'On the road' with feminist icon Gloria Steinem

The famous activist, whose new book is called "My Life on the Road", says more needs to be done in fight for equality.


    London, UK - Veteran US women's rights activist Gloria Steinem has spent a lot of time in London. She has come here to give lectures, run fundraising campaigns, perform at a charity concert - and have an abortion.

    Last week, she was back in the British capital to promote her memoir My Life on the Road.

    The book is dedicated to the London doctor who gave her an illegal abortion in 1957, when she was passing through the city on her way to India.

    Abortion is still illegal in many countries, including Ireland from where an estimated 5,000 women travel to Britain each year for terminations.

    We caught up with Steinem and took her along to one of the clinics where the Irish women go.

    The Marie Stopes Clinic is a three-story Georgian townhouse, not far from the British Museum in central London. 

    There is a light blue enamel plaque halfway up the brick front which says Dr Marie Stopes opened the birth control clinic in 1925.

    "I feel historic coming to this blue door," Steinem said, gesturing ahead with her long manicured fingers.

    Clinic manager Fiona Baines showed Steinem around the clean treatment rooms and the quiet waiting halls with comfortable furniture and cardboard displays holding leaflets on birth control.

    "When I was here [London] in 1957, and I was searching for an abortion, not knowing what the law was, what the possibilities were, considering, I don't know what, throwing myself down the stairs - you know all the things that you do when you are desperate and have no knowledge. If I had been able to come to this great building and see friendly supportive women, it would have made such a huge difference," Steinem said.

    "So I can only imagine what it means to women from Ireland and people who come in this door - I can only thank you."

    'Beginning of freedom'

    Steinem and Baines sat on the green loveseat and discussed reproductive rights. They agreed that a lot has been accomplished but more needs to be done.

    Steinem peppered Baines with questions like, are women harassed when they travel from Ireland? The answer was no, thankfully.

    Do women in Britain publicise their abortions? No, they are private but it's starting to change with some women sharing their stories.

    Does the clinic have a wall where women can write notes to others who come after them? No, but they have a book if people want to leave comments.

    Steinem speaks at a ceremony with South Korean peace activists in Paju on May 24, 2015 [Lim Byung-Shik/Yonhap/Reuters] 

    "In Australia, when they introduced a goods and services tax they omitted the tax for condoms because they said they were health products - but not for tampons because they said they were a luxury item," Baines explained.

    "No kidding? That's interesting," Steinem laughed.

    "So they're taxed," Baines said.

    "In the States, we're having a whole movement to remove the tax on tampons to make clear that they are like a prescriptions or like any other health product. It's bizarre," Steinem said.

    "Once we understand that it's all about controlling reproduction, and therefore controlling women, then we see how basic it is in both directions - both the beginning of repression and the beginning of freedom."'

    'Oh goodness, here she is'

    After the clinic, Steinem was off to sign books.

    A trail of about 50 women and a handful of men lined up, yellow sticky notes attached to their books with the names they wanted Steinem to write with a black Sharpie. They were of all ages and styles, from hippies to corporates; one had her guitar, another her iPad.

    Steinem made time for each - and many were moved by their short meeting.

    "It's because women like Gloria gave our mothers the language to build equal partnerships so everything about my life is in some way informed by Gloria and women like her," said Jenny, clutching two signed copies of Steinem’s book. 

    "So I think that's why I got so choked up. Sort of realising, 'Oh goodness, here she is', and she is so important to me and she doesn't even know. It was really great to tell her that and say thank you." 

    Steinem was equally impressed by the women she met. She said they're facing the same issues, just in different form.

    "We had to learn that we were not crazy to talk about this [feminism] at all. That we weren't going against nature, God, Freud, somebody," Steinem laughed.

    "I think young women have more companionship because now these are more majority issues," she said.

    "But they're still facing an economic system that is profiting by paying them less and opposition to reproductive freedom and trying to make them think that how they look is more important than who they are."

    Steinem, who turns 82 later this month, can take the long view after a lifetime of campaigning.

    "Of course, it changes and we hope it changes more, but I feel so good about young women. They're braver, there's more of them, they feel more empowered."

    Because she’s 82, super lively and is judged on her monumental accomplishments, I feel I can break the cardinal feminist rule and say she looks great: a chic octogenarian in black trousers, black top with a purple scarf looped around her neck and topping it all - a black, studded leather jacket.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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