In Conversation: Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad

Gloria Steinem and Suheir HammadPhoto: Dan Winters

When Suheir Hammad arrives at Gloria Steinem’s apartment on the Upper East Side—the same one Steinem has lived in since 1968—the two embrace like old friends. Then Sarah Palin comes up. “What is going on?” yells Hammad. Steinem grins and shrugs. She’s been working all day on an op-ed. “It’s such an insult,” she says.

Hammad is 35; Steinem is 74. The child of poor Palestinian immigrants, Hammad was raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, then became a poet and activist (her movie Salt of This Sea premiered at Cannes). “She is the embodiment of the global reach of feminism,” says Steinem. Steinem, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and moved to New York City in 1960, is the most famous feminist in the world, and one of the original writers at New York Magazine.

We gathered in Steinem’s cozy, taffeta-draped living room to talk about what had changed, and what hadn’t, interrupted only when a delivery man arrived with an enormous palm tree, as if this were an oasis from the unsettling developments in the larger world.

New York: As a girl, how did you imagine life as a grown woman?

Suheir Hammad: I came from a traditional immigrant family where education meant there were only a few valid paths: doctor or lawyer, and I didn’t want to be either one.

Gloria Steinem: A sign of progress, such as it is! I was well into my thirties before I met a female doctor or lawyer. The only options I had were what was going to happen during that time between school and getting married and having children. So I was looking to show business. [Laughs] How impractical. But the only place I saw women doing something nontraditional was there. I think show business was for us what sports is for boys in poor neighborhoods. So I was taking dancing lessons and lying about my age—at 12 pretending to be 18, because I was very tall. Working for ten dollars a night, tap dancing for two shows in the Eagles Club. But marriage seemed like the end of all choice. And so I kept extending that golden period.

NY: Were there similar expectations about marriage and children for you, Suheir?

SH: When I graduated grammar school, one of the smartest girls was pregnant. She was 11. By the time she entered junior high school, a few months after the rest of us, three more girls were pregnant. I don’t know if it’s something about accents, or lack of understandable English, but you become more of a body if English isn’t the first thing people hear, you know? So I have this huge dichotomy between my traditional Muslim parents’ idea of a woman’s strength being modesty, and your body being a gift—no pearls to swine, literally. And the extreme opposite, which was the girls I grew up with, in hip-hop and on TV, wearing the tightest jeans, the big booty shorts, low cut. I grew up, like every other girl, between these two polar—what do you call them? I mean, they’re not ideals.

GS: That’s the classic virgin-whore dichotomy. When I was growing up, girls were good or bad. It was very important that you stayed, at least in the public view—the neighborhood view—a good girl. If not, you were fair game. If you got raped or—as in one case that I remember, a girl was locked in a garage and gangbanged by who knows how many people—it was her fault, and her family had to move from the neighborhood. This has changed, though; it’s possible for a woman now to be sexual and not be condemned.

NY: I think of the seventies as this era of freewheeling promiscuity.

GS: But I wasn’t young in the seventies. The problem with the sixties was that because it was pre–women’s liberation its goal seemed to be to make more women sexually available to men. It wasn’t about autonomy for women’s desires, it was about, as in the war slogan, “Women say yes to men who say no.” In the first issue of Ms., we had the article “The Sexual Revolution Wasn’t Our War,” because it was not a revolution for women, it was a revolution for men.

SH: I know women in their thirties who’ve been celibate for years, because they were so promiscuous in their twenties and we went through the booty-call nineties. Because in the nineties you had the sense that you could sleep with anyone you wanted, and we thought we knew enough about safe sex. And there wasn’t any reference to the emotional reality of sharing yourself with people you didn’t trust. Some of my friends are able to make the distinction between love and sex. And they go to parties and really enjoy being in New York City. They have their mad money, so if you get mad at the guy, you got cab money home.

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!

You know, even if Sarah Palin was better on the issues, the goal is not to elect Superwoman. As social-justice movements have learned the hard way, having someone who looks like you and behaves like them —who looks like a friend but behaves like an adversary—is worse than having no one.

SH: My brother-in-law was raised in Jordan. He changes diapers, he helps with the food, he does everything. We joke in our family when someone’s fresh off the boat, they’re going to come in with these Third World, stagnant ideas—and he, I swear, is way more helpful than any of our friends’ husbands who were born here. I see my friends make the same decisions my mom had to make.

NY: Suheir, your female friends, do they consider themselves feminists?

SH: I have this conversation all the time. I think they all do. Whether or not they would say it publicly, I think it comes from not wanting to be seen as political, and not wanting to make other people uncomfortable. I think of feminism as a socially just and imaginative world. You know, in my twenties I was taught that feminism meant we had to be supersmart, in the realm of intellectualism—to make rational, detached, unemotional pleas. But now I think what Gloria and all our sisters have given us is imagination. It’s a question of: Can I imagine that world?

NY: A guy at work said to ask, Since the movement has succeeded so fully, is there anything left to do?

GS: [Laughs] So, are we going to break his kneecaps now?

SH: No, we’re going to give him a Brazilian bikini wax.

GS: Tell him I’ll know that we’re getting someplace when I go into Central Park and see white men wheeling babies of color and getting well paid for it. There is no postfeminism—it’s like saying “post-democracy”!

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In Conversation: Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad