It’s a first. “How are you?” I ask Gloria Steinem—a habitual, borderline rhetorical question after which she pauses, starts laughing hysterically, and answers: “I don’t know.”
Perhaps her atypical answer to the question is, in some ways, owed to the morning’s news that Ted Cruz and John Kasich have both officially suspended their campaigns, leaving Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. (She doesn’t say so specifically, though we do end up talking about the day’s breaking Trump news and her advice to Hillary Clinton: Ignore him and talk directly to the voters. “He hangs himself.”)
Or perhaps it’s simply because it’s such a dreary day in New York City.
Regardless, it’s an unexpected, blunt, provocative, and effortlessly complicated answer to a seemingly routine question. In other words, it’s very characteristically Gloria Steinem.
The legendary multi-hyphenate—activist, writer, rabble-rouser, and more—is about to launch a new series on Viceland, which she both hosts and executive produces. The series debuts May 10, and boasts a title as once ambitious and simplistic as its mission: Woman.
“I’ve traveled the world as a writer and an activist my entire life,” Steinem says, introducing the show. “And I can tell you that by confronting the problems once marginalized as women’s issues we can tackle the greatest dangers of the 21st century. Behind every major crisis there’s an unseen factor at play, a story you’ve never been told. The greatest indicator of the world’s stability, wealth, and safety is the status of women.”
The first episode of the docuseries spotlights the rape crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 1.8 million women in the country alone have been targets of sexual assault. Mass rapes, no longer confined to war zones, have become routine. In one horrific scene, we meet the mother of a six-year-old rape victim, as a doctor determines if her urethra tract needs restorative surgery.
In another, we meet a woman known as Mama Masika, who was raped 12 times while lying over her husband’s corpse. Her 14- and 12-year-old daughters were also raped and impregnated that day. For the next 15 years, Mama Masika would care for over 10,123 women in the DRC who were victims of sexual assault. (She sadly passed in February.)
Other episodes will chronicle the lives of female FARC soldiers in Colombia—FARC is considered the most dangerous terrorist organization in the western hemisphere—the epidemic of femicide in El Salvador, and the incarceration of mothers in America.
“It’s an opportunity to be a witness to realities you probably wouldn’t see otherwise,” Steinem, who is making her debut as a television host, says about the series. “The individual human beings stick with you. The stories stick with you.”
In a ranging interview, Steinem discusses those human beings: the women at the intersection of violence and stability, and at the center of her new show. We also dish on her reaction to the ever-more-real possibility of a Donald Trump presidency—“If he should win, it would be a disaster”—and even Beyoncé. (It’s not all doom and gloom.)
Let’s start talking about the title, Woman. That’s a small word with a big meaning. Why use this as the title?
There’s Woman, and underneath it says the tagline: “Be a Witness.” For me, this has offered the opportunity of communicating what it’s like to walk around on the ground and ask questions, because that’s what these women correspondents are doing. They’re not pre-determined documentaries. Those are valuable, too, but this is the closest I’ve ever seen to being there yourself. It’s that ability to witness what’s going on that allows you to empathize and act.
The stories you’re telling here might be facilitating a “witnessing” of what it’s like to be a woman in this world in greater context than what Viceland viewers might be aware of.
The crews on the ground—someone told me that, you know most of Vice’s coverage is “men dealing with shit,” but the crews were saying, “I see women are dealing with shit, too…”
If that’s not a testament to the value of this series, I don’t know what is.
I mean I wasn’t present for that. But we do need to see these things to understand them.
The episodes open with a montage of footage of you at some of your past rallies and speeches, clips from throughout your career.
Well that was not my doing, because of course I—I don’t know how to explain it—but I went through that, so I know it. But I think that the Vice viewers are much younger, so the Vice team felt that they needed an introduction. So that’s my introduction. (Laughs.)
But what it does do is put Woman in the context of your entire career and your life-long mission. Where do you personally think this project fits in that narrative?
Hmm. I feel it’s the other way around: I’m fitting into the larger context. As a journalist, reporter, and activist I’m trying to be a bridge for people to see what is happening to women in other countries. I think I’m fitting into the larger context.
