Even at the risk of sacrilege, I have an admission to make. Gloria Steinem is a goddess. My goddess. The woman is strength and egalitarianism and compassion and wisdom and wit embodied. Feminist. Founder of Ms. magazine. Mujerista. Women’s liberation advocate. Speaker, writer, healer, mother. A Caucasian female, 68 in years, with the ability to transcend all generation gaps and racial boundaries to appeal to a seventeen-year-old, Indian girl.

I fell in love with Gloria Steinem on Feb. 13 of this year. She had come to speak to the Commonwealth Club of America at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, and I had tickets, and I skipped school, and I sat in the fifth row and stared up at her face and felt her every word wash over my body and slip into my soul.

The feminist movement has just begun, she said. It is not over. It is not dead, defunct, or departed. She talked about humanizing and eliminating gender roles. About creating a national system of child care and health care. About the masculine and feminine roles in society. About equal marriage and mother-daughter relationships. She urged us to remember that each of our actions impacts the fate of women and gender relations all over the world: “The flap of a butterfly’s wing here can made a difference to the weather one hundred miles away.”

I’ve been beating my butterfly wings ever since.

Steinem talked about her husband David, an animal right’s activist who she says is her “partner.” Marriage, she says, is not about abandoning who you are to adopt the views and lifestyle of your spouse, not about abandoning your room in the house of life to enter someone else’s. Rather, marriage is about “opening windows in the room you are in.”

Gloria Steinem and I are not married, but already she has opened windows in the room of my mind.
Women have historically been second-class citizens, but “second-class” seems a generous generalization. Throughout history, women have been maligned and mistreated, taken for granted, taken for fools. And yet in school we take no pains to explore the inequities women have traditionally had to surmount and study instead the very men who supported a restrictive patriarchal society structure. Poet Alexander Pope of the 1700s once asserted that, “most women have no character at all.” Lexicographer Samuel Johnson explained, “A woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Dramatist Noël Coward commented, “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” And philosopher Frederich Nietzsche remarked, “If you go to see the woman, do not forget the whip.”

These are examples of the men who are part of many high school curriculums and reading lists. Nietzsche, Pope, and Johnson. Not Simone de Beauvoir, feminist author of The Second Sex, or Betty Friedan, feminist author of The Feminine Mystique, or Gloria Steinem.

Even in my fairly progressive all-girls high school, where we study Virginia Woolf and take classes in Global Women’s issues, we give credence to the messages of the aforementioned thinkers and writers without considering their often-times chauvinistic rhetoric and biases.

We as women seem to be laboring under a terrible misconception. We think that feminism is over, that it’s a moot issue, a done deal, a solution to a past problem that we need not rehash. Why dwell on inequality when we can pretend that women have won the war against injustice? Why recall feminism when we have humanism instead? There’s no need for women’s liberation when women are liberated already. So we dare not listen to Gloria Steinem, and dare not identify with the feminist cause.

The feminist cause: the cause of homosexuals, goddess worshipers, communists. Or, as Rev. Pat Robertson proclaimed, the cause of those who “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

At least that’s what society tells us, and what we’ve chosen to believe. In all honesty, I wonder how many women today bother to discover the true roots and goals of the women’s liberation movement and feminism. Feminism, in the words of Cheris Kramerae, author of A Feminist Dictionary, is “the radical notion that women are human beings.” If both men and women recognized this definition of feminism, there’d be no reason for “feminist” to be a dirty word today. Modern women, like a teacher of mine, a teacher at an all-girls school, wouldn’t consider themselves the “antitheses of feminists.” And my classmates would not have dubbed feminists “penis-envying-man-women.”

We have abandoned the feminism that Steinem so passionately called for our audience to embrace and adopt as a way of life. Instead of glorying equality between men and women, we package and commercialize “Girl Power.” Girl Power in the form of pink feathered pens at Afterthoughts, key chains shouting “don’t-hate me-cuz-I’m-beautiful” and “you-go-girlfriend.” Bumper stickers proclaim that “a b.i.t.c.h. is driving this car,” someone who’s “being in total control, honey!” The women sporting the stickers don’t seem to realize that b.i.t.c.h. is still a derogatory word, and the very fact that the word carries a negative connotation shows how much society thinks of the female sex, of any species.

Let’s change those bumper stickers to say “Mujerista.” “Woman.” “Feminist, and proud of it.”
Let’s beat our butterfly wings in the spirit of our fore-sisters, the feminists of old. We, the new generation of young women, must teach the rest of the world that a true feminist has at her, or his, heart one and only one goal: to free women from the idea that we are subordinate, unequal members of society.

I think back to Gloria Steinem as I heard her on Feb. 13. “A feminist,” articulated Gloria Steinem, “is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”

Let us open the windows in our rooms, and remember her words.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.