The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! Interview With Gloria Steinem

©Jenny Warburg

When asked what still gets her excited, Gloria Steinem replied, matter-of-factly, “Well, everything.”

The iconic feminist, writer and activist has been an unyielding lighthouse in the realm of gender and racial equality, community organizing and social justice for over 50 years, guiding so many of us back with love, resilience and the radical notion that, “Hope is a form of planning.” Here, Steinem discusses her newest book —The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!, a divine opus of essays and timeless Gloria-isms — with Atelier Ace writer and former Ms. Magazine intern Jenevieve Ting. From using laughter as a feminist practice, to intuiting each other’s uniqueness, to learning to grow like trees in concentric circles, the serial optimist tethers us back to our shared past, present and future, and shares how America “may be about to be free.”

Gloria Steinem will be speaking at The Theatre at Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles with Jameela Jamil about her book on November 20 — see her, see yourself.

©Jenny Warburg

Jenevieve Ting:
It’s such a pleasure to get to talk to you.

Gloria Steinem:
Yes, it’s nice to talk to you. I feel like we’re related, (laughs) right?

JT:
Yes! Via the perennial Ms. Magazine.

GS:
That’s great.

JT:
It was such a great experience and I really credit it as my first foray into feminism and social justice, so I’m so grateful for all of the work that you’ve done.

GS:
I get to do what I care about, so there’s no greater reward than that.

JT:
How did the genesis of this book come to be? Did you have a specific timeline for wanting to publish it?

GS:
No, it happened by the suggestion of friends because I don’t think we ourselves say, “Oh, I’m going to publish a collection of my quotes” (laughs). We need someone else to say that it’s worthwhile. And it actually was not the next book I have a contract for, but it inserted itself in between, and it’s been fun to do because I do think quotes are the poetry of everyday life and it’s fun to try to get the most meaning into the fewest words. When Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” it said so much. So I’ve tried to put not only my quotes, but some other favorites as well in there.

Quotes are the poetry of everyday life.

JT:
And even the title of the book is a powerful quote of yours, in and of its own.

GS:
Yes. Looking at the history of that quote is interesting because I hadn’t thought about it, but I do think that it was first young men who were rebelling against the draft who were saying, “The truth will set you free” because they were hoping that the truth of the war would set them free from the draft. That was the beginning of it for me, and then I kept adding because in the women’s movement, especially when we realized these huge obvious truths, like the difference in power, or that gender is made up or that race is made up, it’s a huge revelation that frees you, but then when you see the degree of injustice based on those inventions, it does piss you off.

JT:
It also reminds me of Audre Lorde’s, The Uses of Anger and the notion that anger does have value, and it can be quite productive.

GS:
Mm-hmm, and I think it’s especially important for women to hear that because the idea of an angry woman is much more punished culturally than the idea of an angry man.

JT:
Were there other titles that you considered for this collection?

GS:
That’s a good question. I’m trying to remember whether there were. I think that was the obvious title because it covered the other quotes that are in there.

Illustration by Samantha Dion Baker

JT:
One of my favorite quotes that you have in the book is, “To write is to bring an inner voice into the outer world, to believe that our thoughts are worth entering the thinking of others, and to make real what has never existed in quite the same way before. What could be a better path to self-value than that?” It reminds me of that very spiritual notion in communities of color that you have to “speak” or “write” yourself into existence.

GS:
Yes, absolutely. And I think it’s true that in each of us is a combination of heredity and environment that could not have happened before and could never happen again. So it’s never going to be real in the world unless we express it.

JT:
Could you talk about your own journey to writing and publishing and how that relationship has changed over the years?

GS:
I don’t know why I wanted to be a writer. I think it had a lot to do with Louisa May Alcott because I was not going to school and I was reading a lot of her writing — not only her writing for children, but her grown-up writing, too. And it seemed to me so appealing, but I didn’t know that one could make a living that way.

