Famed feminist Gloria Steinem said college curricula should be revamped to be more inclusive, warning modern women against “reinventing the wheel” in their feminism because they do not know the complete history of the women’s movement.
“We need to include African-American history, women’s history, gay and lesbian history, everything I would call ‘remedial history’ so that one day we have human history,” she said to an audience filling Linsley-Chittenden Hall on Sunday night.
Steinem and five other feminist activists discussed the history of gender relations and equal rights, covering topics from stilettos and body image to women’s health in Haiti and violence against women in South Africa. The talk was the second of three, all funded by a gift from the first class of freshman women in Jonathan Edwards College, who graduated in 1973.
Arun Storrs ’08, a postgraduate associate at the Yale Women’s Faculty Forum, reflected on her four years at Yale. Today, she said, women face “covert inequality,” receiving different treatment in the classroom and lacking role models. But she also spoke about how far women have come, and recalled theater studies professor Deb Margolin saying at the start of a class: “I think a feminist is a woman who respects herself.”
Moderator Julie Sandorf, the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation , said Storrs’s experience differed from her generation’s, when women defined themselves as feminists by specific acts, such as keeping their maiden names, wearing trousers and foregoing make-up. Asking the panelists to respond, Sandorf said when she asked her 26-year-old daughter why she wears 6-inch stiletto heels, her daughter answered: “Because I can.”
“Women should be able to wear whatever they f—ing well please,” Steinem said, to applause. “The question is: Why are we doing it?”
Steinem lamented the sexualization of younger girls and criticized women’s magazines for showing fake and airbrushed images of women. She said women today may have more choices, but society still imposes certain norms, such as pressuring women to dress provocatively.
Amy Richards , a nationally known writer and activist, also said her generation of women embraced their new choices, but she added that because modern women often hope both to work and to have a family, their high expectations can lead to frustration.
“I think there’s an expectation that not only should you work, but you should immediately be very successful, very senior,” she said. “And if you choose one thing, it feels as though it’s at the expense of something else.”
During the question-and-answer session, Claire Gordon ’10 asked the members of the panel if they thought women should feel obligated to continue in the workforce. (Gordon is a scene columnist for the News.)
“Dispense with the word ‘should,’ ” Steinem answered. “Don’t think about making women fit the world — think about making the world fit women.”
She said women should pursue the life choices they would most enjoy, regardless of societal expectations.
The discussion finished with a standing ovation, and four audience members interviewed said they appreciated the panel’s balance of opinion and diversity of experience.
Horace Ballard DIV ’10 said he appreciated that the speakers spoke about women’s suffrage, the abolition movement, and the second and third waves of feminism, not just the modern era.
“My mom would be so proud that I heard this — Gloria and the whole current movement,” Lesley Magnussen NUR ’10 said, “because we don’t talk about it any more. Feminism isn’t a discussion.”
The gift that endowed this talk was initially intended to fund the junior common room in Jonathan Edwards, said Eve Rice, one of the panel’s organizers. But, when many of the women alumnae were brought back together to donate the gift, they also decided to sponsor the talks on topics related to gender issues and women’s history, said Amy Shorey ’73, a JE alumna.
Joan Winant ’73, who was also in JE said she and several of her classmates wanted to give something personal to the college, rather than just a room.
“I came here expecting a tidy recap of the women’s movement, and what I got was a banquet, a firehose of different ways people are thinking and going,” said Cynthia Zujkowski ’73, who was also in JE.
There is now a plaque in the JE junior common room that lists the names of all the female members of the JE class of 1973.