Analysis Politics

‘If We Each Have a Torch, There’s a Lot More Light’: Gloria Steinem Accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Adele M. Stan

"I'd be crazy if I didn't understand that this is a medal for the entire women’s movement," Steinem told a gathering at the National Press Club Monday.

The first time journalist, organizer, and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem graced the podium at the National Press Club, it was as the first woman ever invited to do so. However many points one might give the club’s members for having chosen the country’s most famous feminist for that honor, some must be subtracted for their having handed her what was then the standard thank you gift to Press Club speakers: a man’s tie.

When Steinem took the podium on Monday, it was to mark her impending receipt of a far more welcome piece of neckwear: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to be bestowed on her by President Barack Obama at the White House Wednesday. “There is no president in history from whose hand I would be more honored to receive this medal,” she said.

“I’d be crazy,” Steinem told the Press Club audience, “if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement. It belongs to Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink.”

She noted that President Lyndon B. Johnson declined to give Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger the medal because, Steinem said, “he feared reprisal from the Catholic church.”

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Radicalized by Abortion

Before she was known as a leader of the movement then called, in the popular lexicon, “women’s lib,” Steinem was the glamorous “girl writer” who had gone undercover as a Playboy bunny in an investigation for Show magazine, and whose male colleagues at New York Magazine, which she helped found, told her, she said, “You write like a man.” (That was intended as a compliment.)

Steinem’s “a-ha moment,” the thing that spurred her to the world of activism, she said, was a reporting assignment to cover an “abortion speak-out,” a gathering where women who had had abortions, which were then illegal, told their stories.

“And then I had an epiphany, which was related to my own experience. … I realized that I had not told the truth about having [had] an abortion myself at 22, and why?” she asked the Press Club audience. “If one in three American women, approximately, has needed an abortion at sometime in her life, why not? What was secret about it? And then as soon as I started to speak about it … I discovered it was often part of other people’s experience, or their families’ experience.”

She went on to tell her oft-repeated story of sitting in the back of a taxi in Boston with Florynce Kennedy, the movement pioneer who was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Columbia University School of Law. They were discussing Kennedy’s book, Abortion Rap (co-authored with Diane Schulder), when, according to Steinem, “the old, Irish woman taxi driver—very rare, probably, as a taxi driver—turned around to us, and she said: ‘Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.’”

“A woman’s ability to decide whether or when to have a child is not a ‘social issue.’ It is a human right,” Steinem said. “It is the biggest indicator of whether she is educated or not, can work outside the home or not, is healthy or not, and how long she lives.”

The Perfect Messenger

In 1972, when Steinem, together with Patricia Carbine, Joanne Edgar, Nina Finkelstein, Mary Peacock, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founded Ms., television had just come of age. (Full disclosure: I worked at Ms. for three years during the 1980s.) With her big brain, quick wit, stylish good looks, journalism bona fides and ready laugh, Steinem was the perfect messenger for a movement so often maligned as humorless and sexless. Her one-liners are legendary: Asked why she hadn’t married, she said, “I can’t mate in captivity.” At a party thrown for a milestone birthday, she replied to a reporter who said she didn’t look her age: “This is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?’

Taking questions after her remarks this week at the Press Club, Steinem was asked to name “a seminal moment” in her journey to feminism. “It would be an ovarian moment,” she quipped, before telling the story of covering the abortion speak-out.

One thing is certain: Whatever Steinem, with her rare combination of intelligence, talent, and riveting physical presence, had chosen to do with her life, she was destined for stardom. That she chose to use her gifts in the service of the feminism changed the lives of generations of women (mine among them), and continues to do so.

For if there was any overriding message of Steinem’s talk, it’s that there’s plenty of work to be done, and she’s all about doing it. (In 2005, for instance, she co-founded, with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, the Women’s Media Center, and she’s still constantly traveling, lecturing, and organizing.) And she expects you to be, too.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

In response to a question on the paucity of women’s history taught to school children, Steinem lamented the fact that textbooks skim over the history of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the struggles and triumphs of Native Americans.

“[T]he textbooks of Texas are a pretty good example of eliminating the history of social justice movements, because Heaven forefend we learn how it was done before, we might … do it again,” Steinem said. “However, having said that, if you gave me a choice between knowing history and getting mad about the present, I would say, get mad about the present.”

“I didn’t walk around saying, ‘Thank you for the vote,’” she continued. “I don’t know about you—I got mad because of what was happening to me. And I don’t think gratitude ever radicalized anybody.”

As Steinem explained, there’s a lot happening to a lot of people right now that is not so good: a barrage of anti-choice laws, attacks on voting rights, and targeting of immigrants. And thanks to the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts by right-wing Republicans who wound up in control of a total of 25 state legislatures and 29 governors’ mansions in the anti-Obama backlash that characterized the 2010 mid-term elections, the 2014 elections promise to be tough for liberals.

