ms. Foundation, Women’s Media Center and more—she has helped to shape for so many of us our understanding of what feminism is, as well as why we need a feminist movement.
I have had the pleasure of calling Gloria Steinem my mentor and friend for almost 30 years, and I have interviewed her numerous times for a variety of media outlets and projects. She has given me—and so many other women—vital encouragement, guidance and advice over the years, for which I will always feel honored and grateful. In the U.S. and across the globe, she has provided transformative advocacy and thought leadership across so many issues and is still writing, speaking and advocating tirelessly toward her passionate goal of a more just and equal world.
Gloria is humble in nature and has always resisted people holding her up as an “icon” or the face of any movement; she is insistent on making sure that the feminist movement is inclusive and using her influence and celebrity status to amplify others who don’t usually get the spotlight, as well as more diverse voices.
So while she generally shies away from any tribute (despite all of her many accolades, which she has so richly deserved like being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama), I wanted to use the occasion of Women’s History Month in March and Gloria’s 88th birthday this week on March 25th to honor her enormous contributions to Women’s History and share some of her timeless wisdom I culled from my interviews with her over the years—on topics ranging from why we need more women in leadership positions to how men can be allies in redefining gender roles at home and in the workplace to how we can all create positive change and more. You will also learn about our connection together to one short powerful phrase that has become deeply important to her that she feels best summarizes her overarching vision.
On what it’s like being thought of as an icon and the world’s most famous feminist
You know, I get up every morning and try to remember to do what I’m supposed to do and get my dry cleaning [laughs], and so I don’t see myself in that way. I just do the best I can, and try to make some balance between what needs doing and what I can uniquely do.
On community and banding together
The most effective means we have is to talk to each other in groups. Human beings are communal creatures. If we’re by ourselves we come to feel crazy and alone. We need to make alternate families of small groups of women who support each other, talk to each other regularly, can speak their truths and their experiences and find they’re not alone in them, that other women have them too—so it’s a systemic problem. It makes such a huge difference. If I could have one structural wish for the women’s movement, it would be that we have a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous group structure all over the world, so that wherever you go in a different village or town you can find the feminist equivalent of an AA group to go to once a week and to get some support and some help with seeing the politics of what’s happening to us.
The importance of electing a woman president, as well as more women and diverse voices into political office and other leadership positions
It’s important because, for one thing, little girls would look at themselves and women in a different way if they could imagine being the head of the country. It would free their hopes. And it would free the imaginations of little boys to see female and male authority. However, it doesn’t necessarily change the structural problems just to have one person at the top.
It’s important because we need the talent of the whole country, not just a small percentage of it. It’s important for the whole country that we are able to choose from all of our talent, otherwise we lower our standards. It’s probable that walking around female for twenty years, or fifty years, in this culture has given someone a set of experiences that men don’t necessarily have—in the same way that walking around as a black person or a Hispanic person or a gay person gives people a different set of experiences than a white, heterosexual person. Experience is everything. Somebody who has experienced something is more expert at it than the experts. We need politicians who look like the country.
Also, gender is still a social force, so it’s still probably true, not always, but probably true that women are somewhat less likely to choose an aggressive solution and more likely to choose a conciliatory one. Not that a conciliatory one is always right, but it’s just that it tends to be the least present in public life…. Men are made to feel that they have to earn their masculinity and to sometimes get into an extreme cult of masculinity that requires control and violence. Cesar Chavez used to say, “We want to rescue the executioner from being the executioner, as well as the victim from being the victim.”
One imperative thing we can do to elect more women and achieve a more reflective democracy
The truth is that the voting booth is still the only place that a pauper equals a billionaire, and any woman equals any man. If we organized well from the bottom up—and didn’t fall for the idea that our vote doesn’t count, an idea nurtured by those who don’t want us to use it—we could elect feminists, women of all races and some diverse men, too, who actually represent the female half of the country equally. It’s up to us.
On the word “feminist”
It doesn’t matter what word we use, if it has the same content, it will be treated in the same way. There are other words—there’s “womanist,” there’s “Mujerista,” there’s “women’s liberationist”—they all mean the same thing and they get the same ridicule. I think we just need to choose what word we feel comfortable with that says women are full human beings, and whatever that word is, it will get a lot of opposition, but it will also attract a lot of support. But this is a revolution, not a public relations movement.
How gender roles restrict men as well as women
[Men can be included in feminist work] in much the same way that white people can be included in anti-racist work once we realize that racism restricts us, too. Once men realize that the gender roles are a prison for them too, then they become really valuable allies. Because they’re not just helping someone else, they’re freeing themselves.
There is a full circle of human qualities we all have a right to, and men are confined to the “masculine” ones, which are seventy percent of all of them, and we’re confined to the “feminine” ones, which are thirty percent. We’re missing more, but they’re still missing a lot. If a man fights to be his whole self, to be creative, express emotions men are not supposed to express, do jobs men are not “supposed” to do, take care of his own children—all of these things are part of the feminist movement.
