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40th Anniversary

In Conversation: Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad


GS: Yeah, mad money was certainly part of my growing up. Enough to get home. It was the same principle.

NY: What were office politics like when there were fewer women, Gloria?

GS: At New York Magazine, I felt it was my job to—they were nice guys, but it was my job to keep a good working relationship without going to bed with them or hurting their egos. The term sexual harassment didn’t exist yet. But it was fun because they were smart, good people. And they did change their attitudes. Jimmy Breslin in the beginning was skeptical about women freelancers. He said, “Ah, there’s too many girls here. It’s because we don’t pay enough.” But he gradually changed and became my friend, which meant he would call me up at three in the morning and say, “What’s doing? Come and meet me at the bar.”

SH: We have a name for that kind of friend, girl!

GS: No, no, that’s not what I meant! [Laughs] You can’t ask anything more of people than that they’re open to change. But it wasn’t until I came back from the abortion hearing [that the Redstockings held in 1969] and wrote about it for New York, it wasn’t until then that I realized what was wrong, because several of those nice guys came to me and said, “You can’t get involved with these crazy women. You’ve worked so hard to be taken seriously.” Which made me realize that I had not been truthful, or they, for whatever reason, didn’t know who I was … The left was quite capable of being just as full of misogyny.

NY: What are your relationships like?

SH: I am so old-fashioned. I’ve never lived with a man. I am completely about the independence of paying my own rent. It was really important for me in my twenties. Because when I left school and my parents’ home—I was raised that when you leave, it’s to your husband’s home, or a coffin.

‘There is no postfeminism—that’s like saying post-democracy.’
—Gloria Steinem

GS: We’re exactly the same. I have never, never, never given up my nest. I’ve had wonderful relationships with men, from two years to nine years, but I have never moved in with someone and given up my space—other than with a roommate. When I moved into this place in 1968, it was still common for landlords to refuse to rent to single women. If you were a female human being, you clearly were going to marry and skip off. Or, if you could afford the rent, you must be a hooker. Obviously, I did eventually legally marry [in 2000, to the late David Bale], but we still went back and forth between our houses.

NY: Neither of you has kids. How have things changed for women deciding whether to have children?

GS: I don’t want to say we’re anywhere near where we should be, but it’s more possible to have a child without losing yourself. Back then, it felt like, you either gave birth to yourself or to someone else, but you couldn’t do both. Young women often ask me, “Do you regret not having children?” When I visited India, I thought, Am I going to tell the truth or not?, because they were very traditional young women in the poor part of Mumbai. But I told the truth, which was: not for a millisecond. And they applauded! Because I think there’s so much of the world where there isn’t a choice.

SH: You know, it’s complicated. I do want children. But one of the things that’s interesting about it now being a choice, there’s the possibility of feeling regret about the decisions you’ve made. I don’t know if that was the case before, but the more options you have, the more you can do—

GS: That’s very smart. I think that’s true about abortion too. When I was growing up, if you got accidentally pregnant, you were so desperate to get an abortion, ambivalence about it was extremely small. With availability, you can afford to be ambivalent.

SH: I was recently with the novelists Ahdaf Soueif and Hanan Al-Shaykh. They both live in London, and in the Arab world they are the top women writers. For them, as feminists and as Arab women in the sixties and seventies, they had no choice but to do both. They were not going to be writers if they did not get married and also have kids. They looked at us and said: You know, you can do it all.

GS: But you can’t.

SH: But we can do more than we’ve been told.

GS: We can do more. But we have to up our expectation levels, so that we have government-supported child care, and guys are parents, too. My dearest friend from India, she kept telling me to have a child there because there are all these people to help take care of the child. And I realized so much of the oppression comes from the nuclear family as opposed to the extended household. To me, the single thing that oppresses most women is having two full-time jobs: to have to work for money and also take care of everything at home. Now we have two smart, male candidates, Obama and Biden, who are campaigning on a theme that men should want to be—and can be—home for their kids. And that is huge!

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