And when I lived in India right after I got out of college, I began to write for newspapers there because I could write as a traveling outlander, a foreigner in India about India, which interested them. And that accident really — I say accident because I actually went to India partly because I loved the country and partly because I was just engaged and escaping getting married (laughs) — that enabled me to live for a whole year beyond my first year on a fellowship and have the idea that it was possible to live that way. It wasn’t in the culture in America. I don’t remember anybody telling me that it was possible.

JT:
I was just watching this talk between you and bell hooks at Eugene Lang College from a few years ago.

GS:
Oh yeah. I actually just came from seeing bell in Berea yesterday and the day before.

“We learn from difference, not sameness.”

JT:
In that conversation I think you credited the experience of going to India as sort of allowing you to see people of color and of a different background, and begin to have that “nuanced” understanding that people are people.

GS:
India of course has its own caste system, which is not to be forgiven, but it does accustom you to seeing a rainbow of people. So when I came home, I was suddenly aware that I was living in a white ghetto. And it made me mad on my own behalf, you know, “How dare people tell me who my friends are?” And I think that’s helpful because we often phrase things as if it were a penalty. We tell people you have to have “hard conversations.” Yeah, okay. They are perhaps hard conversations, but they are our gift. Who wants to be confined to a tiny percentage of the world’s population? And I think it’s helpful to say it that way. We learn from difference not sameness.

JT:
I think it’s so powerful that someone of your influence and your stature and your identity say something like that. Speaking as a person of color and a queer person, I’m just really grateful that you’ve constantly been trying to push for that.

GS:
You know what, you don’t need to be grateful. I’m grateful. Being grateful is a burden in itself (laughs). You don’t need to be grateful.

JT:
I really appreciate that. In the book you talk about the almost immediate backlash that any social movement experiences, comparing it to when a woman is most vulnerable just before, or just after she escapes a violent household, and you talked about how it’s when she’s “just about to be free.” How do you see America reaching a similar place of “freedom?”

GS:
I think there is a good parallel there because when I checked into social justice movements long ago, we were energetic and innovative and powerful, but we were a small minority. Now, if you look at public opinion polls, there actually is a majority of Americans who agree with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay and lesbian and transgender movement, the ecological movement. We all kind of basically agree that people should be treated uniquely and individually, and that climate change is upon us. And that means that the people who were raised in and are still dependent on the old hierarchy are in the minority for the first time. And they know they’re in the minority. So you see white nationalism rising again. And climate warming denial. And they’re physically in the minority or will soon be, because I think it’s less than 20 years before we become a majority people of color nation.

JT:
That’s right.

Photo by Carly Romeo

GS:
The first generation of babies who are majority babies of color have already been born. And so what we need to learn is that the time right after victory is the most dangerous time because those accustomed to control are losing control. I do believe that’s the reason we see such ferocity from what is actually a minority of Americans. And thanks to the peculiarity of our electoral system, managed to elect a president even though he lost the popular vote big time.

JT:
I think young people feel this sense of despair or hopelessness about the state of the world, especially lately. How do you nourish hope in a climate that feels starved of it?

GS:
I do think it helps to organize across a lot of different ages because it is true that us old folks (laughs) probably have a little more hope because we do remember when things were much worse. But we need younger people who are mad as hell at what it is now. We need each other and it’s not practical to be divided by age either. But if those hopes weren’t already real inside you, you couldn’t hope them. So it makes no sense to allow those to be taken away from you because you have the power to hang onto them.

JT:
One of my favorite quotes of yours has always been, “hope is a form of planning.” How has your relationship to hope changed over the years?

GS:
That’s a good question. I’m trying to think. It’s hard to think oneself back into a previous state of mind (laughs). I do think my hopes are a little more realistic than they used to be because there was a certain amount of naïveté as I was saying, we thought, well, this injustice is just so great. Surely people will realize, if only we tell them. We weren’t patient, let me put it that way. We didn’t understand that movements weren’t something you did for five or 10 years. It was your whole life.

JT:
Right.

