I hadn't attended any feminist lectures before. I hadn't been to any feminist conferences and I wasn't so sure why I wanted to hear Steinem speak. But when I heard she was here and speaking, I wanted to listen.
And not just listen. I wanted to see her too. The staff at the auditorium told me, and a few other women, that there was no room; we'd have to sit outside and watch a large television screen. But we coaxed, cajoled, complained and insisted that there were reserved seats for us. Once inside, we just squatted on the floor.
Gloria Steinem. Tall, slim, seventy-two. And yes, beautiful. And yes, funny.
She said, that she always thought there ought to be sign outside universities like Yale and Harvard, saying: "Beware. De-construction ahead."
The funniest bits, of course, were the times she quoted from her famous essay, 'If Men Could Menstruate'.
"Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps...
Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ("men-struation") as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?"), be priests, ministers, God Himself ("He gave this blood for our sins"), or rabbis ("Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean").[Do read the whole hilarious piece.]
That evening, she was speaking about gender and censorship - the many, many ways in which women's voices have been censored out of sight and mind and discourse.
We know how terrible women's magazines are, don't we? How they mess with women's minds, self-image, etc. How they can make you believe that if you aren't skin and bone, if you can't keep a man, if you don't use foreign brands of make-up, if you can't afford to wear a 3000 rupee shirt, you're worthless.
But the worst punishment such magazines mete out, according to Steinem, is that we grow contemptutous of each other other, because we are led to believe that other women want these things. Which is not necessarily true. She told the crowd about how advertisers in the US dictated content through their 'inserts'. Little notes, clauses almost, that tell the editorial staff: "Must not appear with depressing articles" or "Must not appear in an issue with large-size fashion".
Think about that. Advertisers insisting that not only will they use images of super-skinny women, but that they want nothing to do with any sort of clothing, or word of advice or attitude that may be non-skinny. That is censorship too, isn't it?
Steinem made me think from new angles. Like she herself had been made to think. She had always assumed that women talk more than men (because that's the stereotype.... there are jokes about women not being able to sit quiet, a roomful of silent women being the joke), perhaps, because talking is women's way of expressing themselves, perhaps because other forms of self-expression were denied to them? That is what she thought, until she came across research work that concluded that, contrary to popular belief, women talked LESS than men. In fact, the study found that men talked more about everything, including subjects of female expertise, like child-rearing.
Why did the opposite view prevail, then? Perhaps, because, female talk "was measured against the expectation of female silence." When you say 'more', who decided 'more'? Who decides 'women talk too much'? Probably the many generations of men who were not used to listening to female voices at all.
While on censorship, Steinem spoke about the politics of channeling (where a person claims to have access to spirits, and writes down whatever the spirit says). It seems that most women were channeling men. One of the more famous instances being that of a Columbia University professor who claimed to be writing as Jesus dictated.
According to Steinem, very possibly, these were women who had things to say, but would not be taken seriously, perhaps, but if they claimed to be speaking for famous men, they were listened to, and very possibly made successful. Few men have claimed to be speaking for female spirits. The only exception seemed to be a gay man who channeled the writer Gertrude Stein.
The other, murkier side of censorship is buried in problems such as trafficking. While all efforts are directed at stemming supply, almost nobody talks of stemming demand. For instance, people may argue about legalising prostitution, but nobody seems to think it is a good idea to fine the customer, or to discuss his role in the process.
She spoke of the revolutionary act of translating, of language and exile, the censoring of the oral tradition.
She spoke of how battering men behave like addicts and that asking a man to 'control' his aggression is like telling an addict he can have a little bit of heroin.
She spoke of the campaign to attribute an economic value to all care-giving, at replacement value, and the possibility of making such services tax-deductible and tax-refundable.
It was a joy listening to her and I could easily have sat there listening another hour, had she the time or energy to go on. Many other things were said, of course, but these are some of the things Steinem said that stayed with me:
"We are encouraged to give birth to others before we can give birth to ourselves.
Terms such as 'sexual harassment' have been given to us by the feminist movement; before that, it was called 'life'.
The art of behaving ethically is to act as if everything we do, matters."
That, above all. To act as if everything you do, say, don't do, matters.