Asked if the nation was “moving backwards” regarding reproductive rights, Steinem noted that while progress has been made in terms of public opinion, the nation is moving backwards on access to abortion, because of the action in the state houses. When the question is phrased to ask a respondent whether the government or the individual should decide whether to continue a pregnancy, Steinem said, a majority of Americans come down on the side of the individual.

“[A]s we can see, the anti-choice forces have not been too successful in Washington, so they have moved to state legislatures,” Steinem said. “Though they murdered abortion doctors and firebombed clinics, that has proven not to be as successful as what they’re doing now, which is getting state legislatures to make impossible-to-fulfill rules for local clinics. And the only way we can change this it to pay attention to our state legislatures.

“So, our response has to be organizing,” Steinem continued. “Most Americans don’t know who their state legislators are, and that’s why … an anti-choice right-wing minority is able to do this, state by state.”

Steinem sees the frenzy of state-level anti-choice legislation as a backlash to the demographic shifts taking place in the United States, ramping up the fears of a segment of the non-Hispanic white population that it will soon be in the minority. She explained, “I mean, they’re very clear. ‘White women are not having enough children,’ they say to me. It’s why the issues all go together: the anti-immigration, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, and so on. So we have to take back our state legislatures.”

Not Giving Up Her Torch

In her one-hour talk, Steinem addressed an array of issues yet unresolved, unrealized, or unappreciated: equal pay, the Equal Rights Amendment, the scourge of domestic violence, work-life balance, the underrepresentation of women as pundits and news sources, the untold wisdom of indigenous cultures on matters of fertility, and the control thereof. She spoke poignantly of accompanying her friend, Wilma Mankiller, the late chief of the Cherokee nation, to the White House to receive her own Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998. (When Steinem married David Bale in 2000, at age 66, it was Mankiller who performed the ceremony. Bale died of cancer three years later.)

Asked by National Press Club President Angela Greiling Keane if she’d ever “wanted to hang it up,” Steinem replied, “Well, where would I hang it?”

An audience member wanted to know what issue, over the course of her career, she wished she had “been more fired up about.”

“What I should have been more in an uproar about is monotheism and religion,” Steinem said. “I mean, religion is, too often, politics you’re not supposed to talk about. Spirituality is democratic and in each of us; it’s a different story. But institutionalized, monotheistic religion—if God looks like the ruling class, the ruling class is God, let’s face it.”

Inevitably, the feminist leader was asked to share her words of wisdom for young women. “My big, serious message is, don’t listen to me; listen to yourself. That’s the whole idea. The best thing I can do for young women, I think, is to listen to them, because you don’t know you have something to say until somebody listens to you.”

I can attest from personal experience that Steinem means what she says. When I was at Ms., she listened as intently to a young staffer who piped up in an editorial meeting as she did to anyone else. But she’s not in the business of anointing, even, as she said, “I’m trying to absorb the fact that I’ll be 80 next year.”

“You know, people often ask me, at this age, who am I passing the torch to? And I always say, first of all, that I’m not giving up my torch, thank you very much,” she said to appreciative laughter from the audience. “But also, I’m using my torch to light other people’s torches. Because the idea that there’s one torch-passer is part of the bonkers hierarchical idea—and if we each have a torch, there’s a lot more light.”

Analysis Abortion

From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims

Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield

In a series of workshops over a three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts renewed their debunked efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court rejected the anti-choice movement’s unscientific claims about how abortion restrictions make patients safer, the National Right to Life Convention hosted a slate of anti-choice “experts,” who promoted even more dubious claims that fly in the face of accepted medical science.

In a series of workshops over the three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts, including several whose false claims have been exposed by Rewire, renewed their efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Some of those who spoke at the convention were stalwarts featured in the Rewire series “False Witnesses,” which exposed the anti-choice movement’s attempts to mislead lawmakers, courts, and the public about abortion care.

One frequent claim, that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, has been refuted by the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But that hasn’t stopped “experts” like Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, a breast cancer surgeon and anti-choice activist, from giving court testimonies and traveling around the world spreading that brand of misinformation.

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During a Thursday session titled “The Abortion-Breast Cancer Link: The Biological Basis, The Studies, and the Fraud,” Lanfranchi, one of Rewire’s “False Witnesses,” pushed her debunked talking points.

Throughout the presentation, which was attended by Rewire, Lanfranchi argued that there is “widespread fraudulent behavior among scientists and medical organizations to obfuscate the link” between abortion and breast cancer.