On companies implementing more policies that are not just women-friendly but family-friendly
The standards would be family friendly because unless men are as responsible for babies and little children as women are, it will never work. I think it’s terribly important that we always assume that men have, or should have or could have, the same concerns about their kids that women do. Otherwise a family-friendly policy will be seen as a penalty of employing women. More importantly, kids will grow up without nurturing fathers, and then they will re-manufacture the masculine roles, both gender roles because that’s what they’ve seen in their household. So nothing could be more important than assuming that men need to be asking how they can combine work and family just as much as women do. Men need these child-friendly, family-friendly policies just as much as women do.
We have a lot of role models because almost every developed country on earth has better policies than we do. Having time off, paid time when a child arrives in our lives, whether by birth or adoption, having a shorter work week or a shorter work day available for the parents of young children, having a national system of childcare—almost everybody else has some version of these except us. Having childcare available where we work, onsite childcare; that was a commonplace of working during World War II. They had all these wonderful childcare centers in factories. But then when they wanted women to go home again after the war, they closed them up. So we know it’s quite possible.
Her outlook on life
Some people live in the past, some people live in the present, which is probably the most rewarding, and some people live in the future. I live in the future, so I am always thinking, “What if?” or “This could be” or “This could change” or trying to understand why something happens. The great joy to me is that moment, that “Aha!,” when you think, “Oh, that’s why!” [laughs]. That excitement and pleasure in realizing why something is happening, how it could be different—that definitely keeps me going.
Honesty about our age would help. I always try to say my age [laughs] because I figure it’s a form of coming out.
It would help not to treat age as if it were any less of a pleasure than it was when we were six and saying, “I’m six and a half.” [laughs] You know, we could be saying, “I’m fifty and a half” and say it with joy. Each age is different and has different discoveries and pleasures. Of course, some of it is tied to looks. We could all use more role models like Georgia O’Keefe and fewer with plastic surgery. And some of it at my age is tied to the shortness of time that is left. There are too few role models in this culture for seeing life as a natural cycle.
Advice on creating change
Change is like a house—you can’t build it from the top down, only from the bottom up. Whatever small change we make will be like a pebble in a pond; it will reverberate outward and also it will be fun. It’s important to understand what joy there is. We’re meant to use all five senses, we’re meant to be active and contribute to the world. What’s the alternative? Just sitting there and wondering, “Oh, if I had just done this, maybe…” I’ve learned only one thing: No matter how hard it is to do it, it’s harder not to do it. Then you’re stuck with wondering, “What if I had said…. What if I had done….?”
I would say, don’t worry about what you should do, do whatever you can. And seek companions with shared values. If we’re isolated, we come to feel powerless when we’re not.
Her message for young girls
Each of them is already a unique and valuable person when she’s born; every human being is. Inside each of us is a unique person resulting from millennia of environment and heredity combined in a way that could never happen again and could never have happened before. We aren’t blank slates, but we are also communal creatures who are born before our brains are fully developed, so we’re very sensitive to our environment. The question is, how to find the support and the circumstances that allow you to express what’s inside you?
What it will take to speed up progress toward true equality
Progress is not automatic—that’s what movements are for. It depends on what we do every day. So any statement of ownership of our own bodies, however that occurs in our individual lives or our community or our collective lives, is crucial. And any insistence on equal pay is crucial and any redefinition of work to include caregiving work so that it also has an economic value, at least at replacement level, that’s crucial. So change does come from the bottom up, and it will come from girls and women and men who understand that for us all to be human beings instead of being grouped by gender is good for them, too.
How she stays optimistic
I’m skeptical, but optimistic. I’m not pessimistic because I think pessimism defeats you before you start. I’m skeptical because it’s important to be realistic and use our energies well, but hope is a form of planning…. I’m optimistic. But I also know nothing will happen automatically. Change depends on what you and I do everyday.
Gandhi said it all when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
We can create our own hope.
As I mentioned earlier, there is one special phrase that has deep meaning to Gloria, and I have a personal story around it. Gloria is a longtime advisory board member and supporter of my non-profit organization Feminist.com, and in 2013 when I asked her if she would like to create a bracelet to help support Feminist.com (created in partnership with Yoko Ono and the MaidenNation Imagine project), she graciously agreed (you can read more about the origin story here). When asked to come up with a phrase that summed up her philosophy that could fit on a bracelet, she chose “We are linked, not ranked,” a phrase that had always had special significance to her.
I have come to realize how powerful this phrase “We are linked, not ranked” truly is. Global events that have dramatically impacted our lives, like the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, are showing us how connected and equally affected we truly are. In the U.S.—in the wake of the MeToo Movement, the racial reckoning after the murders of George Floyd and other people of color, rising awareness of income inequality, hate crimes of all kinds, and so many other flagrant examples of how damaging inequality and intolerance are to us all, particularly marginalized communities—it’s clear that we need to challenge our outdated and oppressive paradigms and hierarchies, work together to confront and address these challenges, and realize our interdependence with each other and the Earth. And now, as nations rise up in solidarity and mobilize to provide aid for the people in Ukraine, the message feels more powerful than ever as it underscores the notion that we are linked not ranked with our global neighbors and across international borders and are united in our collective aspiration for a more peaceful and harmonious world. Here are some of Gloria’s insights on humanity being linked not ranked.
