Past Event On February 19, 2022

Gloria Steinem with Zainab Salbi

A Conversation with a Feminist Icon

Gloria Steinem with Zainab Salbi

“I don’t think we can have democracy without men and women who control our own individual physical selves. I think controlling women’s bodies is a first inkling of authoritarianism. ”

Gloria Steinem



On February 19, Gloria Steinem took the stage with activist, fellow author, and friend Zainab Salbi at the Altria Theater to discuss the history and present challenges of feminism. Steinem’s most recent publication, My Life On The Road, included many stories about her activism nationally and globally. However, during the height of the global pandemic, travel was out of the question for Ms. Steinem.

She was acutely aware of the proximity of her New York City apartment to a hospital just blocks away, and the time spent not traveling was profoundly impactful for her. She poignantly reflected that she “was confusing movement for action” and spending time in solitude helped refocus her passions. Though recognizing the tragedies that COVID-19 imparted upon the world, Steinem noticed that the sickness does not discriminate—black, white, man, woman, whoever you are—the global community was forced to acknowledge this chaotic time and the impacts of COVID are far from over, at work and at home.

Steinem knows the importance of speaking and sharing space with others and, in part, credits her writing career to not wanting to have to talk so much. “Things happen when people physically gather.” When she first began presenting to groups, she was terrified of public speaking. Steinem gave credit to sharing the stage with Salbi and other passionate activists during her career, finding many lifelong friends through these connections, and creating a chosen family.

One of Steinem’s found family members includes famed civil rights advocate Florence Kennedy, who accompanied her while visiting groups to speak on the women’s movement in the civil rights era. She shared that, in many instances, she and Kennedy were heckled at these meetings by people asking if the two of them were lesbians. She fondly recalled Kennedy standing in solidarity with the lesbian community by stoically replying to these hecklers, “Are you our alternative?”

Steinem told the audience that her passion for women’s rights first began at a small meeting in a church basement in New York City when she heard, for the first time, other women speak about their abortions. Until then, she had kept secret the abortion she received after graduating from college as a means to protect the doctor who was doing it illegally.

“If we are sitting with a group that is somewhere discussing or making decisions, it should look like the group that the decisions will affect… That’s not rocket science. ”

– GLoria Steinem

This brought about an interesting discussion from Steinem and Salbi, reflecting on Salbi’s experience dealing with war-torn countries. Salbi remarked that based on her travels, she could tell a government’s political and socioeconomic trajectory based on how they treat the women of their society.

When she realized one in three American women seek out abortive services in their lifetime, a young Steinem began asking questions, wondering why a government was able to exert control over bodies that had wombs.

The struggle for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution was a critique that Steinem had on today’s society. She wonders why as a democracy that we don’t include women in a Constitution that was written “by guys for guys – white guys,” and called special attention to Virginia’s importance in this legal battle in setting government precedent in politics.

Read more about Steinem’s views on Virginia’s involvement in ERA from the Associated Press.

Gloria Steinem on her fear of public speaking

Drawing on her appreciation for Native American culture, Steinem also recalled the history of how these pre-colonial tribes would gather in circles rather than rows, therefore eliminating hierarchies. This was one of many lessons Steinem imparted to our audience, teaching them to challenge assumptions in everyday places like the board room or classroom.

Steinem partially credits her health at the age of 87 to choosing what felt best for her, a life with no children doing what she loves with people she truly loves. But she also spoke on the importance of the differentiation between love and romance, where romance seeks to possess and obsess over another and find fulfillment solely through that relationship. Steinem believes that a major part of health that goes mostly unmeasured is the love we have for ourselves and the freedom to do what we love.

As we ended the evening, Zainab Salbi asked Gloria Steinem about one of her most famous quotes. ”Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” When asked about what she’s dreaming about these days, Steinem candidly joked that both she and her publisher are dreaming of her finishing her next book.

Explore the program book.

Read more about the night’s discussion from The Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Gloria Steinem on simple ways we can challenge hierarchal assumptions in everyday life, learning from history

In taking questions from Richmonders in the Altria Theater and watching from home, Gloria Steinem and Zainab Salbi noted:

  • Another feminist to look to and read up on is the recently deceased bell hooks. Before she took on the chosen name of bell, she shared the same first name as Gloria Steinem. Steinem looks to hooks as a compassionate academic who truly understood the beauty and complexity of humanity.
  • The internet can be a tool used for women to safely communicate, but much of the world is without equitable computer access. Steinem dreams big, of a world with a shared democratic internet that’s powered by global satellite, accessible to all by the devices each person equitably has.
  • On the topic of sex work, Steinem stated that any type of work that is invasive of the human body is less than ideal for work. Salbi and Steinem shared stories of witnessing operating brothels and remarked on how punishing those environments felt. It was also noted that many people enter sex work through less-than-ideal circumstances–whether it be as minors or as a result of socioeconomic stressors–which creates an inherently unfair standard of what “work” should be defined as.
  • Reflecting on her most illuminating travels, Steinem mentioned traveling to India, where she first experienced a matrilineal and egalitarian society.
  • Black women’s involvement in the feminist movement has been underreported–just as it was in the civil rights movement–despite their contributions having been vital for both. Steinem recommended that white women take time to listen, ensure decision-making bodies represent their affected constituents, and take care in reporting accurately.
  • Men have a role in the feminist movement and should be represented in its goals. Far too often, men face stereotypes that limit their lives and emotions. Women and men have a uniting humanity that needs to be stood for.
  • The little things in life are what make Gloria Steinem happiest. Writing a particularly great paragraph, spending time with friends, and any time she spends being conscious of the present moment is what feels best.
  • Steinem’s proudest moment is yet to come. She has learned that even when people say you have arrived, you never truly have. She is proud of surviving and breaking out of the mold that her Toledo upbringing told her to live by.