GS:
But now, I do think we understand it. And also we have the reward that comes from that, which is the movement itself. Which is a chosen family, I mean, we are communal animals so it’s important that we have the support of other people who share some of the same hopes. We can’t survive alone for very long. And that’s what movements are for, and there is an incredible joy to having a movement.

JT:
Mmhmm.

GS:
You know what I mean? I know that I can go anywhere in the world and get the word out as to where the movement folks are and they will be there, regardless of how different the culture is. For instance, when the big demonstration happened right after Trump was elected, I was getting emails and calls from Zambia, from Kenya, from the Brandenburg Gate in Germany that they were organizing marches, too. It was the biggest single event ever in this country, but also it was worldwide.

JT:
I think sometimes people forget that creating the community is the movement and that is what we’re trying to fight for.

GS:
Yeah, exactly. We still are in the individual thinker mode too much. And it just causes us to burn out because you can’t keep going for very long without companionship.

JT:
Totally. I think capitalism often teaches us that we have to be the singular, the savior or sole exceptional person to succeed in order to save the group or community.

GS:
I mean, that’s ridiculous (laughs), you know. We all need good food and a nice place to live and going dancing, but after that, money is boring.

“If I had an all-time favorite quote because it expresses the most, I would say, ‘We are linked, not ranked.'”

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

GS:
Profoundly boring. And I think many of the people who are at the top of the heap are isolated by it. And it happens I noticed, especially to women. The last time I wrote about this was a while ago, so I haven’t looked at the statistics lately, but families that have inherited wealth were the place of the greatest incidents of child sexual abuse because they were the most patriarchal in miniature — the family was a patriarchy in miniature, and also outside forces, like a physician or social worker didn’t intervene.

I only discovered that from raising money because I thought, well, here are women who’ve inherited wealth, they can help, and then I realized in what deep shit they were. Right? And they were being married off in order to let a son-in-law run the corporation because there was the disaster of not having a son.

So we really need to look at each other’s real situation. I mean those of us with less money are probably sometimes guilty of resenting those with more as if they were better off. I’m not sure they are, as human beings.

JT:
It also reminds me of another quote that you have, which is, “Shared purpose eliminates hierarchy.” That we are more alike than we’re different when we are working towards a common goal.

GS:
If I had an all-time favorite quote because it expresses the most, I would say, “We are linked, not ranked.”

JT:
How do you think we can foster deeper connections with people who are different from us?

GS:
First of all, we can meet together with all five senses. Technology is a blessing in many ways. Perhaps especially for women because you can gather information and find like-minded folks in safety. But you can’t empathize on a screen. You can only do that when you’re sitting together. So if we’re together with all five senses and if we each remember to talk as much as we listen or listen as much as we talk, we can go a long way.

JT:
Right.

GS:
However, I’m not suggesting that we feel we should be able to connect and work with everyone. Because I do worry about women because our model of working together is the family usually. So we think we have to include everyone. And if there are 500 people on one side of the room who are ready to go and there are a hundred on the other side who say “no,” if we go and try to convince the hundred who say “no” instead of moving with the 500, that’s (laughs) not a good idea.

JT:
You also talk a little bit about “interdependence,” which reminds us that we are meant to rely on each other. In your own life, can you think of some key relationships that have taught you how important interdependence is?

GS:
Oh, yes. Absolutely. The Ms. Magazine office before you were a part of it that was here in New York was a community. We traded clothes and received people wandering through from other countries (laughs). We didn’t have titles. We maybe went a little overboard in not having titles and listing ourselves alphabetically because then when people went on to other jobs, it was hard for them to describe what they did. People brought their kids to the office. It’s wonderful to have children around.

JT:
I loved that in the book you say that your idea of heaven is an editorial meeting.

“We are communal animals so it’s important that we have the support of other people who share some of the same hopes.”

GS:
Yes, absolutely. But it has to be an editorial meeting in which everybody feels free to speak up so that the idea that you end up with may be the function of sparking off three or four ideas that came up, first.

