Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Feminist Gloria Steinem On Finding Herself Free Of The 'Demands Of Gender'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our guest today is Gloria Steinem, who is having quite a year being portrayed on film and TV by various actresses. In April, FX on Hulu presented the miniseries "Mrs. America," a dramatization of the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. And next Wednesday, Amazon Prime Video presents a new movie called "The Glorias" directed by Julie Taymor who directed the film "Frida" and the Broadway musical version of "The Lion King."

"The Glorias" is based on Steinem's 2015 memoir "My Life On The Road." But Taymor, in adapting that story for the screen, takes a very unusual approach. Four different actresses, including Julianne Moore, portray Steinem at different ages, hence the film's title "The Glorias."

Today we feature multiple conversations between Terry and Gloria Steinem. One is from 2015, when "My Life On The Road," the basis of the new film "The Glorias," was first published. But we start with a much earlier interview from 1987 when Gloria Steinem, by then a prominent symbol of the women's movement, was celebrating the 15th anniversary of Ms. magazine, the influential feminist publication she founded in 1972.


TERRY GROSS: Gloria Steinem, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: You had already worked in - for several magazines as a journalist. Why did you think it was important to have a magazine written by and devoted to women?

STEINEM: Well, first because even before I began to think about anything that might be called feminism or to question the structures that women encountered, I and lots of women could not write about political subjects for the existing magazines. We were thought to be the experts on, you know, food, makeup, babies and celebrities. But that was pretty much it. And though I railed against it, as many other women did, perhaps not hard enough in retrospect - but at least we tried - it really didn't budge very much.

Then after we began to realize that there was a reason why women felt connected to other discriminated-against groups and kind of identified with the underdog 'cause we were also underdogs, and there began to be a women's movement. Then the magazine said, well, you know, we published our article on feminism last year, or if we're going to write one article saying that women are full human beings, we'll have to publish one right next to it saying they're not in order to be objective. So it became more and more clear to lots of us that we could not either write what we wanted to or read or edit what we wanted to in the existing magazines. So we started to meet and discuss whether or not, you know, a magazine might be possible.

GROSS: Did you find, too, that a lot of male editors thought that it was just too specialized, too narrow to write about issues like abortion or equality for women - you know, 'cause all of their readers wouldn't be interested in it.

STEINEM: No, absolutely. And that was true on the left and on the right. You know, you would find - I'm sorry to say - that's because I have much more affection for (unintelligible) - but you would find left men editors who would say, well, you know, abortion is too controversial, and we can't divide the "left," quote-unquote, with this kind of argument. Of course, it was actually much more popular as an issue than anything they were talking about. But still, you know, it just wasn't - it just wasn't serious in their view.

I mean, when I think about the life of the magazine, I think partly about the fact that everybody said after the first issue - well, they've said everything they have to say. What is there to talk about besides child care and welfare is a woman's issue and, you know, a few other things. But that's it. You know, now what? I mean - so actually, the movement and the magazine has been being pronounced over...


STEINEM: ...Ever since the - well, actually, the first story that I know of - cover story pronouncing the women's movement over was from 1969, before the magazine ever started.

GROSS: Well, that was pretty premature.



GROSS: What did you think the state of feminist coverage was in the mainstream media in the early '70s and late '60s?

STEINEM: It was mostly ridicule, really, because that was the era of, quote, "bra burners" unquote, an alliterative epithet invented by a guy from the New York Post who was actually covering the demonstration against the Miss America contest. And though nobody ever burned anything - although they did threaten to burn, I don't know, a Steno pad, a dust mop, an apron. They put all this stuff in a dust bin on the boardwalk that they were going to burn, including a bra. But they never did 'cause they couldn't get a fire permit. I mean, this is - you know, we're just much too docile (laughter). Right? But nonetheless, he picked up - he couldn't resist the alliteration. And that was symbolic of the kind of of ridicule, really.

