Meeting a Feminist Icon: LiisBeth Publisher PK Mutch on encountering the leading feminist activist of her life

Shivers ran up my spine near the end of her talk  when she spoke about hope and how she feels after decades of work.

Gloria Steinem speaking to Farrah Kahn at the “Courage of A Movement” event, Toronto, Dec 12, 2018

Last week I heard, met—and got to put my arm around the waist of the amazing Gloria Steinem as she graciously posed for a photo with me after a keynote speech she gave in Toronto. As I stood beside her, my mind sparkled like a string of holiday lights, and my heart was on fire with hope, but to the touch, she felt breakable, delicate.

And there it was: The feminist movement, its power to inspire, and frail progress embodied perfectly in one of its most dedicated, creative and impactful voices.

Steinem, now 84, was in Toronto on December 12 to participate in “The Courage of a Movement”, an event organized by the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP). More than 700 people attended. While ticket prices were steep, there were many sponsored tickets available.

Steinem opened her talk by saying how much she admires Canada’s First Nations land acknowledgment practice and conceded that her homeland often has a huge influence on Canadians. “I promise to go back, and try to do something about the ridiculous situation we have.

“I would just ask you to remember that [Donald Trump] was not popularly elected. He lost by six million votes. Three for other candidates, three for Hillary Clinton. He’s just there because of our crazed institution called the electoral college, which just tells us we have to get rid of it. Incidentally, it is a legacy of the slave states. So we are trying to treat him as a great instruction on everything that we need to do, right? And we are woke. I just want to say. We are seriously woke.”

The audience erupted.

Other key points in her talk included the importance of understanding that history began in North America long people the Europeans showed up, and how many early cultures did not have gender pronouns, or words for race. “I mean, the paradigm was a circle, not a pyramid. It was really profoundly different.

“Our whole world is divided into two kinds of people, those who divide everything into two (or see things in binary terms) and those who don’t.”

She pointed out that normalized violence against women is the major determinant of whether a country is violent on its own streets and whether it will use violence against another country. In other words how a country treats its women is how it operates in the world.

The Courage of a Movement Panel

The Courage of a Movement Panel, from left to right: actress Patricia Fagan (Canadian Stage Company, Soulpepper), writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, moderator Marci Ien, 15-year-old blogger and author of “Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change” Hanna Alper, and Manager of Consent Comes First, Ryerson University, Farrah Khan.

During the panel session that followed Steinem’s keynote, she was asked if she believed society has truly made any progress towards gender equality and social justice.

Steinem noted that gender equity is still far off and advancements are fragile, however, she believes we have made significant progress at a key and fundamental level. “We’ve actually changed the majority consciousness. Not the power structure. Not where the money is. But consciousness comes first. So, that’s big.”

She added that at this time in history, people who been seriously deprived by hierarchy and patriarchy are increasingly mad as hell. This is also big.

To another question posed by an audience member – “Will things get better in the future?” – Steinem replied “I’m a hopeaholic. Yes, we do need to be realistic. But I do think hope is kind of planning. I have to say that part of the good thing about being old, and I am very old, is that we remember when it was worse. We can all see how bonkers [patriarchy] is and that’s why we need to work together. We each have something to bring. I’ll bring hope. You bring anger. And there’s no stopping us.”

Three wise women at The Courage of a Movement event, Toronto.

Left to right: Jan Borowy Cavalluzo, LLP; Shelly Gordon, and Manager of Consent Comes First, Ryerson University, Farrah Khan.

Outside the auditorium, I asked three wise women, Shelly Gordon, Farrah Khan (also a panelist), and Jan Borowy Cavalluzo why they attended. Gordon remarked, “Gloria still has a lot of advice for how to keep moving social change”. Borowy Cavalluzo said for her, “Gloria has been an inspiration to the feminist movement for decades. Her approach to the intersectional feminist movements is important and I am interested in what she has to say.”

So, while the 84-year-old Steinem may be frail in body, her power to fuel the feminist movement is still robust and relevant as ever.

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