I do like that they use the famous line, “I only want to remind you and me tonight that what we are talking about is a revolution.” That word “revolution.” What does it mean in the context of what you’re doing here?
I agree. It means something. But I was saying that line in the ‘70s. I wish now we had a bigger word. Because “revolution” has often been defined as taking over the army and the radio stations. I think we’re striving to transform more than that.
So the mission may have become greater than the word?
Words are containers for our thoughts. They change as time goes on. “Revolution” has been used for less basic change than what the movements against racism, violence against women, or global warming—it feels as if we need another word. What would you suggest? “Evolution?” I’m not sure.
“Evolution” is certainly interesting.
But “evolution” overestimates our patience. (Laughs.)
We need an angrier version of the word “evolution.”
We’ll need to work on coming up with one. If you come up with one, please tell me.
It is all female journalists who are reporting these stories. Why is that important?
Yes! It’s terrific. Each of them has a lot of international experience and each of them is part of, like, this new form of interviewing. They don’t pretend to not care.
Especially in that DRC episode. You see her tearing up at the hospital, with the child rape victim.
You see her responding. It might even be almost an innovation, that they are being objective—that is they are not trying to influence the answers—and they are also being human beings, who are witnessing reality at the same time. They’re not pretending not to be affected.
In your introduction to the episodes you say, “I can tell you that by confronting the problems once marginalized as women’s issues we can tackle the greatest dangers of the 21st century.” This is something you’ve obviously spent your career working on. Why is it such a fight taking these issues from the margins?
I ask myself that question! (Laughs.) But the source of this idea with Vice is that I was at a Google “camp” where people were sharing ideas. I was saying that the biggest indicator of whether a country will be violent itself or will be willing to use violence against another country is not poverty, not access to natural resources, not degree of democracy, or religion. It’s violence against females. When you count all the forms that violence takes, whether it’s a preference for sons—which means now in much of Asia we have a daughter deficit and a son surplus—or whether it’s sexualized violence in warzones, like in the DRC, or here, where it’s domestic violence. All of them collectively mean now there are fewer females on earth than males.
So you were discussing these issues at this “camp?”
[Vice co-founder and CEO] Shane Smith was at the camp when I said that. He took that to heart. That was the beginning point of this series. When we came back we met and started to discuss what we can do. I have said that many times to many people. He’s the first person who said, “We have to show this.”
That alone is something, you telling me that you’ve said this many times to many people. When you say something that’s so clearly true like violence against women being a reliable predictor of a nation’s tendency towards violence, why is it so hard to get people to realize the reality of this?
You know, you and I could say the reason in a lot of different ways. I think it’s almost definitional. For instance, what happens to men is political. What happens to women is cultural. That’s an oversimplification, mind you.
Even that statistic in the DRC episode, that 1.8 million in the DRC alone have been victims of sexual assault. It’s such a staggering number that it makes it so confusing that the world doesn’t understand the significance of that.
That’s an example. I think rape and sexual assault has been confined to a cultural sphere, as if it can’t be changed. Of course it can, once we see it as an expression of power. There have been plenty of societies in the world without rape. Male-dominant political systems have to addict men to dominance in order to survive. Men didn’t invent this. We all got born into this. It’s not the fault of the individual male person or female person. But if you’re told constantly that you’re not a legitimate male human being unless you dominate women or, at a minimum, unless you are superior to women in some way…
It’s an endless cycle.
Even now, for instance, there is a famous test in which they ask little kids, “When you grow up, what would you like to be?” They give their answer and then you ask them about the opposite sex. You say to boys, “If you were a little girl, then what would you want to be?” And you say the reverse to girls. When you ask a little girl what she would like to be, they’re good things but they’re often limited things: a movie star, a nurse. They’re all good things, but they’re limited. But then if you ask if they were a boy, then they say amazing things. “Well then I would be an astronaut.” But when you say it to little boys, it’s the reverse. They start to limit their aspirations. One heartbreaking quote was, “Well if I was a girl I would have to be nothing.” It goes deep and early. And we’re all trying to change this.
Is there something that affected you most profoundly while working on this?