GROSS: I think that women's organizations and publications function on two levels, especially at the beginning. One was that the content was going to be oriented toward women, and the other was this kind of utopian sense that with women at the controls, it was going to have a different structure, a different sense of power and hierarchy than their male-run counterparts had. Did that happen at Ms. magazine? Did you have a sense of, you know, what the utopian (laughter) women's-run magazine was going to be like? And I'm talking about...

STEINEM: We did. And...

GROSS: ...The power structure.

STEINEM: We did. But it wasn't totally - it was somewhat wrong but not totally wrong.

For instance, when we started out - I mean, an example of our naivete was that we sat around - there were eight of us. And we sat around, and we fixed each other's salaries basically. Well, first - no, the real utopian thing was that we thought we should all have the same salary. But it soon became clear to us, just from just knowing each other's lives, that that was not possible. Some of us were supporting children, and some were not. Some, you know, had - were older and had been earning, you know, higher salaries in the past.

And so we did fix each other's salaries. But we took three things in mind - one, what their - our need was; two, what our experience was; and three, how important we were to the life of the magazine itself. What we did do, though, was to try to - and something we've still maintained - to make sure that the top salary was no more than three times the lowest salary.

So you know, I think, in a way, that's a little microcosm of both the idealism and the realism that is, OK, no, we couldn't all earn the same salary. But yes, we could substantially change the way money was distributed so that the top was three times the bottom, which is very different from other magazines where the chief editor may earn, you know, 200,000 bucks or more, and the secretary earns 10. You know, I mean, at least we narrowed the gap a lot.

GROSS: Did you go through this phenomenon that - when you formed this magazine with other women - that male colleagues of yours, male journalists, assumed that what you did all day was sit around and talk about men (laughter) - complain bitterly about men?

STEINEM: Yeah, you're right. You're right. I hadn't thought about that in a long time, but you're completely right. I remember somebody saying to me at one of the networks - CBS, I think - that whenever three or four women had lunch together that it made all the men nervous because they thought we were, you know, planning, you know, midnight castration parties or something. I don't know why.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEINEM: And I think that's true. You know, it's so oddly threatening for a few women to be together. I do think that that's diminished a lot.

GROSS: One of the early sayings in the women's movement was the personal is political. And I wonder if that still has the same resonance for you now that it did in the late '60s.

STEINEM: It really does. I think in some ways, we're only - you know how you learn something intellectually before it gets to you emotionally sometimes? I think it's just getting to us emotionally now.

GROSS: How is it getting to you emotionally now?

STEINEM: Well, I guess - I mean, this may sound strange, but I'm just beginning to realize that I need to do some of the things that I have been saying should be done. In other words, I've been telling women, for instance - or trying to help women editorially - know how to manage their money, to save money. Have I done this up to now?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEINEM: No, absolutely not.


STEINEM: I mean, at no point have I had enough money to last more than a month or two, I don' think because I was just having a much better time giving it away. But also - which is, I think, a positive reason - but also just because I didn't feel comfortable exerting that kind of control over money. I hadn't internalized the message myself.

GROSS: Your grandmother was a suffragist and a delegate to a big international convention back in 1908. I wonder if that had any effect on you at all 'cause, I should point out, she's on your father's side. And I believe he left your mother and you when you were pretty young. So was there any feminist legacy passed on from her for the family?

STEINEM: No, there really wasn't. And I feel bad about that because - both because it caused my mother to lead a less strong life than she might have otherwise and because it caused me to waste a lot of time rediscovering the wheel but also because it means that our lessons of today can be forgotten, too.

My grandmother, after the vote was achieved, stopped being active in the way that many suffragists did - out of exhaustion, out of lack of self-respect, out of - you know, I don't know why. But she did. So by the time I was born, she was not active. And since she died when I was very little, I never knew really.

