In the 55 years since Gloria Steinem became the face of the feminist movement, the sociopolitical activist and famed journalist has shared endless bits of quotable wisdom on women’s rights, revolutions, and taking on the patriarchy. At the 2017 D.C. Women’s March, protesters painted her oft-used phrase “A movement is only people moving” on signs. In 2013, former president Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for awakening “a vast and often skeptical public” to women’s issues. She’s even permeated pop culture: listen closely to Jennifer Lopez’s 2016 song “Ain’t Your Mama,” and you’ll hear a sample of her famous 1971 “Address to the Women of America.”
Some of Steinem’s best quotes, ranging from the insightful (“Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning”) to the practical (“If they call you a bitch, say thank you!”), are compiled in a new illustrated book called The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! (also, a Steinem quote) out today from Random House.
Earlier this month, she invited me over to her three story townhouse in Manhattan, which she calls “Hotel Gloria” for the stream of famous feminist guests who crash in the spare bedroom, most recently Ashley Judd and Catharine MacKinnon. In her living room, we chatted about the power of a good one-liner, why laughter is the best medicine to quell your rage, and what she thinks of climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! is a collection of your best quotes. But have you ever been misquoted?
Of course. There’s things I’ll see online that I’m pretty sure I never said, though I can’t be positive. There was one, “A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after,” and I don’t think I would ever say that.
How do you get your daily news?
I confess, not from Fox News.
[Laughs] Fox News makes me totally crazy. I have little televisions in the bathrooms, so I watch the news while I’m getting dressed. I watch NY1, which has local news, and I watch MSNBC. I look at The New York Times online and The Guardian. On Sunday, I still prefer to get The New York Times in print. I read Ms. magazine, of course. I’m also attracted by good [magazine] cover lines, that’s something I really loved to do [when I was at Ms.].
Cover line writing is an art.
It is an art! It’s similar to coming up with a great quote, which is why I love it. I like trying to make something interesting short. It can be very powerful when it’s concise. That’s why editorial meetings are my idea of heaven.
Is there an activist you admire making headlines right now?
Greta Thunberg. It’s like the universe is speaking through her. What’s remarkable, especially for her age, is that I don’t think she’s self-conscious at all. She’s not worried about how she sounds or how she looks, or what people think, she’s just carrying this message. I didn’t get the chance to meet her when she was recently in New York, but if I could meet her, I would have one thing to say: How can I help?
How do you feel about fellow climate campaigner Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a millennial changemaker?
She’s a great spokeswoman for the Green New Deal. It’s kind of a miracle that she’s so thoughtful and smart and understandable, I really admire her. She’s authentic. She is who she is. For her it’s not some ego thing, she’s not looking for ads. She is absolute living proof that democracy works. It makes complete sense that young people [are fighting climate change], because they are going to be here longer than me, by far.
How has your outlook on the world changed over time?
Well, speaking to radicalization… I think it takes us a while to experience the ways in which women are treated, and that radicalizes us as we age. So when we’re young, we may think, “Oh! Well, that was taken care of,” or “it can’t be that bad.” Also, discrimination increases with age. We’re treated less well, in general, as we get older and that’s very radicalizing. I actually probably experience it less than anyone else, because I’m in the middle of the women’s movement, so I’m lucky.
You’ve called laughter “an orgasm of the mind.” What do you mean by that?
Laughter is the only free emotion, because it’s the only thing that no one can compel you to do. I think what makes us laugh is unpredictable. It’s like two things come together, two disparate things and suddenly you make a third. It’s a recognition. You laugh when you learn something. Einstein always said that he had to be very careful while he was shaving because if he thought of a new idea, he laugh and then cut himself.
Why did you include several blank pages at the end of The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!
I try to make books, or talks, or anything into a communal endeavor because in a way that’s the purpose of doing something like this. I want to invite other people to say what they think.