The word "feminist" is still misunderstood, according to activist and author Gloria Steinem, who addressed a sell-out crowd last week at the Zellerbach Auditorium.
Two reasons rank for the continued misunderstanding, she said. "People don't know what it means, and, they do know what it means."
The legendary feminist quipped and cajoled the energetic crowd to declare themselves feminists, question authority, organize, and follow their inner voice - "It's a remarkable guide," she said.
"Gloria" pop song anthems by U2, Van Morrison and Laura Branigan energized the crowd while the student group Connaissance, which sponsored the event, struggled to a late start. Steinem confronted standing cheers from the audience and, referring to the Branigan intro, said, "I think we should just dance."
Taking a cue from the environmental movement, Steinem titled her speech "Acting Locally and Thinking Globally." Her first suggestion: "Call yourself a feminist and vote."
The past 15 to 20 years have seen a concentrated effort by the Religious Right to distort what feminism means, Steinem said, adding the Right has similarly distorted terms such as liberal, affirmative action and, in the Clinton scandal, sexual harassment - which she said does not forbid all sex in the workplace.
"Now, more than 60 percent of Americans believe sexual harassment laws have gone too far, when, in fact, they have not gone far enough," she said.
To retrieve the real meaning of feminism and other ideals, Steinem said young women should participate in the democratic process - "like brushing your teeth; it's something you do every day."
"The [Right's] backlash against all civil rights movements seems to have been slowed if not stopped yesterday," Steinem said, the day after Election Day. Voting will continue that slowdown, she said, noting that voting percentages usually coincide with ages - 20 percent of people in their 20s vote, etc. "Do you want us old folks to tell you what to do?" the 64-year-old activist warned.
"I know you're going to do so much more than my generation because you're smarter, younger," Steinem told the group of mostly young women. "There are more young feminists than ever."
Still, women become more radical and politically active with age, Steinem said, whereas men become less active. Personal politics and public campaigning bring women together in "a very democratic way," she said.
Though the political process is not about party labels, Steinem said, the Religious Right has taken over the Republican Party and true centrist Republicans do not have a party. Passivity is death, she said.
"The question is not, 'What are they [in Washington] going to do?' It's, 'What are we going to force them to do?'" Steinem said. "It's up to us to figure out what the issues are and what they mean in our daily lives."
Steinem also covered marriage: "Until men are equal inside the home, women cannot be equal outside the home." And regarding the workplace, she discussed glass ceilings, pink collars and sexual harassment. Of the latter, Steinem said "At least there's a word for it. It used to be called 'life.'"
Ultimately, the "art of behaving effectively, and certainly ethically," Steinem said, "is behaving as if everything we do matters." And, finally, women have two choices - "Either you're a feminist or a masochist."
Originally published on November 12, 1998