And my family kind of inadvertently concealed what she had been up to. I mean, they would tell me how she was a wonderful woman because she founded the first vocational high school in Toledo and she raised four sons and she kept a kosher table and so on (laughter). But they didn't tell me that she was this, you know, kind of raging feminist who marched in the streets and ran for the school board on a coalition ticket with the anarchists and the socialists. (Laughter) They sort of conveniently forgot that part.

GROSS: What - were they embarrassed by it?

STEINEM: I don't know. They - it wasn't conscious on their parts exactly. But it was - I think it just wasn't socially good to have done this. So they just - they didn't exactly conceal it, but they didn't talk about it. So it wasn't until a nice feminist in Toledo wrote a monograph about my grandmother and sent it to me that I had any idea of the scope of her activities.

GROSS: You said that this worried you in a way 'cause it meant that other families or other women can forget what happened before. Is that what you're afraid is happening in the, quote, "post-feminist period?"

GROSS: No, I don't think - I mean, that only began to happen after a century. And we're only, you know, 25 years or so into this, and it is not post-feminist. No matter what the New York Times says, it's just that young women - if the young women have a problem, it's only that they think there's no problem. And of course, they will, you know, get educated by the world and by, you know, what they meet in the labor force and when they have children and so on.

BIANCULLI: Author, editor and activist Gloria Steinem speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. After a break, we'll revisit another of their conversations, this one from 2015. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. With "The Glorias," a new movie based on the life of feminist activist Gloria Steinem, premiering next Wednesday on Amazon Prime, we're listening back to some of Terry's interviews with her. This one is from 2015, when Gloria Steinem's memoir "My Life On The Road," on which this new movie is based, was first published.


GROSS: Gloria Steinem, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to start by reading the dedication of your new book.

STEINEM: (Reading) This book is dedicated to Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a 22-year-old American on her way to India. Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, you must promise me two things - first, you will not tell anyone my name; second, you will do what you want to do with your life. Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death. I've done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that dedication to your new book.

When did you first speak about your abortion?

STEINEM: The amazing thing was that it took me so long. There was no women's movement. It was supposed to be a secret. Women didn't share in the same way. So it wasn't until many years later, after New York magazine had started. And I had gone to cover an abortion speak-out held in a church downtown in New York City. And suddenly, I heard other women standing up and talking about what it was like to have to go out and seek an illegal abortion. This was actually an alternate hearing to one that the New York state legislature was holding on the liberalization of abortion law in New York state. This was before the Supreme Court ruling.

And you know, a group of early feminists had just say - said, wait a minute. You know, in New York - in the legislature, they asked 14 men and one nun to testify. You can't make this up, right?


STEINEM: Let's hear from women who have actually had this experience. So I sat there as a reporter for New York magazine, listening to women tell their stories, you know, that were tragic and ludicrous and every human emotion all wrapped into one. And suddenly I thought, wait a minute. You know, I had an abortion, and actually, 1 in 3 American women had needed an abortion at some time in her life, so why is this illegal? And why is it dangerous? And it's the kind of revelation that comes from people just telling the truth and discovering you're not alone.

GROSS: So is this book, this dedication, the first time you mentioned the doctor's name who performed your illegal abortion in England?

STEINEM: It is the first time I mentioned his name.

GROSS: And why you decide - why did you decide it was OK now to mention his name?

STEINEM: Well, first of all, he was quite old at the time, so he clearly could no longer be alive, no matter what. Secondly, the laws have changed. Our understanding has - it just seemed to me that it was time to say thank you.

GROSS: Do you often wonder what your life would have been like had you not had the abortion and had you had a child at that age?

STEINEM: You know, it just - you know, I don't know what would have happened. I had been doing all the foolish things that we then did, like riding horseback, throwing ourselves down stairs (laughter), you know, all kinds of things in the hope that's...

GROSS: Well, let me stop you right there. Did you throw yourself down stairs?

