While violence against women is repulsive on its own, its causes may also provide a window into the United States' ongoing struggles with issues of mass shootings, police violence and even terrorist threats, said renowned feminist Gloria Steinem in an address in New Orleans last week.
"The single biggest determinant of whether a country is violent inside itself or will be willing to use military violence against another country is not poverty," Steinem said. "It's not access to natural resources, not religion or even degree of democracy. It's violence against females."
Steinem, now 81, began a career as a journalist covering issues of gender inequality in the 1960s. By the 1970s, she was one of the foremost American voices in feminist advocacy. Her visit to New Orleans, hosted by Octavia Books as she tours in support of her memoir My Life on the Road, packed the auditorium Sunday afternoon at the Jewish Community Center with more than 450 people.
Her remarks, however, focused less on herself or her book and more on the latest applications of the ideas she has championed for half a century. What connects violence against women, Steinem said, to many other kinds of violence — spree killings in public places, shootings by police against unarmed civilians and even terrorist threats — is that those acts all are committed by people who have acquired an ingrained sense of superiority over others, even to the point of deciding life or death.
"The idea of controlling reproduction and therefore controlling women is the beginning of hierarchy that comes to seem natural," Steinem said. "It's dominance, sometimes even violence, that makes us believe that one group of people was born to be superior to another and make decisions for the other."
Had those ideas been a part of U.S. foreign policy, Steinem said (citing research published in researcher Valerie Hudson's book Sex and World Peace), the country would have known better than to arm the Afghan mujahideen — well-known for their repressive views of women — in the 1980s against the Soviets, a move viewed as a precursor to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center. Likewise, Steinem said, the same benchmark could inform the search for allies within the Syrian civil war who are less likely to support terrorism in the future.
At home, Steinem said, the risks associated with violence against women could be applied to ferret out police officers most likely to use violence against the people they are supposed to be protecting, Steinem said. Domestic violence rates within police families are two to four times higher than in the general population, she noted, and could be a strong indicator of which officers are most likely to use force inappropriately on the job.
Even mass shootings ultimately have their root in the same kind of delusions of superiority that seek to oppress women, Steinem said. What the men who commit those shootings have in common is nothing to gain from their acts, Steinem said — nothing except asserting their sense of control, often at the expense of their own lives, much like a spurned lover who insists that if he can't have his beloved, no one can.
"We could call them all superiority crimes and understand them better," Steinem said. "They have been raised to believe they have a right to command and control and to dominate, and if they don't dominate, there's something wrong with them. It's an affront to them, a humiliation to them. They have become addicted to this drug of superiority."
Steinem only spoke for about 20 minutes before opening the floor to questions from the audience:
• She was introduced by Chalmette High School student Brianna Ricks, who described a vision on modern feminism that involved seeking equality for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, body shape or other circumstances. Steinem praised that approach, noting that while individual social-justice movements are important for articulating specific problems, a shared approach is necessary for finding solutions. "There's no way to uproot one form of bias without also uprooting the others," Steinem said. "I'm so grateful that the younger generation is no longer in silos."
• Steinem was asked why the Occupy movement seems to have floundered, while Black Lives Matter continues to grow. She replied that Occupy was about bringing greater awareness to problems of inequality, particularly in financial situations. But Black Lives Matter is about addressing the problem of violence by police that continues to be repeated on a regular basis, Steinem said, and its importance grows with each new instance uncovered.
• When asked who has inherited the mantle of feminist leadership today, Steinem said she only rose to prominence because so few people were speaking out on the topic 50 years ago. Now, she said, the movement and its ideas have grown so large and so accepted that there are leaders addressing specific aspects of the issue in many different ways and places, and they are all vital to progress without the need for an overarching leader. "I don't think movements are hierarchical in that way," Steinem said.
• One woman asked if Steinem was more surprised by the progress on behalf of women in her lifetime, or that the progress hasn't gone farther — to which she replied, "Both." Steinem thought that legal victory on abortion would have settled the question, and yet anti-abortion advocates have fought back even harder in defeat, to the point of bombing clinics. Now, she said, she has learned to be concerned about the backlash that can arise from progress. "For people born into a structure, their identity depends on that. It's very upsetting," Steinem said.
Octavia Books originally had planned to host Steinem inside the bookstore, said owner Tom Lowenburg, but as presale orders of her book climbed into the hundreds, the need for a larger venue became apparent. With more than 450 people at the Jewish Community Center in person and more who requested signed copies reserved for them, Steinem's appearance rates as one of the biggest Octavia Books has hosted in recent years.
"She is heroic," Lowenburg said of Steinem. "She's an icon of our times, and of standing up for people's rights."
One attendee, Ellen Levitov, said that for women in the 1960s, Steinem's advocacy for their rights was simply "amazing." But her influence stretches across generations, Levitov noted, pointing at the teens in the audience as well as to the high school student who gave Steinem's introduction.
The enduring power of the women's rights movement was acknowledged by Steinem herself, posing a quick question to the audience after the student finished her thoughts on feminism: "Don't you feel better about the future?"
— This story was reported by our partners at Uptown Messenger. To read more, visit www.uptownmessenger.com.