After Ms. had moved to LA, I was at a publishing house going to editorial meetings and they were not so much fun because each editor was coming with one book idea by an author and trying to sell that idea. They weren’t coming up with new book ideas. You see what I mean? So it has to be a free and open meeting where you spark off each other and then it’s really fun.

JT:
Do you have a favorite story or piece that you worked on or ran at Ms.?

GS:
No, you know, your articles are like your children. It’s hard to pick a favorite one (laughs). But the one that has been the most reprinted all over the world, to my surprise, is “If Men Could Menstruate.” Because of course menstruation is universal so you know that that got picked up the most. And what’s interesting now is that men can menstruate. You know?

JT:
Completely. Another quote that I love of yours in the book is, “We don’t grow better or worse with age, just more like the unique selves we were born to be before made-up gender roles took over our central years.” As a queer person, as a non-binary person, I think about the scripts that you’re fed and conditioned to understand and what your life could look like if you weren’t fed those scripts.

GS:
In the first few years and in the last few years, we’re most likely to have escaped those roles because those roles are really about reproduction and were before or after the period of reproduction and controlling reproduction, which means patriarchy. I can’t remember if I put this in the book or not, but Native American cultures often have a saying of some sorts, that means that the very young and the very old understand each other the best because they are the closest to the unknown.

JT:
I went to a talk recently where someone was talking about how the common narrative is that as you get older, you get smarter and you know yourself better, but the way that this person framed it was that they actually felt that, as a child that had all the answers, and then as they got older, all these scripts were fed to them that made them feel like that wasn’t the truth.

GS:
Yeah, I agree. I think that’s true that in the center of life we’re most likely to be constrained by the invented cultural categories.

JT:
Were there some traits that you hoped you’d embody when you got older that don’t matter as much to you now?

GS:
I, perhaps like women especially, I didn’t have a vision of my life very old. Because our lives are so constrained by gender that you don’t think… I mean, just as my generation had thought we thought we had to get married and have children because we didn’t know there was any other way (laughs) until the ones who said, “wait a minute.” I didn’t think about getting very old.

However, I do realize I was always fascinated by old women and reading stories by Isak Dinesen for instance, because she writes about older women as free people. There’s a wonderful set of stories about two older maiden ladies as they were called, and the life they lived. So I think that something in me, and probably many others, saw old women as free. Although way less powerful because the economic situation of older women of color and many white women too, is really appalling.

JT:
You also talk in the book about how it’s truly amazing how long we can go on “accepting myths that oppose our own lives.” It reminded me of that Toni Morrison quote about how “the very serious function of racism is distraction,” to just get you to feel something besides a truth in your body. How do you think we can debunk some of those myths in our lives?

“I do think that feeling the fear and doing it anyway is a good test of pushing the boundaries.”

GS:
I think there are not so much general ways as specificities. If we just try to do what we ourselves are enthusiastic about, care about, we’re probably expressing something as the uniqueness inside, and if we listen as much as we talk, so we’re really listening to someone, we can intuit the uniqueness in that person. There’s a quote by Robin Morgan that I put in that says something like “Hate generalizes; love specifies.” I think that’s a genius quote.

JT:
It offers such empathy and humanity, which feels in deep, short supply at times.

GS:
Yeah. But it’s not hard to get out of. It’s just the kind of social construct or custom that keeps us out of it. Because there’s nothing that keeps us from turning to the person in the elevator and saying, you know, this is my name. Here’s what I care about. If we just kind of break through the invisible veil between us.

JT:
You talk a lot about laughter in the book, which I really appreciated, and how laughter is the only free emotion.

GS:
I think that’s really helpful as a measure of whether we’re, generally speaking, in the right place or not — how much we are laughing.

JT:
You even write in the book about that “Indian country belief” that “if we can’t laugh, we can’t pray.” And that laughter is the ultimate in, “you have to be there.”

GS:
Isn’t that wonderful?