STEINEM: Yeah, kind of. I did. I did. And, you know, I am the most cowardly (laughter) person you can imagine, so - physically speaking. But I did. I kept thinking that somehow, you know, I could - I don't know what I thought. I was desperate. I really was desperate because, you know, I just knew that if I went home and married, which I would have had to do, it would be to the wrong person. It would be to a life that wasn't mine, that wasn't mine at all.

GROSS: Did you hurt yourself throwing yourself down the stairs?

STEINEM: No. You know, you're quite resilient at 22.

GROSS: Right.

STEINEM: (Laughter) I didn't, no.

GROSS: You spent half of your life on the road. You're still on the road a lot. You grew up on the road. Let's talk a little bit about your very atypical childhood. Your mother was often incapacitated by depression. Can we call it depression?

STEINEM: You know, I don't know what to call it. I think her spirit was broken. You know, she, before I was born, had to give up everything she loved and cared about. And she was depressed. She got addicted to tranquilizers. You know, I don't think there was any - when I first wrote about her years ago, I was surprised that people would say to me, do you fear this was hereditary? And I was shocked. And I always said, only if patriarchy is hereditary, (laughter) you know, because I just think her spirit was broken.

GROSS: Your father, until you were 10, during the summer ran a dance pavilion that he created. Would you describe what your father did summers?

STEINEM: This was a little lake in southern Michigan called Clark Lake. He had built a kind of long, big pier with part of it covered, part of it uncovered over the lake. And on weekdays, there would be sort of canned music and a jukebox, and on weekends, a band. Then, the big bands of the '30s and '40s used to travel the country in the summertime in a bus (laughter). And so we would get some famous bands sometimes - Wayne King and Joe Venuti, I mean, names I don't know if people know anymore. And this was his dream. And he - you know, he created a kind of magical place.

GROSS: So what was it about being there or about being with your father that broke your mother's spirit?

STEINEM: It just wasn't hers. Well, let me describe what she had been doing (laughter) long before I was born. She was a pioneer newspaper reporter and journalist and, actually, editor, which was extraordinary. But it was an era in which she at first had to write under a man's name in order to get published. So, you know, she was a real pioneer, and she loved it. She adored it. At the same time, she was married to my father, a wonderful, kind, charming, utterly irresponsible man. So there were always money troubles and, you know, lots of difficulties. She had my sister, who is nine years older than me. And I think, you know, as she later explained, she'd fallen in love with a man at work and had grown up believing that you could not divorce, you could not change. She had a girlfriend who wanted to come to New York with her, where she could try her hand at being a journalist. You know, she had all these aspirations. She just couldn't make it work. She had a - what was then called a nervous breakdown, which meant she was in a sanatorium for a year or two. I'm not sure. And there, she got hooked on an early form of tranquilizer.

BIANCULLI: Gloria Steinem speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and I'll have a review of the new season of the FX series "Fargo." This year, the star is Chris Rock. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's 2015 interview with author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem. At the time of this interview, she had just published a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." Five years later, that memoir is the basis of a new movie directed by Julie Taymor called "The Glorias," which premieres next week on Amazon Prime.


GROSS: So getting back to this life that you had as a child, your mother's spirit was broken, was often hard for her to get out of bed. Your father created this, you know, like, wonderful dance-pavilion summer. But then when the summer was over, the family would move into a van and drive South and basically live - when I say van, I should say trailer, I suppose. And then the family would live in the trailer for the duration until the following summer.

You write that you never started out with enough money to complete the trip. Your father would buy antiques and then sell them to antique dealers. You know, buy them at country auctions and then sell them to antique dealers at higher prices to fund your trip south. How did you like being itinerant like that?

STEINEM: I suppose that two things happen at once when you're a child. One is that you just accept as normal whatever is around you. And the other is that you go to the movies, and you see kids or your classmates - because I would go to school till it got cold, to Halloween or something - who are living a different way. And you want to be like them. You want to be like the other kids. It never, for a moment, occurred to me that they might envy me. So I both accepted it and hoped that my real parents would come find me and take me to a house with a picket fence and a pony. I mean, that's the degree of realism and fantasy.

