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May 26, 2016

Gloria Steinem’s ideas are feminism’s Paleo diet

Steinem has nothing to say that has not already been amply said and she offers no program for genuine social re-organisation.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Gloria Steinem, who recently appeared at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, is a noble person. Particularly if considered in relation to say, I don’t know, me. She has endured 35 more years and one more marriage than I have, but she gives her days to battle with legislators, despots, television hosts and assorted other monsters, all for the common good.

I give my days to battle with internet comments and Words With Friends. There can be no crumb of doubt that this “hopeless hopeaholic, always on the move” is morally better than most — and me, in particular. There’s a little doubt, though, that she has much that is surprising to say.

But, like many people who say nothing surprising, Steinem now plays very well to packed houses. With Malcolm Gladwell, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Sam Harris, she interrogates the obvious to an audience eager to have its biases extrapolated and reconfirmed.

There’s a real knack to success in the Inspiration Industry of the present: repackage old and meek ideas in a novel and courageous tone. Just as Harris finds apparently new and bold ways to defend the Western revulsion for Islam, or just as life coach Tony Robbins once so powerfully justified entrepreneurial greed, Steinem rebrands essentialism. There is a way of doing things, says Steinem the lay anthropologist, which we can see in the “original cultures”.

Sheesh. This stuff isn’t really too removed from the idea of the “noble savage”. Valourising small-scale social organisation (“Oh. These peoples are so wise and mystical!”) is really just as bad as demonising it and, besides which, how the eff you upsize the Trobriand Island gift economy, or whatever it is she’s suggesting, to a world of 7 billion is unclear. Still. People love this get-back-to-the-real-and-honest-way-of-doing-things conservatism, particularly when it’s offered up as “revolution”.

That Steinem has been active and selfless in her commitment to her project of gender equality is not a matter for argument. That she is working in a worthwhile intellectual tradition really is. Her thinking is a bit like feminism’s Paleo diet with a side order of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and she is given to pronouncements about an imagined prehistory full of strong, self-actualised women who had full control of their reproduction and access to herbal abortifacients galore.

“Some original cultures have no word for he or she,” she says, failing to name those noble and “original” cultures, just like I did when I said the same shit at university before my gender studies teacher told me to go to the library and stop banging on like a hippie.

On a recent visit to Australia, Steinem was feted as an inspiring intellectual. As I am not a hopeless hopeaholic, I don’t know if it’s possible to be both inspiring and intellectual. But let’s pretend for a minute that the very best of Western thought has always led us to happiness instead of deep despair and consider what she is saying.

Steinem urges a dialogic project for feminism. In her most recent book, My Life On The Road, and in her public presentations, she says it is just as important to listen as it is to talk. This is a nice and instructive guidance and one that an arsehole like me would do very well to heed, but there is no evidence that Steinem has herself “listened” to any of the central feminist arguments of the past 40 years. She has, however, listened to hocus-pocus neuroscience and some of the most dubious herstorians of ’70s feminism, such as Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich.

There’s a lot of quasi-historical and pseudo-scientific stuff about the need to get back to, if not nature, then these “original cultures”, which, apparently, give away free herbal abortions and never have a word for “he” or “she”. Allegedly. She also says some weird Malthusian stuff about how the feminine lack of birth control led to over-population in the global south and therefore to racism and environmental catastrophe. This is a catastrophic argument that few seem inclined to contradict. Because she’s so inspiring!

Steinem, who has long criticised feminist academics for being inaccessible, has never been much one for facts and fancy book-learning. Why bother researching glorious ancient matriarchy when you can just say it is a thing that definitely happened and have, as was the recent case in Australia, uncritical media call you an icon in any case?

Again, this is not to underplay Steinem’s real-world achievements — one of which is not her quite recent snafu in which she publicly dismissed young female supporters of Bernie Sanders. “These women are — well, you’re not very political when you’re young, and the boys like Bernie, and the girls go where the boys are,” is what she said. On TV. With her actual mouth. (It’s worth re-reading Guy Rundle’s shock at her claim that these little strumpets were really just out to get a New Deal boyfriend, just for the fun.)

