top of page
  • Leah Jewett

Gloria Steinem and parent tips on that F word – feminism

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Gloria Steinem in aviator glasses surrounded by microphones and people with banners at the 1972 Democratic Convention
Taking a stand: Gloria Steinem nominates Sissy Farenthold as vice-presidential candidate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Image: Business Chicks

“When parts of our bodies go undescribed, we often feel they are wrong or forbidden. Outspoken Sex Ed is a step toward universality and acceptance – for ourselves and for each other”

– feminist icon Gloria Steinem speaks out about Outspoken

What does feminism have to do with sex education? A lot! Here we look back at the time dedicated feminist Emma Watson met “mother of feminism” Gloria Steinem, we namecheck some people who are feminist through their words and/or actions and we set out some ways you can think, talk and act along feminist lines at home

Gloria Steinem with shoulder length hair and in a long-sleeved T-shirt leans against a doorway
The female gaze: Gloria Steinem in 2016. Image: Caitlin Ochs / New York Times

She embodies the word feminist, she’s the co-founder of Ms magazine and she’s one of the most significant political activists of our time – so it’s sensational to have an endorsement for Outspoken Sex Ed from the revolutionary Gloria Steinem.

A women’s liberation movement legend – and still going strong – Steinem came to attention in 1963 by going undercover to write the article “I Was A Playboy Bunny” and went on to write the seminal piece “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation”. Steinem help found influential organisations such as the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Media Center. In her memoir My Life On The Road, she describes campaigning cross-country for women’s rights, holding meetings in “gyms, libraries, shopping centers, bowling alleys, rock concerts, backyard barbecues, campus rallies, subway stops, union halls, immigration lines, movie theaters and bagel shops”. Among many awards, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Back when I was a teenager in 1970s San Francisco, Ms was – along with Mad magazine and Psychology Today – pretty much the only magazine I read. A classic image of Steinem in her aviator glasses subtitled What Would Gloria Do? is emblazoned on my phone case, and I wear bracelets she designed that spell out “Imagine” and “We are linked not ranked”.

So I was over the moon to interview Gloria Steinem for a Guardian Q&A in 2016. In a black jumper pulled down over her hands, teenager-style, she was sinuously elegant, honest and full of conviction, with a great warm confident smile and a laugh, maple-syrup rich and smooth, that she often used as a stock-taking pause. I told her I was so happy to meet her, and she replied in her soft-spoken, measured way that she was happy to meet me too. It was almost hard to square how gracious, interested, relaxed and approachable she was in answering questions and asking some in return with knowing how formidably she has stood for equal rights and reproductive freedom, shifted political discourse, changed lives.

The next day, at London’s Emmanuel Centre, Steinem was interviewed by Emma Watson. Having taken a year off acting to focus on feminism, Watson had chosen My Life On The Road as the first title for her online book club Our Shared Shelf.

Emma Watson with her hand up talking to Gloria Steinem, both seated and smiling
Fired up: Emma Watson interviewing Gloria Steinem at the sell-out London event An Evening With Gloria Steinem in 2016

Billed as “life lessons from the jedis of feminism”, it was a historic moment: a 25-year-old British movie star – who as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador had launched the HeForShe initiative – meets an 85-year-old American trailblazer, one of the greatest feminist icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. Both were clear, candid, vulnerable (“I love crying,” Watson said) and strong (“I always say to audiences of men: cooperation beats domination – trust me,” laughed Steinem). When Watson asked if a Gloria mantra would be “Never, never, never, never give up”, Steinem replied: “Yes. And dance a little.”

Unsurprisingly, the nearly nonexistent media coverage focused on Watson’s eyebrows and her citing, a site about sexual pleasure (later shockingly edited out of the video of the talk), which I wrote about in the HuffPost piece Emma Watson, Gloria Steinem And My 10-Year-Old Daughter. Afterwards it was amazing to see Steinem, signing books, smile across the table at my daughter Dare. Her inscription: “To Dare, who is our future!”

A photo of Rose Byrne playing Gloria Steinem in Mrs America next to a photo of Gloria Steinem – both with long hair and aviator glasses
Actor and activist: Rose Byrne playing Gloria Steinem (right) in the TV miniseries Mrs America. Image: Sabrina Lantos / Getty

Gloria Steinem and the words "The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off"
Fighting words – which became the title of a 2019 book of Steinem quotes. Image: Ann Phillips / Smith College

“Girls are taught to view their bodies as unending projects to work on, whereas boys from a young age are taught to view their bodies as tools to master their environment”

– Gloria Steinem

Steinem’s powerful observation really hits home: girls have their work cut out for them in measuring their self-worth against societal beauty ideals, while boys don’t spend comparable hours scrutinising themselves in the mirror. How much time, energy and money do girls and women lose in compartmentalising and perfecting their body?

That’s one thing I love about feminism: it’s about questioning our culture and unlearning the messages we internalise over time.