GROSS: So you weren't in school for those years that your family was on the road. How did you learn to read and do basic math?

STEINEM: Well, I'm not sure I've ever learned to do basic math, to be frank.


STEINEM: But I learned to read just because my family had lots and lots of books, especially my mother - you know, read all the time. My memory is that I learned how to read from ketchup bottles and labels and billboards along the highway. I don't know. I'm not sure. But I don't remember not knowing how to read.

GROSS: Was it legal for you to not be in school?

STEINEM: No. I'm sure it was illegal. And my mother always said that if the truant officer showed up, she would use her teaching certificate. The fact that it was for university calculus, which she had been...


STEINEM: ...Teaching in order to make money to finish college herself. I don't know how impressive it would have been. But anyway, no. But no truant officer ever showed up.

GROSS: How did your father's sense of money, that you could start this trip without having enough money to complete it and just kind of buy and sell things to fund the family - how did that affect your idea of money and the security that you need or don't need for money?

STEINEM: It felt insecure. However, I must say that, unlike a lot of kids, I always had enough to eat. I've always had shelter. I always had parents who loved me. So I had security in a lot of ways. But my father's philosophy was he didn't want to know what was going to happen tomorrow because, if he didn't know, it might be wonderful, as he said (laughter). So I have to say, it prepared me very well to be a freelance writer and...


STEINEM: ...Never to have a real salary.

GROSS: Your parents separated when you were 10 in 1944. And you had to take on a lot of responsibility for your mother at a young age. What were some of the things you had to do for her when you were still a child yourself?

STEINEM: Well, it depended on - you know, on the ups and downs of her moods. But I would make her meals or the child's idea of a meal. And I kind of always worried about what I would find when I came home from school, you know, because she might be really depressed. Or she might have retreated into another world. Or she might be convinced that a war was happening outside the house and be wandering around in the street. You know, talking to other people whose parents were, say, alcoholics and who also kind of didn't know what they would find when they came home has made me realize that it's not - I mean, it's hopefully uncommon. But it's certainly not unique, my experience.

GROSS: She was called the crazy lady of the neighborhood once you had a neighborhood. What was your reaction to that? And did it make you think of her differently than you did before?

STEINEM: No, I don't - it didn't make me think of her differently. She was someone - how can I say? I mean, she was a loving, wonderful woman who recited poetry by heart and was, you know, certainly super loving toward me. But sometimes she was just in another world. And I didn't know when that would happen.

GROSS: Are you still convinced that your mother was suffering from patriarchy as opposed to a mental illness of some sort? Bipolar, depression....

STEINEM: No, I am because later on after I was in college and, therefore, my sister - my older sister was taking care of her and discovered that she just couldn't do it and keep her job. So she found a very good mental hospital where my mother was for a couple of years, which should've happened probably long before. And I asked the doctors there - the very expert doctors there - what was wrong. And they said she had an anxiety neurosis. And I said, would you say her spirit was broken? And they said yes, you know? I mean, she - I don't think there was anything organically wrong. She did get hooked on tranquilizers. And that became part of the problem, not the solution.

GROSS: During the 10 years that your family was on the road, did you have any friends?

STEINEM: I had a couple of very good girlfriends in the summer. And, you know, one was the daughter of a farm family. And I used to go to her house. And another was in a nearby small town. So I had always had a couple of good girlfriends. When we were on the road, I would make friends with other kids in the trailer parks along the way.

GROSS: What was it like when you started school after you were 10, having not been in school before, whereas all the other kids in school had been in school before?

STEINEM: I had been somewhat in school because I would go until it got cold, (laughter) you know? So I'd been - every year, I'd been a couple of months in school. I kind of knew what school was. But when I went for my first year, I discovered, A, I didn't know how to do long division. I didn't know the multiplication tables. Although I'd been in many states, I had no idea what the map looked like. It was a big deficit I'm not sure I've ever made up for.