Still. She started a significant magazine, campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and urged her many fans to read that important work of feminist theory Lean In. What, after all, is equality if it does not lead a very small number of women to helm enormous corporations that dodge their tax and spread the ideological venom of Silicon Valley?

Steinem has nothing to say that has not already been amply said. She offers no program for genuine social re-organisation and, despite the fact that she seems a very decent person who is genuinely engaged in a trans-national and cross-cultural dialogue with many women — so long as they’re not too fancy — she gives us nothing. Just the sense of an exciting something. And this sensation of newness without any of the bother of actual newness is what feeds the present day Inspiration Industry.

For much of yesterday, I watched similar industrial inspiration unfold at TEDx Sydney. Here again, I compare unfavourably to the participants. Many of them spoke more freely and persuasively than I do, and all of them were plainly better people than I am. But nearly all of them were “hopeless hopeaholics” who see nothing but a bright future, even when they exhume the oldest ideas to describe it.

“Hack” the planet. Trust your instinct. Know that people are basically good.

This is inspiring stuff, if you’re a hopeless hopeaholic like Steinem. If you’re a pessimist, though, it just seems like palliative care for the planet.

The Inspiration Industry is a mug of warm morphine rebranded with a Fair Trade logo. It thanks its sponsors and offers us a bedtime fiction of inspiring individuals who can save the world with inspiring ingenuity. Then, we sleep forever!

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7 thoughts on “Gloria Steinem’s ideas are feminism’s Paleo diet

  1. Carlene Colahan

    I am very unhappy about how the Crikey email described this article as Helen Razer vs Gloria Steinem. It is not only click bait, which is very annoying, but it ironically also misses the entire point about the inability of the individual to change the world, regardless of how many inspiring talks they attend.

    1. Carlene Colahan

      The email is annoying I mean not the article which I think is excellent. Gosh I am a grumpy old woman – watch out Gloria I’m coming for you and I am not at all inspiring!

  2. Dog's Breakfast

    Hi Helen, for what it’s worth, I’m feeling this lethargy about it all, but that may be just as much my seasonal affective disorder (not a disorder at all, just a natural event as winter approaches).

    I’m not sure what the world would be like without the romantics, but there is a sneaking suspicion we might get off our arses and do something about the state of the world if they weren’t around. That worries me, to the extent that I could give a toss.

  3. AR

    MzRaz again flinging her toys out of the pram then whining about not having nuttin to play with.
    As usual, using hundreds of words to say SFA.

  4. JackieC

    Elizabeth Grosz was your gender studies teacher? Now I understand, (in a good way).

    1. Helen Razer

      Ha ha. Yes. She tore our tiny minds apart and replaced them with questions, Jackie.

  5. Geoffrey Heard

    Good stuff, Helen. I live in the midst of a number of “original cultures” in Rabaul, New Guinea, and I am here to tell you and anyone who wants to listen that while they have a lot to recommend them, there is also a lot of very challenging stuff that outsiders don’t know about. If they knew the half of it they would rush screaming back to their suburban sanctuaries. The best single book on “original cultures” I have ever read is Ruth Benedict’s 1934 slim volume, “Patterns of Culture”. You can still get it from Amazon. The great thing is that Benedict lets the cultures speak for themselves: a culture of generosity and cooperation on one island, a culture of paranoia, spitefulness, and bitterness on the next only a few kms away. As you say, this “original cultures” stuff is the cultural paleo diet. Get busy and solve today’s problems with the tools you’ve got. And that includes doing stuff like the USA funding REAL birth control projects in the 3rd world instead of listening to its bible bashing dick whistles who think a woman is so bloody lucky to be raped she should give birth to a rape child and go out searching for another one (or perhaps six, I mean, they are totally convinced it is all the woman’s fault. Shit, she grew her boobs, didn’t she, and only had them covered by a shapeless school tunic?!) on a regular basis. And she should dedicate the next 20+ years of her life to raising the child as a reviled single parent who went looking for it. All while making no call on the rapist or society in general, of course.
    Cheers, Geoff

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