JT:
I love that. One thing I’ve always appreciated about watching speeches that you give or interviews that you’ve done is the sense of levity that you have. Especially with the stereotype of feminists being very serious and dogmatic.

GS: 
No sense of humor, right. We once had a great cover that was like a comic book cartoon and the man is saying, “Do you know feminists have no sense of humor?” And the woman is saying, “No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it” (laughs).

©Jenny Warburg

JT:
In order to flip the script, we’re offering alternatives, and the alternatives are full of love and joy! Can you talk about your own relationship to laughter? Has it always felt like something that’s been easy to access or is it something you sort of learned to love over time?

GS:
That’s a good question. I think I probably lucked out in a way because I went to school so irregularly til I was 11 or 12. So I didn’t get the not-laughing-discipline, and also I was around grownups who made jokes. So when I started school I had to learn not to make jokes all the time because it hurt other people’s feelings. I had kind of an adult habit of making jokes that weren’t appropriate to my age (laughs).

JT:
How can laughter be a tool against misogyny and even its own feminist practice?

GS:
If you look at public opinion polls, what women say they fear most in men is violence. What men say they fear most in women is ridicule. I’m not saying we should laugh artificially, but when they do ridiculous things, laughing is a great leveler.

JT:
Could you talk a little bit about what you meant when you wrote, “love and power are opposites?”

GS:
Love requires identifying with the other people, the other person, and wanting the welfare of the other person as much or almost as much as one’s own. Power requires control, which means the measure is entirely in yourself without regard to the welfare of the other person. Most of the crimes that are committed against women are crimes of power and control, domestic violence obviously. And controlling reproduction or so-called mass killers, senseless killers, all have been men, white men, and not poor. Every single one.

But they are the group of people who, in a way, through no fault of theirs, got born into this system that said they had the right to control other people. And when they can’t do it, they do it even to the destruction of themselves. I mean, a lot of them killed themselves after killing other people.

Then there’s the three young women who started Black Lives Matter, the young black feminists. Their three guidelines were “Lead with love. Low ego, high impact. And move at the speed of trust.” I just thought those were the most wise guidelines.

“But if those hopes weren’t already real inside you, you couldn’t hope them. So it makes no sense to allow those to be taken away from you because you have the power to hang onto them.”

JT:
How do you think love has become stronger or weaker in America over time?

GS:
I’m not sure actually. I think we might be more open to it than some cultures in which it’s less relevant because marriages are arranged for economic and class reasons. We at least don’t do that or at least not as much. I think we’re a little more free to experience a wide variety of people and to connect via love without those boundaries. But it is way too sexualized. In real life it’s so mixed with dominance and economic needs that it’s hard to separate it out.

JT:
Could you talk about how important it is for people to “Feel the fear, and do it anyways?”

GS:
I think it helps to just consider that fear is useful as a sign of growth. You are approaching the unknown and you don’t want to stay totally in the know, but that doesn’t mean that you’re growing. You want to protect yourself. I’m not suggesting we dive off buildings or anything, but fear in those situations is a lack of control or exposing what we don’t know. I do think that feeling the fear and doing it anyway is a good test of pushing the boundaries. I think of it as trees growing in concentric circles. I think that’s the way we grow too.

JT:
Could you talk about your own relationship to love and how it’s changed over the years?

GS:
Well, with age that changes profoundly because your hormones change (laughs). It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. It’s less connected to sexuality and more wide-ranging, when you think about what children love and what much older people love. I don’t want to make a value judgment, but it kind of exists separate from sexuality and that means it’s more available to leap boundaries.

“God may be in the details, but the Goddess is in connections.”

JT:
Do you have any favorite poems or quotes about love that you always return to?

GS:
I do like the Black Lives Matter guidelines, to lead with love. I also think it’s important to know the difference between love and romance, that love is wanting what’s best for the other person. Romance is wanting the other person. It’s more about possession.

JT:
I think there’s something deeply gendered about that. A lot of times a dominant group feels that love is about control and that sense of entitlement really damages what love is.