But I had a huge vocabulary because I'd been reading all the time - grown-up books, kids' books, everything. And I soon learned two things - one, that that could compensate in a lot of ways and get me through school. And the other was that I shouldn't indulge in this enormous vocabulary too much because it was - seemed strange to the other kids.

BIANCULLI: Gloria Steinem speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2015 conversation with feminist icon Gloria Steinem.


GROSS: Do you remember the moment when you first realized women's rights was a legitimate issue along with all the other rights that you were interested in fighting for?

STEINEM: You know, the amazing thing is (laughter) how long it took me, actually. I mean, there was no - at least to me, there was no visible women's movement. So I thought I just had to function within the system as it was. And I identified with everybody else who was having a hard time. I think women often do that without knowing that it applied to us, too. But I owe it to the women who held that hearing on abortion, for instance, or, you know, who had been inside the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement and even in those movements that we utterly loved, still were not treated equally and so had understood that there needed to be an additional women's movement.

GROSS: How did it redefine you to know that as somebody at the forefront of the women's movement, you were going to be an example of what you were fighting for and that the choices that you made were going to be public choices?

STEINEM: I didn't really think about that because it seemed to me - was - the whole idea was the ability to make our own choices. So I never felt that I had to behave in a certain way that was subject to outside dictates. I thought the whole point was that we were able to use our own talents and do what we wanted. So I didn't feel inhibited by it in any way.

GROSS: Because you spent half of your life on the road, you've had a very ambivalent relationship to home. You write that it took you a really long time to create a comfortable home for yourself, in part because you were on the road all the time. And you grew up on the road until you were 10. At what point in your life did you create a home that was truly a comfortable place - more of a nest - (laughter) that was a good place to return to?

STEINEM: Really only after 50. I had buried in my head this idea that you only made a home for husband and children. I didn't see a lot of women making a permanent home for themselves. I didn't think that way. And also, I was on the road, so I was always in - living out of suitcases and cardboard boxes when I was at home. And even though I now, to this day, live in the same apartment that I did then, it was more like a storage place (laughter) than an apartment.

It was only after I was 50 that, thanks to dear friends who came and helped me to unpack my cardboard boxes and another friend who explained to me how to make beautiful colors on the wall and took me around to auction places to buy things that I loved - she said, only buy what you fall in love with because if the same person falls in love with all these things, they'll fit together. Don't worry about it. I remember going out with her to buy antique sheets. It was orgasmic, practically...


STEINEM: ...The pleasure of buying antique sheets (laughter). And so I began to make a home - a nest - for myself. And I take such pleasure in it. I think, in general, as a culture, we tend to think there are two choices - settling down or traveling. And actually, you need both. You need a nest - birds need a nest. And they still fly, you know? So it took me a while - that it wasn't either. Or it was both.

GROSS: I interviewed you several times on FRESH AIR in the past. And I want to play an excerpt of our interview from 1992. So this was 23 years ago.

STEINEM: Oh, that's shocking.

GROSS: Right?

STEINEM: (Laughter).

GROSS: And one of the things we talked about was you were looking back on having had a lumpectomy - breast cancer - and how that affected you. So I want to play what you said about that. So, again, this is from 1992 - Gloria Steinem looking back on having that lumpectomy and how it affected her life.


STEINEM: It made me realize several things. One was - this may sound strange if I try to say it short - but that, actually, I wasn't - I was less afraid of dying than of aging - or not of aging, exactly. I didn't know how to enter the last third of life because there were so few role models, because when I first heard this diagnosis, first, I thought, ironically, oh, so that's how it's going to end, you know? And then I thought to myself, as if it was welling up from the deepest part of me, I've had a wonderful life. And I treasure that moment. You know, it meant a lot to me.