We are linked, not ranked
We’re on the cusp of something big, something that says we’re a circle, and not hierarchical.
It’s the paradigm that was the paradigm of societies for most of human history, and still is of some, and that is the circle not the pyramid. That we are literally linked in a circle, including with nature, as well as with other human beings. Old societies didn’t have and still don’t have “he” and “she.” They don’t have gendered pronouns. They don’t have a word for nature, because we’re not separate from nature. Viewing the world as linked, not ranked is profoundly different from viewing it in a hierarchical way, which causes you to label everyone with their place in the hierarchy.
What we experience in our childhoods that comes to seem normal, or even inevitable, is that if you are placed in a hierarchy, you probably are immediately anxious about going further down and you’re striving to go further up, so your energies get placed into becoming “more than,” or at least not becoming “less than,” instead of becoming “part of.”
We need power to, not power over. Power to do, accomplish, create–not power over other people.
Since Gloria’s vision of being linked not ranked is such a fitting frame for talking about, and finding equitable solutions for, so many of the issues we face today, in some of my recent interviews, I felt compelled to ask other changemakers what Gloria’s phrase “We are linked, not ranked” means to them. Here are some of their answers.
Attorney, Author, Professor at Brandeis University, Chair of the Hollywood Commission for Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality
Inclusive change is the only form of change that will work. It’s the only way that we are going to really move the needle. We can’t only pay attention to one [issue], try to rank it and say, “No, we can’t pay attention to gender because race is more important or the environment is more important.” We have to understand how all of these things come together, how they’re linked.
If you’re not dealing with the many fronts of the bias that goes on in this country, then you’re never going to have this radical, complete equality that I’m talking about. And it’s never going to be fully effective. You can’t have partial equality; there’s no such thing is semi-equity. It is complete if it is to be real and it has to be felt in people’s lives and the way they live.
The idea of linked, to me, is the building block of unity. What does that visual look like? It looks like all of us linking arms, building bridges, creating this interconnected world where we are all one. It ties into my fundamental belief, like in the Bahá’í faith, that we are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch. We are drops in one ocean…. Everybody matters. We all have a role here. It’s more about what is your natural gift? We all have these roles here that if we allow ourselves to take them on without criticism or judgment that we’re not doing enough, then we’re actually linked. We’re actually linked in this world.
Actor, Director, Activist
“We are linked, not ranked” is one of Gloria’s most glorious and profound quotes, and she has been sharing it for years. It refers to the equality we have, that we require, and that we sorely lack. At once, a goal and a reminder.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones
Author, Speaker, Host of the Professional Troublemaker podcast
I think we are linked, not ranked means there’s no one of us who is more important than the other. We are part of a larger collective, and we should probably operate that way…. We are all each other’s business. That’s what I hope we can achieve in this world–where we feel convicted about each other’s well-being and we operate with that. I think it’s really important for us to start thinking about the collective, as we’re thinking about the individual. In what ways am I adding to the dumpster fire of the world? In what ways am I helping to fix it? Imagine if we were all a little bit more selfless.
Oceanographer, Marine Biologist, National Geographic Explorer-at-large, Founder of Mission Blue
The world is filled with different kinds of people, but we all have common connections. [It’s] cooperation, collaboration, working together, finding the good, wherever it exists, finding the ways and means of where you might not agree about this, but you can agree about that and finding the positive connections…. If we wage war on nature, if we wage war on one another, we’ll never succeed. We must find the common ground.
Being ranked is a patriarchal power dynamic that seeks to control others through a hierarchy. Being linked reflects the feminist value system of sharing in a circle, listening, and learning to honor each other’s lives.
Gloria is a natural connector, an extraordinary storyteller, and a truth seeker. She links the power of women and shares their lessons with the world. There is no greater amplifier of love and humanity than her.
Media Executive, Author, Editorial Director of TEDWomen
“Linked, not ranked” is the essential touchstone of all my relationships and is the cornerstone of the mission of my work with the global women’s community. Through this work of curating convenings with high profile women leaders from government and civil society, as well as forums to strengthen the next generation of feminist leaders, I have witnessed the power of linking to share learning, experiences, stories, solutions—connecting rather than competing or comparing—as an effective and often untapped force for leading the changes we know are necessary to shape a more just, sustainable and equitable world.
Author, Co-founder of Omega Institute
We are the same. We’re the same in our weakness, we’re the same in our strength, we’re the same in our desires. All of us—men, women, all genders, all colors, all countries. We are the same, and therefore we’re linked and no one is more special than anyone else. No one’s job is more important. We are one.
For more wisdom from Gloria Steinem, and to hear the archival audio from these interviews, you can listen to this special tribute episode of my podcast Shiftmakers here.