GS:
And it’s also true that at least heterosexual women “conquer” by getting men to fall in love with them. And that often means adopting a not-so-authentic self, which is the punishment (laughs). Because then the men are in love with something that isn’t actually you. But there is a kind of a triumph or conquering that comes with getting men to fall in love with you. I hope that that’s diminishing (laughs). You can tell me, but it was certainly true in my generation.

JT:
I have some quick hit questions. What are you currently reading?

GS:
I’m looking at my desk here. I was reading a book by Robert Friedman, who’s a friend, that is called A Few Thousand Dollars. And Darren Walker’s book, he’s the president of the Ford Foundation. He’s trying to transform the ideas of philanthropy from generosity to justice.

JT:
What, after all these years, still gets you excited?

GS:
Well, everything. I get excited when I see a problem and I think, okay, maybe if we did this, that would happen. Part of it is just making connections. For example, when people talk about economic stimulus, they’re usually talking about Wall Street, but the biggest economic stimulus would be equal pay because it would put billions of dollars into the economy and we’re going to spend it. We’re not going to lock it away in a savings account. You know, just making those connections. It’s exciting and frustrating because everything is an organizing problem. So you have to figure out if you have time to actually dip into this or find somebody who can do it.

JT:
In your talk with bell hooks you were talking about how there’s so much to be excited about, but it often feels like people are organizing in silos.

GS:
Right. You know, God may be in the details, but the Goddess is in connections.

“We all need good food and a nice place to live and going dancing, but after that, money is boring.”

JT:
Where do you go when you want to feel refreshed or refilled or renewed?

GS:
Sleep, number one and friends, number two. The absence of sleep is often a problem. But otherwise, being with friends.

JT:
What are some of your favorite everyday rebellions that people can do?

GS:
If they’re working in a group somewhere academic or corporate or whatever, they could tell each other their salaries and they would soon find out if there is unfairness. Start up conversations with people we have casual contact with – messengers, people in the elevators, people in the market. Interesting things happen. Just making contact.

JT:
What is a quality about yourself that you feel like you’re least known for, but that you really value?

GS:
Listening. Because people invite me and others to speak, which is a one way street. I’m glad to have the opportunity to communicate what I care about, but what is interesting to me is the discussion that happens afterward.

JT:
Are there certain folks within media or activism or social justice spaces that you haven’t gotten a chance to work with that you’d still like to?

GS:
Oh, I’m sure there are tons. Of course, some of them have disappeared, I’m sorry to say. But, there was a man in Sweden who wrote a book about the invention of racism that I was so fascinated by. His name is Sven Lindqvist. He didn’t say the first part, which is that Europe got overpopulated because of patriarchy and therefore started to invent racism in order to justify colonialism, but he does say the second part, that racism was invented to justify colonialism.

JT:
When was the last time you felt really surprised about yourself? Whether it was something someone revealed to you about you or maybe something you just discovered on your own?

GS:
A friend sent me an email and, you know how you end up sending the trail of emails even though you don’t need to send it? She was being asked by someone else to ask me to do something and she was saying, “Okay, but do this gently because, after all, she is 85.” So I read that and I thought she’s 80 — who is that? And I said, “No, no, no, that’s me” (laughs). It is true that age is a category so you don’t necessarily see yourself that way. Although I keep announcing my age just because ever since I was 40 and some reporter kindly said, “You don’t look 40.” And I said, “Well, you know, this is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying so long we wouldn’t know.” So I understand that it’s important to demystify age, but you’re the same person inside.

JT:
Well, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, so thank you so much, Gloria, for your lifelong commitment to activism and everything you’ve done.

GS:
You know, I don’t feel deprived for a minute. As I was saying in the beginning, I get to do what I care about, which is the best reward. So I’ll see you soon, right?

JT:
Definitely. Thank you so much.


Jenevieve Ting is a queer, non-binary Asian American writer, artist and poet based in Los Angeles. You can find them in the ether at @tingrolls.