Gloria Steinem on what feminism really means

“What an inspiration! Her thoughts regarding women’s and children’s rights and how they impact democracies was so timely and raises such awareness of the need to continue this work, not only for our country but on a global scale as well.”

– Subscriber Comment

Speaker Bio: Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer. She travels around the world as an organizer and lecturer and is a frequent media spokeswoman on issues of equality. She is particularly interested in the shared origins of sex and race caste systems, gender roles, and child abuse as roots of violence, non-violent conflict resolution, the cultures of indigenous peoples, and organizing across boundaries for peace and justice. She now lives in New York City and is the author of the travelogue “My Life on the Road.”

In 1972, she co-founded “Ms.” magazine and remained one of its editors for fifteen years. She continues to serve as a consulting editor for “Ms.,” and was instrumental in the magazine’s move to join and be published by the Feminist Majority Foundation. In 1968, she helped found New York Magazine, where she was a political columnist and wrote feature articles. As a freelance writer, she was published in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and women’s magazines, as well as publications in other countries. She has produced a documentary on child abuse for HBO, a feature film about the death penalty for Lifetime, and been the subject of profiles on Lifetime and Showtime.

Her books include the bestsellers “My Life on the Road,” “Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions,” “Moving Beyond Words, and Marilyn: Norma Jean (on the life of Marilyn Monroe),” and in India, “As If Women Matter.” Her writing also appears in many anthologies and textbooks, and she was an editor of Houghton Mifflin’s “The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History.”

Ms. Steinem helped found the Women’s Action Alliance, a pioneering national information center that specialized in nonsexist, multiracial children’s education, and the National Women’s Political Caucus, a group that continues to work to advance the numbers of pro-equality women in elected and appointed office at a national and state level. She also co-founded the Women’s Media Center in 2004. She was president and co-founder of Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee for twenty-five years, then with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund when it merged with VFC for the 2004 elections. She was also a co-founder and serves on the board of Choice USA (now URGE), a national organization that supports young pro-choice leadership and works to preserve comprehensive sex education in schools.

She is the founding president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a national multi-racial, multi-issue fund that supports grassroots projects to empower women and girls, and also a founder of its Take Our Daughters to Work Day, a first national day devoted to girls that has now become an institution here and in other countries. She was a member of the Beyond Racism Initiative, a three-year effort on the part of activists and experts from South Africa, Brazil, and the United States to compare the racial patterns of those three countries and to learn cross-nationally. She is currently working with the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College on documenting the grassroots origins of the U.S. women’s movement and on a Center for Organizers in tribute to Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. As links to other countries, she helped found Equality Now, Donor Direct Action, and Direct Impact Africa.

In 2014, she received The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award and in 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

About Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi is the Executive Producer and Host of Through Her Eyes at Yahoo News and the author of Freedom is an Inside Job.

At the age of 23, Salbi founded Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of wars by offering support, tools, and access to life-changing skills to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency. Under her leadership as the organization’s CEO (1993-2011), the organization grew from helping 30 women upon its inception to more than 478,000 marginalized women in 8 conflict areas. It also distributed more than $120 million in direct aid and micro credit loans that impacted more than 1.7 million family members.

In her move to journalism and media, Salbi created and hosted several shows including: #MeToo, Now What?, an original series on PBS (2018); The Zainab Salbi Project, an original series on Huffington Post (2016); The Nidaa Show with TLC Arabic where she started with the historic first interview of Oprah Winfrey in the Arab world; and her latest, Through Her Eyes with Zainab Salbi, at Yahoo News. She frequently appears on MSNBC as a commentator on current news.

Salbi is the author of several books including the national bestseller Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, If You Knew Me You Would Care, and her latest, Freedom is an Inside Job.

Salbi has been consistently identified as one of the women impacting the world. People magazine named her as one of the “25 Women Changing The World” in 2016, Foreign Policy magazine named her as one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers,” Fast Company identified her as one of “100 Most Creative People in Business,” The Guardian and Newsweek listed her on their “Top 100 Women of Activists and Campaigners” and Harper’s Bazaar named her one of the 21st century heroes. In 2017, Arabian Business named Salbi as the “#1 Most Influential Arab Woman in the World” and has since been joined by Gulf Business to consistently name her as one of the World’s Most Influential Arabs. She was also identified as one of the “100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People in 2019” by Watkins. Most recently, she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for her humanitarian work with Women War Survivors and for her Global Journalism.

Salbi was recently selected as a juror of The Hilton Humanitarian Prize – the largest award for humanitarian work presented to nonprofit organizations judged to have made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering throughout the world. She also sits on the Board of Directors of Synergos and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).

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