Gloria Steinem Lectures at East Carolina

Editor’s Note: Anthony Papalas is professor emeritus of history at East Carolina University. His specialty is ancient Greece and Rome.       

Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon of the 1970s, delivered a lecture entitled  “Reflection on Feminism” on Nov. 6 to a packed audience of about 1,300 in Wright Auditorium at East Carolina University. Now 75, the pioneer feminist, who sees allies in the gay rights and black rights movements, charmed an audience mainly of women. She graciously granted “honorary women” status to the males in attendance.

To give an accurate summary of Steinem’s lecture is not easy, for it careened like a cue ball around a billiard table. She began by admitting that women have made substantial gains in society, but then added that we aren’t in a “post-feminism” age because there is much to be done in areas of national health care and paid family leave. To Steinem, feminism demands more expansions of government power.

Then she argued that Rush Limbaugh and a growing army of armed right-wingers threaten to inaugurate a new McCarthy era and set back decades of progress.

“How did we get into this jam?” Steinem rhetorically asked.  Capitalism (or “patriarchy”– she uses the terms interchangeably) is at fault. It was capitalism that saddled women with a second-class status, she declared. Sometime around 5,000 or 500 years ago (she tended to be vague about dates) a patriarchal society emerged, taking control of women, enforcing its authority through violence, and propagating the myths that men are superior to women and that god is a blond, blue-eyed male. The state needed to control production for soldiers and workers and thus women fell completely under the control of a male hierarchy. To illustrate her point, Steinem noted that the first thing Hitler did when the Nazis took over Germany was to make abortion a crime against the state.

Perhaps there were some students and townspeople in attendance who knew how ridiculous those assertions are. Capitalism is a comparatively recent economic development that works on voluntary exchange, not violence. Living conditions for women (and men and children) began to improve only after capitalism had replaced feudal customs. That was also when the law began to recognize women’s rights. And as for the Nazis, is Steinem not aware that the name means “National Socialist” and that Hitler was completely opposed to liberty that is at the core of a democratic-capitalistic society?

Steinem’s views on how the patriarchal system developed were reinforced on a cruise she took on the Nile from Nubia to Cairo. As the ship progressed north, she had an epiphany. “You can see it. You can see it,” she proclaimed. What did she shrewdly observe?  At the start of the trip, there were in the temples depictions of men, women, snakes, and flowersall together.  God, gender and nature were united. But as the ship progressed further north “about a millennium later,” she detected women and nature disappearing from the art, and finally at Cairo only the pharaoh was a legitimate subject for artists.  

Evidently, Steinem believes that those observations help prove her point about the evils of capitalism. But cultural differences among the people living along the Nile thousands of years ago—long before there was any idea of individual liberty and only a limited concept of private property—tell us nothing about capitalism.

Besides that, in Egypt Steinem got her chronology backwards. What she probably saw in Nubia dates from the Kush dynasty, 8th century, the end of Pharonic Egypt.  And women and nature never disappear from Egyptian art.  In fact, women played important roles throughout ancient Egypt.  As she sailed north she failed to note the magnificent statues of Queen Nefetari who shared power with her husband, the Pharaoh Ramses II.  She might also have noted the temple of the Queen Pharaoh Hatshepsut who built her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahari–an architectural achievement that surpasses the pyramids. Egyptian religion did not eliminate the feminine element. The goddess Isis was the most important Egyptian divinity. The worship of Isis survived well into the Roman Empire and it competed with Christianity for religious dominance of the Mediterranean world.

Steinem claimed more evidence for her theory in the history of languages, which she states were  gender- free in their first stages. Why should tables and chairs and such things be designated as either female or male?  Her implication was that here again we can see the hand of the patriarchal society shaping language to control women. That argument also runs into trouble. Early languages, contrary to Steinem’s claim, did acknowledge male and female in various ways. In fact, English retained grammatical gender through the late middle ages and dropped it about the time she says patriarchy was taking over. 

Despite the rapid growth of the frightening “right wing,” Steinem said she is hopeful about the future because in about ten years, the European majority in America will be replaced by people descended from Africa, South America, and Asia.

Her implication that non-European cultures are more congenial to women and gays flies in the face of recent events. Here are just a few items. The Ugandan government has made it illegal for women to wear short skirts and has criminalized homosexuality. Ugandans run the risk of a three-year jail sentence for not reporting gay acquaintances. Although Nigeria signed the 1985 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, husbands in the northern part of the country routinely deny women access to doctors and contraceptive devices. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive cars and must submit to punishment, even decapitation, for sexual deviance.  According to Amnesty International, 80 percent of Afghan women have been forced into unwanted marriages.  In Taliban-controlled areas, women over eight years old cannot pursue an education, and public floggings are meted out for those who do not adhere to a strict dress code. Indian police report that about 2,500 women are either murdered or driven to suicide annually by their husbands who want their dowry.   Thus Steinem’s notion that social progress will be unleashed and women will be better off once America becomes dominated by people who are not descended from Europeans is both ludicrous and offensive.

Lastly, we should not worry about Islam because Mohammed was a “reformer” and there are many Muslim feminists, Steinem said. That comment simply leaves one speechless.

For peddling this pathetic blather, which was about as rational and fact-based as astrology, East Carolina paid Steinem $10,000.

When universities bring in guest lecturers, they ought to be scholars who can enlighten rather than mislead gullible students.  Gloria Steinem is not a thinker but a propagandist and her talk was full of falsehoods and bad logic. ECU officials should try not to waste money and students’ time like that again.