I happened to see internationally known feminist and writer Gloria Steinem being interviewed on one of the late-night talk shows recently. She’s been making the rounds to promote her latest book.
Hearing her speak jogged my memory that I had covered a speech Steinem made in the rural community of Park Rapids, Minnesota, about 40 years ago when I was a cub reporter for the Detroit Lakes newspaper. I wondered what she had talked about so many years ago and how that message would resonate with what’s happening today in terms of equal rights for women. (For all of the vilification that’s gone on through the decades of feminism and the feminist movement, the definition of a feminist is simply someone who supports equal rights for women). So I dug through boxes of old newspaper clippings and finally found my article.
I was amazed to read in my long-ago story that she’d drawn a crowd of 500 people at a Methodist church in Park Rapids; it was the first stop of Steinem’s statewide tour. My newspaper clipping doesn’t have a date, but it had to be in 1979 or ’80. I don’t remember that big of a crowd, but then I was hyper-focused on covering a very famous person and also photographing her at the event.
When I read my summary of her speech, I was astounded at how her observations still hold up today. Steinem told the crowd there was a curiosity in urban areas as to why a feminist would tour a rural area.
“I think there is a false assumption that people in small communities feel differently than those in urban areas,” she told the crowd. “There is also a feeling that these areas are more conservative.
“I’m not sure what those labels mean anymore — left, right, conservative, liberal,” Steinem said. She said one woman had told her she’d been married to one conservative man and one liberal man, but neither had ever carried out the garbage. Fast-forward 40 years and we’re still hugely divided over those labels.
The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Steinem also talked about the dynamics of farm women in rural communities, how they are “part of the economy and have had a sort of independence of necessity.” I believe that’s historically true. I saw my own mother work as an equal partner alongside my father on our dairy farm. She handled the finances, took the lead in raising four children, and even though it seemed subservient to cook and clean and put meals on the table every day, my mother did so with an air of independence that she instilled in me.
In fact, I come from a long line of independent women who were, I believe, feminists at heart, starting with my maternal great-grandmother who emigrated from Sweden to America with her two sisters in the late 1800s. Just think about that: three women traveling by themselves to a world unknown, in search of better lives and equal footing with men.
My maternal grandmother kept the farm going after her husband died when my mother was just 13. She advocated for education and careers for her daughters.
For the past 15 years I’ve been involved with Soroptimist International, an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of women and girls. This organization does important work around the world to create opportunities for women.
Steinem, of course, also talked about reproductive freedom 40 years ago, a hot-button issue still today. She also talked about women’s rights being political, and boy, isn’t that still the truth. “We see that one kind of person owns the field and another type works in them, and we know that is politics,” she told her audience back then. “Even in homes where both the husband and wife work, the woman is often more responsible for the household than the man. He has one job and she has two, and that is politics. Doing the dishes, is, in fact, a very basic indication of where power lies.”
How much has changed for women’s rights in 40 years? On some levels, it seems like a lot; on others not so much. But at my house, we both do the dishes.
News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or email@example.com.