It all lingers. I would say it’s lessened the feeling of helplessness that we feel that you are witnessing that needs empathy and action and only you are there. This allows anybody who wants to watch to be a witness. The individual human beings stick with you. The stories stick with you.
That idea of helplessness, and feeling helpless when you bear witness to these things on the ground. A lot of your work has been about calling to action and inciting change. How does that interplay with that feeling of helplessness?
This is building a bridge. It’s making it possible to see the reality on the ground. That’s the first step. An indispensable one. And action is the second step. We are focusing on two things: being a witness and choosing a way that fits into your life and your talents to take action.
I would be remiss, given that we’re talking on the day that every other GOP candidate has dropped out of the race, if I didn’t ask you how you’re feeling facing the reality that Donald Trump is all-but-certain to be the GOP nominee.
(Laughs.) Well, my hope is two things. One: He will lose in a very definitive and humiliating way. Two: That the fact that he became the candidate will call real Republicans to come back and take over the party again. The Republican party used to be centrist. It wasn’t extremist. For instance, it supported the Equal Rights Amendment when Democrats didn’t. It was often better on racial equality than the Democratic party, which was more southern. It has a tradition that is very different from this rightwing extremism. Since he has come to power without the Koch Brothers and all this other stuff, perhaps it will cause a recognition that real Republicans, centrist Republicans, need to come back and take over the fear.
Your sense of fear is less than I anticipated.
Oh no! If he should win, it would be a disaster. I’m making stone soup. (Laughs.)
We are speaking today about the crisis facing women. Can you foresee a situation where Trump becomes more educated on women’s issues and women’s rights in this country and makes strides away from the disaster he’s been in that realm?
Yes. Because if you look at the public opinion polls they’re quite positive. Most people do support all the issues of equality, including the right to decide when and whether to have children. The public opinion polls are quite good on those issues. He represents a backlash. Look who’s supporting him. It’s way disproportionately white and male—I shouldn’t say it’s male, because it’s not the fault of all men. It’s masculine. It’s white and masculine. I don’t know about the economic class, but I think mostly lower economic. So he is a protest candidate, in many ways. So it’s dangerous but it’s a wake up call and it could be a moment of transformation.
A lot of people cringe thinking about what a fight against Trump would be like for Hillary Clinton, given his rhetoric and his attitudes and what we’ve seen of his behavior in campaigning. What will the fight be like for her?
The temptation is to answer him. I think the answer to ignore him and speak directly to the people, the voters, in a positive way. He hangs himself.
You’ve spoken about Trump’s “Woman Card” comment before. Does the fact that he’s now going to be the nominee make that comment even more astounding?
In a way, I thought it was very positive and a good use of humor for Hillary Clinton to create a Woman Card. He should have, I wouldn’t say a Man’s Card, because he’s not the responsibility of all men by any means, but he’s playing the Masculine Card. Hierarchy, defeat, ridicule, testosterone poisoning. I don’t know. It would be kind of funny to make a Masculine Card.
To end on a lighter note, I am very curious if you have watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and if so what you think about it.
No but I really want to. Have you?
Oh. Roughly three dozen times.
(Laughs.) I really want to watch it. In principle, I think it’s positive that she has taken what I gather in her own life was a painful event and taken control of it and not just slinked away off into a corner. It’s ‘here I am, making lemonade out of a lemon.’ Is that what it is?
Absolutely. And you see this mass, jubilant reaction online, especially from women of color, who are feeling empowered in that way when they are so rarely even acknowledged.
Oh I want to read that. I think it’s great. You know, I don’t know Beyoncé. I’ve only been in her vicinity. There was a massive benefit concert in England about a year and a half ago raising money for projects against violence against women and she was performing. We don’t really know each other, but I admire that first of all, all her dancers and band are women. She puts feminism on the stage behind her. And that she refuses to be shamed. On the contrary, she says, “Here I am. And I’m making lemonade.”
I love her.
I agree. At that concert, which was massive, she was the last performer. And it was a mostly female audience. She came out and said something like, “I know life is hard, but we are together for the next amount of time, and you’re safe.” I found it very moving.