Watching Gloria Steinem: A small and powerful gathering

By Christine O'Connor

Categories: General, Women's Voices,

On the evening of August 15, two women who had served on the board of Hedgebrook some years ago joined me to watch the HBO documentary “Gloria: In Her Own Words.” Amy’s wife Kate Buzard had invented a cocktail for the occasion, the “Bra Burner.” As I prepared some appetizers for the cocktail party, I told my teen daughters about Gloria and the cocktail, getting blank looks both times.

The two women who joined me were professional women in the workforce during the height of Gloria’s career, while I was still in college; they whooped in recognition of the news footage in the documentary and recounted their own stories of unequal pay, exclusion and other encounters with ‘60’s-era misogyny.

And then, of course, we had to talk about “Mad Men” and marvel at what progress had been made and what had yet to be dealt with.

Nursing a final “Bra Burner” after my guests had gone home, I had a flashback to a time in college when I wore blue aviator sunglasses both day and night; I found myself smiling at my sophomore self, wondering if I was imitating Gloria’s signature look.

And then a story from my senior year at Wellesley suddenly came into sharp focus. It was 1972, when the country was in an apocalyptic and revolutionary mood, and my classmates and I were about to launch our adult lives. A young woman whom I didn’t know very well had come to my room and was addressing a gathering of us about an interview she’d had at medical school that morning. She told us that she had been asked if she would be a competent doctor when she was menstruating; we reacted with outrage at the question and speculated about dozens of factors that would influence a male doctor’s competence equally, if not more.

What struck me about this story all these years later was to note with relief and delight that every woman in that small dorm room knew that our classmate had been treated unfairly. There were many generations of women who would have accepted that question as correct, as accurate, as the truth about a woman’s life. We knew the reality of a woman’s life to be different: we were completely confident that the interview question was unfair, ridiculous, and an example of something that we were to fight. (My classmate did go to medical school and is still a practicing pediatrician.)

I then found myself asking myself what fights had I prevailed in – I’d worked at IBM in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s when there were very few women in the organization – and which had I abandoned? I completed a Masters of Divinity degree a few years ago; unfortunately, misogyny still creates very effective barriers to women who seek the pulpit and I saw many classmates give up on their gifts of as preachers and pastoral leaders for lack of a position to which to bring those gifts. It sounds so very sensible to say that one couldn’t possibly reform the Catholic Church, for example, and yet it is only single individuals, often women, who have done so.

On April 29, 2000, a group of women theologians published the “Madeleva Manifesto”, denouncing institutionalized misogyny in the Catholic Church, as well as other denominations. They signed it on the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena, a lay woman and effective church reformer, who is now a Doctor of the Church. Many of these women, all fine scholars, have been silenced.

As I noted and questioned the depth of my resignation about this, I fancied I heard Gloria channeling Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca”, saying “Welcome back to the fight! I know our side will win.”

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