Illustration of a woman in the 1800s trapped in a bubble – "the domestic sphere"
From The Trouble With Women – the brilliant book by Jacky Fleming (Square Peg, 2016)

Once you realise how our world has been predominantly designed by men – think architecture, music, art, philosophy, politics, economics, clothing, transport, education, architecture and even furniture – it’s pretty impossible to stop being aware of how our values are prioritised and filtered through a white heterosexual male gaze.

Meanwhile feminism and sex education go hand in hand.

They both involve critical thinking around things like – are you ready?! – sex relationships power dynamics and imbalances gender stereotyping gender norms gender expectations unconscious bias equality masculinity mansplaining the male gaze sexism patriarchy objectification self-objectification inclusivity and awareness around LGBT+ identities tackling and preventing sexual harassment and violence against women and girls (VAWG) sexual health and wellbeing sexual decision-making sex positivity bodily autonomy body image self-esteem the media social media sexting/sending nudes the impact of porn on attitudes and behaviour self-respect respect and of course consent.

Sex education is a feminist issue.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes with their firsts raised in a 1971 photo reshot in 2014
Then and now: in 2014 Steinem and activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes reshot their emblematic 1971 photo

“I was angry about the human talent that was lost just because it was born into a female body”

“In the words of so many daughters who don’t yet know that a female fate is not a personal fault, I told myself: I’m not going to be anything like my mother”

Gloria Steinem

How can you talk with your girl – and equally importantly with your boy – about feminism?

First define feminism. Explain that feminism is a way of understanding how gender and gender relations “silently govern our daily lives” – and how society treats girls and women. We need to make sure they have the same opportunities as boys and men. Feminism is about advancing women’s rights and girl power because historically girls and women have had much less social, political and economic power than boys and men. We all benefit from what women fought for – the right to vote, to write under their name rather than a pseudonym or as “anonymous”, to go to university, to buy property, to have a credit card, to open a bank account. To this day, girls and women still face a fight for equality. Basically feminism is about fairness – if a girl and boy share biscuit, should she get less than half because she’s a girl? Feminism is about equality for all.

Here’s the most useful advice I’ve amassed on how to talk along feminist lines at home…

Mind your language If you tell your girl she’s beautiful, also praise her for being strong, smart, independent, bold, curious – and if you tell your boy he’s brave, add that he’s thoughtful, sweet, sensitive, beautiful, kind. Don’t default to “he” for toys or animals – test drive “they” instead, which is also LGBT+ inclusive if you don’t know someone’s sex. Reverse-engineer saying “boys and girls” to say “girls and boys”. Don’t default to assuming a doctor, engineer, pilot, mathematician, architect, astronaut or scientist is male

Call out the gender divide Gender awareness begins at around age 2 – and there’s a steady drip, drip effect across every aspect of children’s lives. Combat this early on by asking your child why there are “girl colours” and “boy toys” and why only girls or boys are “allowed” certain clothes/books/sports/dress codes/school subjects. Why are girls socialised to be people pleasers and boys considered weak if they cry or ask for help? Tell your child that gender doesn’t define them – they can make their own choices and be creative in their own ways

Smash gender stereotypes and ask a lot of questions Get your child in the habit of critical thinking. What’s a stereotype and what’s a fact? What’s a result of conditioning? Are girls innately chatty, helpful and well behaved? Are boys innately boisterous and better at science and maths? Acknowledge invisible and emotional labour: are more mums than dads making pack lunches, arranging playdates and picking kids up from school? What gender roles does your child see in books, on TV, at home? Why do you think it’s OK for a girl to play with a train or do ice hockey but not for a boy to play with a doll, cook, want to be a teacher or not enjoy team sports? Stereotypes shape who your child plays with and how – and influence their aspirations

Do a gender audit on your media Search up books, movies, TV shows, videos and social media accounts “that are not written by cisgender men, since their voices already dominate much of society”. So stock up on picture books, stories and graphic novels that include girls and women. You can’t be what you can’t see (or read, or discuss, or understand)

Unpack messaging around clothing Why are girls’ clothes often tight and impractical and boys’ clothes baggy and built for action? Who is more likely to wear a T-shirt with kittens, cupcakes, hearts, flowers, princesses, friends, sparkles and butterflies – and who gets lions, dinosaurs, football, skateboards, game consoles, sharks, tractors and skulls? In other words, who’s “cute but crazy” and who’s a “rule breaker, hero-in-training building the future”?

Model equality at home Lead by example. Share childcare. Role-reverse the retrograde “There’s boy jobs and girl jobs” division of labour flaunted by ex-prime minister Theresa May. Don’t be self-deprecating about your accomplishments or abilities

Raise awareness If an adult says something to your child that unhelpfully reinforces gender stereotypes, maybe reply with humour or give a counter example from your life. Then talk to the adult when your child isn’t there and/or discuss it later with your child. Trust your outrage

Discuss how the word feminism can make people uncomfortable Why is that though? Some people feel that “the F word” has gone too far or done more harm than good, often because they perceive it as a threat to men. But actually feminism makes everyone’s lives better