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Gloria Steinem at Severance Hall

Last night we had the pleasure of seeing the feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, speak at Severance Hall as part of the Case Western Reserve University’s Townhall Speaker Series. The hall was packed with students and professors as well as excited community members. Steinem has been a prominent journalist and activist, advocating for the rights of women, minorities, and children for over 50 years. She travels the world giving lectures and engaging with activists. At 80 years old, she is as involved with the feminist movement as she ever has been, if not more so. Last night, before the question and answer section of the program, she encouraged audience members to make announcements for events they were organizing and other “trouble-making” happenings.

Steinem’s speech was wide ranging and touched on a bit of everything in modern feminist and social justice movements, from marriage equality to the digital divide and the right to internet access to domestic violence, campus sexual assault, and equal pay. Steinem stressed the importance of recognizing the connections between these seemingly disparate issues and understand that the people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo and unequal power structures are connected too.

What we found particularly enlightening were Steinem’s comments on violence against women and campus sexual assault, two issues that have garnered a lot of media attention lately with the release of a video of an NFL player punching his fiancée and a “yes means yes” consent bill passed by the California legislature. Steinem said that despite all the progress that women have made in the last century, domestic violence is a daily reality for many women throughout the world. She mentioned that peace and stability are intricately tied to violence in the home. Steinem noted that the number one indicator of a country’s peacefulness is the lack of violence against women in the home. She explained that when children see their mothers and sisters abused, violence becomes normalized in society. However, when children grow up seeing the women in their lives treated well and respected, violence isn’t seen as feature of everyday life. Steinem emphasized, “We cannot have nonviolent countries until we have nonviolent homes”.

Steinem also discussed the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the progress that’s been made in recent decades. Steinem recalled seeing women regularly beaten up in her hometown of Toledo as she was growing up and how the police often tried to get the victim and abuser back together after the assaults. She feels that we’ve come a long way and noted that today we better understand Stockholm Syndrome and have a better system of support for abused women, such as shelters and counseling services. However, Steinem did caution that we can’t become too comfortable and that domestic violence is still very prevalent today. She urged the young people in the audience to take these issues seriously and continue fighting for women’s rights.

Of particular relevance to many in the audience, this event being sponsored by a university after all, was the issue of sexual assault on college campuses across the country and the new bill passed by the California legislature, known as the “yes means yes” law. Last week, Steinem published an op-ed in the New York Times praising the law as a step forward for women, writing “invading bodies has been taken less seriously by the law than invading private property, even though body-invasion is far more traumatic. This has remained an unspoken bias of patriarchal law”. In both the op-ed and her speech she said it was absurd that women are blamed when they are assaulted, yet victims are rarely blamed for other crimes, like home invasions or robberies. Steinem sees this new law as positive progress for women and a change from victim blaming policies around the country.

At the end of her speech, Steinem shared some words of advice for the audience. She encouraged us to do what we can to fight injustice and inequality in our lives and to always be conscious of power dynamics in our relationships. If we have more power than those around us, we should listen more. If we are less powerful than others, we should speak more. Only through dialogue and listening, Steinem said, can we start to change the status quo. Finally, Steinem encouraged us to laugh since it is the only truly free expression of emotion.

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