Gloria Steinem: ‘Go too far, or you’re not going far enough’

The feminist activist, 86, on worldwide sisterhood, Spaceship Earth, sexual harrassment in the 1970s and being bitten by rats

My parents were kind and funny and taught me that kindness and a sense of humour are invaluable. Much later, I learned that in the oldest cultures laughter is the only free emotion. Obviously, fear can be compelled. So can love, if we’re dependent for long enough, we enmesh even with a captor in order to survive. But you can’t compel laughter. It’s a flash of recognition. Never go anywhere you’re not allowed to laugh, including church.

I became a grown-up too early, from 10 to 17, a small person responsible for a big person. My mother was ill and often couldn’t look after herself. I never knew what I would find when I got home. Since then I’ve had friends who were the children of alcoholics, and I’ve learned we share some of the same feelings.

One of my lowest points was waking up on a summer night with a pool of blood on the floor. My hand had been extended over the bed and I’d been bitten by a rat. My mother got me to a local hospital for a tetanus shot, but when we came home the pool of blood had been licked up. I remember longing for a cage to sleep in. I say this because in cities around the world, there are people living with the same fear right now.

The boys in my neighbourhood dreamed of getting out through sports, but the only place I saw women leading free lives was in the movies. So I had the dream of becoming a dancer and literally dancing my way into a better life and world. In high school, I answered an ad and became a magician’s assistant. Briefly, because he left town with the money he was supposed to pay me and a young couple who sang with his act.

The women’s movement feels like a big chosen family. From New York to New Delhi, I can find women friends I trust as family. We are communal animals, so it’s important to have the support of others: friends, colleagues, lovers for company and laughter, a rescuer if I’m in trouble, a will to help if they need it.

I’m so excited by young women now. Remember, I was a 50s person, so I feel as if I just had to wait for some of my friends to be born. We’ve always been accused of “going too far”. That’s why Robin Morgan wrote a brilliant book with that title. Unless you’re accused of that, you haven’t gone far enough!

What we now call the #MeToo movement started in the early 1970s, when women college students first coined the term “sexual harassment” to describe what happened to them on summer jobs. Then the great legal mind, Catharine MacKinnon, wrote this into sex discrimination law. Several cases were brought, all by black women, and there were the Anita Hill hearings that educated the nation. Recently, women have begun to feel OK about coming forward to say that our bodies belong to ourselves. We have yet to explain that there’s no democracy without power over our own bodies.

Seeing New York shut down is sad and frightening, yet there’s also a new sense of concern and connection between and among us. People hang out of their windows to sing and shout together, and even on television you see news anchors at home with their books and dogs and children. I think we have a chance for positive change.

The virus knows that race, gender, class and national boundaries are all fictions. This could help us realise we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth. I’m hoping that this crisis not only exposes inequalities, but helps us learn what movements have been trying to teach us: we are linked, not ranked.

The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion by Gloria Steinem (Murdoch Books, £9.99) is out now. Buy it for £9.29 from

Britt Collins

The GuardianTramp

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