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Gloria Steinem On The Making Of A Movement & Her New Series, WOMAN

Photo: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters.
The thing about being Gloria Steinem is that you never stop, even after you've spent more than half a century advocating for the rights of women all over the world. So when you meet VICE's Shane Smith and activist Amy Richardson at a Google camp, and the three of you get to talking, what that turns into is a series about global abuse against women, and how destabilising it is for the entire world.

"It was Shane Smith who was struck by the degree of violence against women and how fundamental it was to normalise other forms of violence; [he] said, 'We have to do this, let’s talk when we get home from New York," Steinem told us over the phone. "I’m grateful to him, because he actually responded."

As Steinem knows better than almost anyone, getting people to respond — to actually do something — is often the hardest part. That's the mission behind WOMAN, the new VICELAND show that explores female-targeted violence across the globe. The goal is not just to lift the curtain on vulnerable women, but also to compel the audience to feel something and then follow it up with action.

"But what?" I wondered aloud during our chat. "Where do we go from there?" Steinem admitted that not even she is entirely sure about that, before telling me that I should share any thoughts I might have on that front. Because that's another thing about being Gloria Steinem: Even when the entire world looks up to you, you still look to the rest of the world for insight. Below, I spoke to Steinem about WOMAN, women, and what it takes to turn empathy into real life action.

What makes WOMAN different from other shows that have delved into violence against women?
"To me, these are as close as I’ve seen to being on the ground yourself. They are not documentaries, which are valuable in a different way, which are films with a beginning, a middle, and an end. These are women correspondents who are asking questions and being surrogates for the viewer. It is the closest I’ve seen to being a witness, to being on the ground. There's a balance between objectivity, as [the female reporter] is not influencing the answer, but she's not pretending to be unaffected.

It isn’t that there aren’t male correspondents out here that could do this. It just seemed that the cultural experience of walking around as a female your entire life was useful in reporting and empathising." [Laughs]

One especially painful moment at the end of the first episode is when a Congolese woman says that she feels she has no value.
"I agree. In that case, it’s quite specific, because there have been many efforts to get the president of the Congo to say: These women are the heroes. The survivors are the heroes. And to my knowledge, he has not said that... But I hope that the inaction of one person, who is the president, can be compensated for a bit by the recognition from [Dr. Mukwege, who treats women who have been sexually assaulted], from the people who are working on the ground, and from the people who will be seeing now and empathising with her from great distances."
Do you worry that it's difficult for women in developed nations to relate to the issues other women face — that it's easy to think, 'Well, at least here we're doing okay'?
"I hope not. One of our episodes is in the first world nation of Canada, where thousands of indigenous women have gone missing or murdered in the last 30 years. Canada is somewhat more advanced than we are in terms of equal treatment of original nations — and yet this is still happening in Canada. We didn’t want to do this series and exclude this continent, and of course there will be more in the future. Our purpose was to point to the commonalities and linkages.

"We’re not doing okay. For instance — every time I hear reports of fear of terrorism — I wish we would also point out that if you count [the deaths] from 9/11 through Afghanistan and two wars in Iraq, and then count all the women who have been murdered in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends in that same period of time, many more women have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends than have been killed by war or terrorism."

What do you think it takes to move people to act once they've been confronted with injustice?
"It’s probably different for each person. But the most important prelude to empathy is contact — is talking to each other, seeing each other, listening to each other’s stories. I think we’ve seen on campus a growing emphasis on sexual assault, or, in the military, a growing understanding of how far it goes, and how difficult it is to report and the chain of command.

"I do think there’s a heightened consciousness. Perhaps when we see a sexual assault or something bad that’s happened to another woman, or another human being, we try to say ‘What did she do that caused that? Because if I don’t do that then it won’t happen to me.' That may be a human protective impulse. But once we’ve realised that the action came from another person and not from her, then we understand that we have to identify with her and unite against what the problem is."

What are our obligations to one another as women?
"I wouldn’t put it as an obligation. The human race could not have survived without empathy. If we didn’t feel a natural leap of empathy when a member of our species is in trouble, the species wouldn’t have survived. [Laughs] We just need to follow our empathetic impulse and not allow it to be turned off by the idea that problems can only be solved from above."

Speaking of survival: We're in a precarious place right now when it comes to women's rights in America. Do you have any great fears in regards to that — any nightmares?
"Yes, we all have nightmares. [Laughs] My nightmare is that the majority won’t vote or speak up. Because if you look at the public opinion polls, they’re positive. They support reproductive freedom and that these positions should be made by a woman and not by the government. The question is whether we will put our opinions into action by voting and how we spend our money and how we treat each other, and what we do every day, and how we raise our kids. All of those daily acts need to reflect our honest values."

My nightmare is a Donald Trump presidency.
"With the White House sprayed in gold."

...With money signs added to the gates. What do you think about his conservative politics?
"That this isn’t conservative politics. The Republican party now is very different from what it was in the past. It was a centrist party. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the very right-wing racist Democrats began to leave the Democratic party, and started to take over the Republican party. I think it’s possible that the rise of Donald Trump — who owes nothing to the Koch brothers or the 8,000 fundamentalist Baptist churches, who took over the Republican party — may make the true centrist Republicans come and take their party back."

That’s a silver-lining way of looking at it.
"Well, you have to imagine it for it to happen. I think it’s possible. But at the same time — and I don’t mean to compare these two people — it is true that Hitler got elected, also on a low voter turnout. We have to make sure that we get out there."

Who do you look to when you're feeling discouraged?
"We human beings are communal. We can’t survive by ourselves. I look to my friends and colleagues: This is what a movement is for — to counteract exactly what you’re saying. That’s why we need a movement, because we can do together what we would soon give up doing if we were by ourselves. And you know, we can laugh at each other’s jokes and go dancing and develop new ideas. There’s just no substitute for community."
WOMAN premieres on VICELAND on May 10, 2016.