Gloria Steinem forever changed the debate on abortion when she coined the term “reproductive freedom”. Yet through seven interviews over the past 10 years, I’ve rarely raised the topic with her.
A soft-spoken icon with an ever-ready sense of humour, Steinem doesn’t dwell on her views and insights on feminism, politics and women’s rights unless she is asked – or unless the discussion naturally goes there.
But the subject of abortion and how it impacts women’s economic independence has never felt more pressing in my adult lifetime. Women in the United States are finding their access to abortion services growing ever narrower, while beyond US shores, a global gag rule implemented by US President Donald Trump has banned groups that receive US funding from performing or even discussing abortions.
So on my eighth and most recent interview with Steinem, I raise the issue, knowing that she can also speak to the topic from personal experience.
Opposing women's right to control our own bodies is always the first step in every authoritarian regime.
Steinem has commanded such respect for her global work in politics and human rights that in 2013, then-US President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honour the nation can award to civilians.
“Because of her work, across America and around the world, more women are afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve,” Obama said as he presented Steinem with the medal.
A journalist and activist, Steinem is a leader of the second wave of feminism – a period in the US that began in the early 1960s and broadened the feminist movement into issues such as reproductive rights, workplace inequalities and domestic violence.
She co-founded the legendary feminist magazine, Ms., in 1978. She also penned its most widely read and enduring essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” – a witty reflection on how power, political and economic structures would shift if men had menstrual cycles.
“For a long time, it amazed me that this brief and humorous essay was the single most-read thing I’ve ever written and that it’s been translated into everything from French to Hindi,” she tells Al Jazeera.
“Then I realised that I was writing about the two most universal things: women giving birth, and patriarchal systems that try to control women and birth-giving.”
Steinem almost had her destiny altered by that system. A landmark stop on her journey to feminist icon took place in 1957, when a London physician named John Sharpe performed an illegal abortion on then-22-year-old Steinem, telling her, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”
Steinem didn’t reveal the late Dr Sharpe’s name until she published her most recent book, My Life on the Road, which she dedicated to him.
Steinem insists no one is “pro” abortion. “Nobody would choose one if they didn’t have to,” she says.
Framing the debate over abortion as “pro-choice” versus “pro-life” is misleading, in Steinem’s view. Because for her, the issue really boils down to control.
“Opposing women’s right to control our own bodies is always the first step in every authoritarian regime,” she tells Al Jazeera. “For instance, that’s where [Adolf] Hitler started. Because patriarchy was threatened by big and successful women’s rights and gay rights movements in Germany after World War I, Hitler got elected on his slogan of putting women back in their traditional place – kinder, kuche, kirche: children, kitchen, church.”
And when women lose control over their reproductive choices, the consequences can be dire.
“The ability to decide when and whether to have children is the single biggest determinant, worldwide, of whether a woman is healthy or not, educated or not, active outside the home or not, and how long she will live,” says Steinem.
A dozen US states have passed laws this year that do not, in Steinem’s view, make women’s health, education or ability to be active outside the home the “single biggest determinant” of whether they have the right to end a pregnancy. These laws are trying, she maintains, to end abortion through tough new measures and tighter regulation.
The most severe example of this new legislation may be in Alabama, which introduced a near-total ban on abortion this spring. Georgia, Ohio, and Kentucky make it illegal to perform the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which typically happens around the sixth week of pregnancy and which often occurs before many women even realise they are pregnant.
Meanwhile, other states have moved to protect women’s reproductive rights, with Illinois passing a law that requires insurers to cover abortion. New York, California, Vermont and Nevada have also taken steps to expand protections.
The complexity of the issue is also evident in US political and legal systems. Recently, the Missouri health department refused to renew the licence of the last clinic in the state to perform abortions, but a Missouri state circuit judge issued a ruling that allowed the clinic to continue performing the procedure.
That battle now continues in the court system.
You can't perpetuate racism without controlling women and reproduction.
Many lawmakers behind state anti-abortion measures have made it clear that they want to challenge the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling – the US Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion.
I asked Steinem what she thinks is driving recent anti-abortion measures. “In this country, right now, white nationalists are going crazy because the white birth rate has fallen below replacement level,” she answers.
“It doesn’t surprise me that the most virulent anti-abortion measures are coming from Alabama and other southern states because racism and sexism are always intertwined,” she adds. “You can’t perpetuate racism without controlling women and reproduction.”
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) found that when women are asked why they want to end a pregnancy, the most common reasons are financial – in particular, not having enough money to raise a first child or support the next one.
AJPH researchers determined that six months after being denied an abortion, women are less likely to have full-time employment, more likely to be dependent on public assistance, and four times more likely to have a household income that falls below the federal poverty level.
While lower-income women have higher rates of unwanted pregnancy, a 2015 analysis by the Brookings Institution found that single women who make $47,000 or more a year abort 32 percent of their pregnancies, while single women making $11,670 a year or less abort only 8.6 percent of them. (The median per capita income in the US falls between these numbers and now stands at $31,786, according to the US Census Bureau.)
Brookings researchers also concluded that lower-income women would have fewer unwanted pregnancies if they had more access to contraception – something Steinem feels is critical to reproductive rights.
“From Germany to Alabama, from the Catholic Church to the Taliban, all patriarchies – and especially racist ones – try to control women’s bodies and reproduction,” she says. “[But] contraception should be available, and both men and women should be responsible for it.”
“Our education systems,” she adds, “aren’t explaining that patriarchy and racism are political, not natural.”
To drive home the point, Steinem asks whether it is “natural” for women to face what Cornell University sociologist Shelley Correll calls the “motherhood penalty”.
According to Correll’s research, women who note on their resumes that they’ve had children are only half as likely as their counterparts to get a response from a potential employer.
We have to work hard not to be overcome by the Trumpian backlash. But we've come a very, very long way, and we're not going back.
Steinem’s lifetime of work fighting against oppression could have made her a pessimist. But she exudes optimism. A self-proclaimed “hopeaholic”, she sees “diamonds in the rough” in how views are evolving on gender to favour greater equity between the sexes.
“It’s great to see that younger people are now struggling to get beyond gender,” she says. “It’s as if the world was divided into two kinds of people: those who divide all human beings into two, and those who don’t. We’re struggling to get past false sameness and see individual uniqueness.”
And though Steinem sees demographic trends being weaponized to foment racism and misogyny, she believes the momentum is working against established systems of privilege.
The US Census Bureau predicts that the now-majority white population in the US will become a minority population by 2044. This shift has already taken place in Generation Z (people aged six to 21 years), according to an analysis from the Pew Research Center, which notes that about half the Americans in Generation Z are people of colour.
“The majority has progressed so much that we now have a backlash from about a third of the country that feels robbed of the old hierarchies,” says Steinem.
“It’s typified to me by the kind of middle-aged white guy who will say to me something like, ‘a black woman took my job,'” she noted. “I always say to him, ‘Who said it was your job?’ The problem is his remaining sense of entitlement by birth. But he isn’t the majority any more. We have to work hard not to be overcome by the Trumpian backlash. But we’ve come a very, very long way and we’re not going back.”