But on the other hand, it also made me realize that in this culture, women - we know how to be in the central plateau of life. And I'd been there a terrifically long time because I'd become a grown-up too early because - my mother being an invalid. So from about 10 to 52 or so, I'd been in this central plateau. Now I was entering a whole new place. It was like falling off a cliff because I couldn't see enough people ahead of me.

You know, in the last two or three years of really - how shall I say? - of kind of paying more attention to my own inner life, I've realized that this aging in the last third of life or whatever is a new country. I now actually feel excited about it because you - as Carolyn Heilbrun has pointed out so brilliantly in writing "A Woman's Life," women become ourselves after 50. You know, we leave behind this female impersonator role and drop a lot of baggage and really become much more our true selves.

GROSS: You know what I find particularly interesting about hearing you thinking about the latter part of your life is that I think for a lot of women, it's the end of your life where you're supposed to be punished for the freedoms that you've taken during the first parts of your life. You know, like, if you've decided to be independent or, you know, not be married or not have children or something, you're punished for that in the end because you're supposed to look forward to an old age where you're lonely, you're alone, there's no one to be with, no one to take care of you. I mean, I think that's been really instilled in all of us.

STEINEM: Yes. It's sort of the secular version of hell, I think.


STEINEM: And like the religious version of hell, it has nothing to do with real life.

GROSS: OK. That was Gloria Steinem on FRESH AIR in 1992. And I just did the math, and I think you were 58 when that was recorded. So now...

STEINEM: Thank you for playing that because it's fascinating to listen to your earlier self. Thank you (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. So does what you said then still ring true?

STEINEM: Yes, it does. And I realized that - I realize more now that I'm past that stage, that 50 was a very difficult birthday because it was the end of the central years of life. But 60, which I was just entering when I was speaking then, was like entering, as I was saying, a new country. And that means that all the demands of gender that spread from something like 12 to something like 50 and are something of a prison - sometimes - are gone, and suddenly you're free.

Here's my comparison now. Remember when you were 9 or 10 and you were this independent little girl climbing trees and saying, I know what I want, I know what I think and so on? That was before gender descended for most of us, as Carol Gilligan has pointed out in her work. After 50, you've theoretically, according to society, had kids, raised them. So your gender role is over. And ironically, I found by 60, you're free again. So you're the same person you were at 9 or 10, only now you have your own apartment. You can reach the light switch. You know? (Laughter). You hopefully have a little money so that you can, you know, do what you want. There is, as I was saying then, a whole different country after 60.

GROSS: But you were never tied to those gender roles anyways. You didn't need to be...

STEINEM: We're all tied to those gender roles. I mean, I don't think they're escapable.

GROSS: But it's not like you had the children who are now out of the house, so now, like, you have more independence.

STEINEM: That's true. No, that's true. It wasn't tied to the lifecycle of a child, but it was tied to hormones and sexuality and affairs and how you looked. And none of us escapes this completely, nor should we escape it necessarily.

GROSS: What does being in your 80s symbolize to you now? You told us a little bit about what 50 and 60 symbolizes.

STEINEM: Shock, total shock.


GROSS: Shock in what sense?

STEINEM: I stop people on the street and tell them how old I am because I'm trying to make myself believe it. I mean, 81 is an age that I think is someone else's age. You know, it's quite bizarre. And part of it is I think because we don't have role models of people going ahead of us. I don't have very few role models of women my age who are doing what I'm doing. And, in fact, the people I work with every day and love and, you know, are my current chosen family in terms of numbers are probably, I don't know, at least 40 years younger than I am. And even my friends from Ms. and so on are at least 10 years younger than I am.

GROSS: Gloria Steinem, it has been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

STEINEM: Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Gloria Steinem speaking to Terry Gross in 2015, when her memoir "My Life On The Road" had just been published. Next Wednesday, Amazon Prime Video presents "The Glorias," a new movie based on that memoir. Coming up, I review the new season of the FX anthology miniseries "Fargo," which premieres Sunday and stars Chris Rock. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.