“If women of all races were paid equally to white men for doing the exact same job, there would be $200 billion more in the economy,” Steinem said during her WCU address. “And those women are not going to put that money in a Swiss bank account. No, they’re going to spend it and stimulate the economy and create more jobs.”
The author spoke as part of WCU’s campus wide interdisciplinary learning theme, “1960s: Take It All In.”
“Not only would equal pay be a stimulus, but it also would reduce the tax burden used for safety net programs,” Steinem continued. “The children who are the poorest and the families most likely to be in need of a safety net are the children of single mothers. If those mothers earned equally, there would be a commensurate reduction in the amount of money spent on social services.”
A Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College in Massachusetts, Steinem, 79, has been a beacon for the women’s movement since the 1960s, bringing to the forefront the issues of domestic violence against women, equal pay for equal work, child abuse, sexism and racism — all issues she continues to champion. The author of several books and the co-founder of Ms. Magazine and New York Magazine, Steinem has spent her life as a writer, lecturer, editor and feminist activist.
Reflecting on the night’s theme, Steinem said the 1960s were about consciousness raising. “The 60s were the beginning of the movements that continue,” she said. “And they began in a way all movements seem to begin, whether it is the Chinese revolution or the civil rights movement in the South, which is people sitting in a circle, getting up the nerve to say what is happening to them that is painful, discovering that they are not alone in this.”
Steinem also told the crowd that equal pay is the “personal path to all kinds of society-wide revelations” and should not be seen as only a female issue, but as an issue that affects all of society. She spoke about how workers employed by corporations such as Walmart, Burger King and McDonalds—“who are making money from unequal pay”—get paid so little that many of them use social services meant for the unemployed.
The activist explained how unequal pay also means women rarely catch up with their male counterparts even when they get promoted because the system is based on how much a worker was paid in his or her previous job, rather than what the job is worth.
Another long-time issue for Steinem is domestic violence, what she calls the “source of normalization” of all other violence.
“If you declare that half the human race is superior to the other half, which is a lie, you can only maintain it by violence or the threat of violence,” she said. “In this country the form of violence we’re most familiar with is domestic violence. Some men, who through no fault of their’s, have been born into this system and become addicted to the idea of masculinity, [and] feel they are not alive or real or men unless they dominate.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more women have been killed by their husbands or boyfriends than the sum of all Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks and during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Steinem noted.
“I think the paradigm of violence in the home is something we can learn from at this point in our national history,” she said.
Steinem discussed how a woman is “most likely to be murdered” when attempting to flee an abusive environment. Likewise, she said, the United States is in a similar situation—in a “time of maximum endangerment”—as it rethinks its position on war, economic polarization, racism and marriage equality.
“We have majority opinions that are becoming ever more democratic,” Steinem said. “And we are on the verge of becoming no longer a European/American or white country. You might say we are escaping, we’re about to be free. And that presents two things: One, we have to be very careful … and we have to look after each other. And it also means we’re not going to stop. We too are going to escape. We too are about to be free.”
Finally, the women’s rights stalwart talked about whether women can have it all.
“Nobody can have it all when you do it all,” she said, noting that women will never be able to have it all until men raise children as much as women. “Not only because otherwise women have a double burden of working inside the home and outside the home, but more important, children will not grow up understanding that men can be as loving, as nurturing, as patient, as good at parenting as women are. It’s a lie to say that men cannot raise children, too.”
After a question and answer session, the audience serenaded the activist and author by singing Happy Birthday. Steinem turns 80 on March 25.