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Gloria Steinem: ‘I’ve never seen this much activism in my life’

October 26, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

In the new documentary Not Done, filmmakers follow nearly every protest movement and fight for justice of the past half-decade, from the first Women’s March on Washington in 2017 to the Black Lives Matter movement to the founding of the anti–sexual harassment organization Time’s Up.

The work of the one-hour film, premiering on PBS on Tuesday night and later streaming via the media brand Makers, is to find the thread that connects these movements and show just how deeply they are intertwined. If there’s anyone who can follow that thread back even further into our past, it’s Gloria Steinem.

The activist and author appears in the film as one of several figures providing context for the growth of activism in the Trump era—and the central conceit that this work is, as the Nov. 3 election approaches, “not done.” “I’ve never seen this much activism in my life,” 86-year-old Steinem says on-screen.

Steinem spoke to Fortune about this surge in activism and the issues that she sees as the most urgent right now—from the potential confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to the presidential election. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: So much of your career has been about organizing and work that traditionally takes place in person. What have you made of how organizers have had to adapt during this time, whether by organizing virtually, or organizing with safety precautions, as we saw with this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests?

Safety precautions are obviously the single most important thing, but because we live in the age of Zoom, it is possible to organize in a way that would not have previously been possible. When I began, the mimeograph machine was kind of the height of technology. We are learning to innovate and invent. And I’m proud of the people who get out and march.

COVID is teaching us that we are all human—COVID doesn’t recognize class, sex, race. So why should we? It doesn’t recognize national boundaries. So why should we?

So much of this documentary, Not Done, connects the threads of the past half-decade or so, drawing these lines between the Women’s March, the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo, and up through events as recent as the speech that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave on the House floor. If you were to trace that thread a little further back, looking at your career and life experience over the past several decades, how would you extend that line?

I could carry the thread back further—like to the students at Cornell University who coined “sexual harassment” as a phrase to describe what was happening to them on summer jobs. We at Ms. Magazine then did a cover story about sexual harassment, which caused us to be put off the newsstands in supermarkets because it was too controversial. Then sexual harassment was written into sex discrimination law. And then there were two cases brought because of sexual harassment as sex discrimination by two Black women. And those cases were won. Given where I started, I just see the thread starting a little earlier, but it’s the same thread.

Looking at the events and movements covered by the documentary, which stood out to you as the ones that most directly continued that thread?

Well, I think the entire #MeToo movement has brought the issue of sexual harassment into the public sphere. What started with the coining of the phrase sexual harassment has now become a huge global movement. And this is important because it’s saying, basically, that women’s bodies belong to ourselves. And that is revolutionary, because we are the means of reproduction. And there has always been an effort to control reproduction and, therefore, to control women’s bodies. So to simply make that statement, that we are autonomous human beings and we get to decide what happens to our bodies, has huge implications. It actually is the beginning of a deep democracy, not just a superficial one.

In the documentary, Time’s Up cofounder Robbie Kaplan compares the original meetings a few years ago to form the organization to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s. What did you make of that comparison and have any recent events brought to mind similar parallels for you?

Consciousness-raising meetings seemed to me a little more fundamental, because we were discovering that we were adult human beings, that we did not have to play limited roles, limited domestic roles, and so on. We already know that, but it is certainly, as she said, a continuation of that, understanding that we have a right over our own bodies and to name practices that have been going on forever.

In the documentary, you say that you’ve never seen this much activism in your life. By what margin—and how—is this activism different from what we saw in earlier eras?

In earlier eras, it was more seen as peculiar to a particular movement. And now I think we are understanding that the movements are all connected. And that is very helpful, because otherwise we see people in silos, that you’re dealing only with issues of race or only with issues of sex. Now the demonstrations that would have been isolated are now participated in by a much broader range of people and are continuous.

What has been going through your mind as you’ve watched the recent confirmation process for Amy Coney Barrett and the Supreme Court?

It is really, really discouraging to see the power of a President who is fundamentally unelected—he lost the popular vote by 3 million. He’s only there because of the accident of the electoral college. Because he is accidentally there, then he is putting on the court someone who does not represent the majority opinion of Americans and certainly not women.

This is a tragedy, because in the end, it will create disrespect for the court. As Martin Luther King said, if the rulings of the court are not just, we have a duty to disobey them—and we will simply disobey the court. The court has not been with us for most of my life, but it had become more with us. And it’s a tragedy to see it regress.

In the context of reproductive rights, what does the idea of disobeying unjust laws mean—when it’s often about the safety or danger of legal or illegal abortion?

Well, even when abortion was illegal, one in three American woman had had an abortion at some time in her life, but with much more risk. Now, it’s one in four with much less risk. But nothing is going to keep women from trying to control our own bodies, because it’s too fundamental.

But the tragedy is that, especially for women with little access to services in their state, inability to travel to another state where the services are better, it’s going to mean a lot of suffering. And it’s going to mean that we as a women’s movement, will have to be organized to offer women in one state transport to another state, for instance, where they’re able to exercise their rights.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, how do you expect abortion access to compare with the mid–20th century, before Roe v. Wade was decided? Will things be similar, or has enough changed that abortion not being legal on a national level won’t have the same effects?

All physicians never obeyed the laws of the past. I suspect that fewer will obey laws now, because we have become accustomed to practicing medical norms. There were always doctors who would disobey the law. I think now there are going to be many more.

What is at stake in your view in this election nationwide?

Well, pretty much everything. It’s hard to think of an issue that is not at stake. We have an accidental President, who is there only because of the archaic electoral college. He’s been enormously destructive, as destructive as he possibly could be. And we are seeing whether our system will hold, which I think it will, regardless of the efforts of the person at the top.

But I hope in some sense, this will have been useful, because in a way, Trump has shown us at a high level everything that’s wrong with the country. He has dramatically shown us the problems of sexism and racism, and favoring the rich over the poor. I hope the education, though painful, will be used in the future.

What does Sen. Kamala Harris’s presence on the Democratic ticket mean to you?

We’ve been leading up to this. To see at a high level, it does make a difference. It made a difference for us to see Obama as the honored President of the United States; it will make a difference to see Kamala Harris as the honored Vice President, having broken the boundaries of both gender and race. This changes consciousness and makes true democracy possible.

What does that phrase “not done” mean to you?

What it means to me is—are you kidding me? We are so not done. I can’t even contemplate the word “done.” Do women have control over their own bodies? On the question of giving birth, or just on the question of physical safety? Do we have the same safety as men do? And that’s very fundamental. Are we represented at every level of government?

Who in younger generations makes you feel optimistic about the direction that we’re heading in?

I feel so happy and relieved when I see the number and diversity and energy of young women who are just saying, “Wait a minute, this isn’t fair. I’m not taking it. I’m going to do something about it.” I always feel I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born. I’m so glad to see them. And they are going forward with an imagination and an energy that I could not have created.

Sometimes we get a case of the “shoulds”—what should I do? Instead of just getting up every morning and saying, “I’m going to do everything I can. Whatever that is, however small or large it is, I’m going to see every act I take as a platform for change.”