In a statement, the irony of which may have been lost on many in the room, Lanfranchi told attendees that sometimes “scientists in the pursuit of truth can be frauds.” Lanfranchi went on to point to numerous studies and texts she claimed supported her theories and lamented that over time, textbooks that had previously suggested a link between abortion and breast cancer in the ’90s were later updated to exclude the claim.

Lanfranchi later pivoted to note her inclusion in Rewire’s “False Witnesses” project, which she deemed an “attack.” 

“We were one of 14 people that were on this site … as liars,” said Lanfranchi as she showed a slide of the webpage. “Now when people Google my name, instead of my practice coming up,” Rewire’s story appears.

Priscilla Coleman, another “False Witness” best known for erroneously claiming that abortion causes mental health problems and drug abuse, similarly bemoaned her inclusion in Rewire’s project during her brief participation in a Thursday session, “The Conspiracy of Silence: Roadblocks to Getting Abortion Facts to the Public.”

After claiming that there is ample evidence that abortion is associated with suicide and eating disorders, Coleman suggested that many media outlets were blocking the truth by not reporting on her findings. When it came to Rewire, Coleman wrote the outlet off as a part of the “extreme left,” telling the room that “if you look deeply into their analysis of each of our backgrounds, a lot of it is lies … it’s bogus information.”

An extensive review conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2008, however, found “no evidence sufficient to support” claims such as Coleman’s that “an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion.”

Rounding out the medical misinformation pushed in that session was Eve Sanchez Silver, the director and founder of the International Coalition of Color for Life. According to the biography listed on her organization’s website, Silver bills herself as a “bioethicist” who focuses on “the Abortion-Breast cancer link.”

Silver, who previously worked at the Susan G. Komen Foundation but left, she said, after finding out the organization gave money to Planned Parenthood, spent much of her presentation arguing that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. She also detailed what she referred to as the “Pink Money Cycle,” a process in which, as she explained, money is given to Komen, which in turn donates to Planned Parenthood. As Silver told it, Planned Parenthood then gives people abortions, leading to more cases of breast cancer. 

The seemingly conspiracy-driven theory has popped up in several of Silver’s presentations over the years.

Though Komen does in fact provide some funding to Planned Parenthood through grants, a July 2015 press release from the the breast cancer organization explains that it does “not and never [has] funded abortion or reproductive services at Planned Parenthood or any grantee.” Instead, the money Planned Parenthood receives from Komen “pays for breast health outreach and breast screenings for low-income, uninsured or under-insured individuals.”

On Saturday, another subject of Rewire’s “False Witnesses” series, endocrinologist Joel Brind, doubled down on his claims about the link between abortion and breast cancer in a workshop titled “New American Export to Asia: The Cover-Up of the Abortion-Breast Cancer Link.” 

Brind described the Indian subcontinent as the ideal place to study the purported link between abortion and breast cancer. According to Brind, “The typical woman [there] has gotten married as a teenager, started having kids right away, breastfeeds all of them, has lots of them, never smokes, never drinks, what else is she going to get breast cancer from? Nothing.”

When it came to research from Asia that didn’t necessarily support his conclusions about abortion and breast cancerBrind chalked it up to an international cover-up effort, “spearheaded, obviously, by our own National Cancer Institute.”

Although five states require counseling for abortion patients that includes the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer, Brind told Rewire that the link has become “the kind of thing that legislators don’t want to touch” because they would be going “against what all of these medical authorities say.” 

Brind also dedicated a portion of his presentation to promoting the purported cancer-preventing benefits of glycine, which he sells in supplement form through his company, Natural Food Science LLC. 

“If I sprain my ankle it doesn’t swell up, the injury will just heal,” Brind claimed, citing the supposed effects of glycine on inflammation. 

In a Thursday session on “the rise of the DIY abortion”, panelist Randall O’Bannon questioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) March update to regulations on mifepristone, a drug also known as RU-486 that is used in medical abortions. Noting that the drug is “cheap,” O’Bannon appeared to fret that the new regulations might make abortion more accessible, going on to claim that there could be “a push to make [the drug] available over the counter.”

O’Bannon claimed there are “documented safety issues” associated with the drug, but the FDA says mifepristone is “safe and effective.” A 2011 post-market study by the agency of those who have used the drug since its approval found that more than 1.5 million women had used it to end a pregnancy in the U.S. Of those women, just roughly 2,200 experienced an “adverse event.” According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra.

Speculating that misoprostol, another drug used in medication abortions, was less effective than medical experts say, O’Bannon later suggested that more embryos would “survive” abortions, leading to an “increased numbers of births with children with club feet, webbed toes, and fingers [and] full and partial facial paralysis.”

According to the World Health Organization, “Available data regarding a potential risk of fetal abnormality after an unsuccessful medical abortion are limited and inconclusive.”

Culture & Conversation Media

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.