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Steinem's feminism still burns brightly

Gloria Steinem may have turned 78 last month, but she's not pushing back those trademark aviator frames and taking an activism nap.

The most well-known face of feminism spends a third of her time speaking at college campuses and other events across the country. One of her projects is working with the human rights group Equality Now, which unites women's groups all over the world against sex trafficking. Steinem has attended conferences in Nepal, Zambia and Ghana, and this month is going to India to help lead an educational fact-finding tour.

We caught up with her by phone at her New York home to ask what she's been up to, and to reflect on where she's been.

?Some feminists of your generation view young women of today as taking feminism's accomplishments for granted and holding its principles less dear. Not you; why?

The idea that young women are not interested in equality is part of the backlash. All you have to do is read public opinion polls to see that young women are more supportive of feminist issues than older women. They will become even more so as they experience problems in the labor force. And the idea that they should be thanking us -- gratitude never radicalized anyone. I never walked around saying, "Thank you, suffragists, for the right to vote."

>Looking back now, do you see any big tactical errors during the feminist activism of the '70s?

We were too nice. We kept thinking if we just ask nicely and have the statistics to prove what's wrong, it'll work. But the information isn't enough; you have to do something with it, something that forces a change, by voting, by pressure, by activism.

>Any other regrets?

A more personal one -- wasting time. I continued to do things that I was asked to do, but that I already knew how to do, instead of the new frightening things. If you continue to do what you already know, then someone else doesn't learn it.

>Are you back to doing things that scare you?

Writing. Every blank screen or page still does it to me.

>What does the term post-feminism mean to you?

It means I'm talking to a person who is either blind or against the movement. It's like post-civil rights or post-racism. It's so blatantly untrue. In feminism's initial form, the opposition said it was wrong because it was against nature. Now those same people say feminism used to be necessary, but not anymore, and that's a real contradiction.

>Can Republican and Democrat women ever get along again? They seem further apart than ever.

In the last election, I spent most of my time talking to Republican women. If we really talk to each other, it works fine. I think sometimes progressive women will meet someone and say, "How can you be a woman and a Republican?" in an accusatory way, which is unhelpful. None of us respond well to that. We need to say to each other, look, let's take on the issues and forget about party labels and vote for ourselves, for what benefits us.

>Reproductive rights used to be less partisan. There used to be many prominent Republican supporters of Planned Parenthood, for example, but now it's become one of the most polarizing issues. And more and more states keep passing restrictions on abortion. Do you think that will cycle back again, and what will it take for that to happen?

What it will take is for real majority Republicans to take their party back. Right now, even Reagan could not get elected because of his support for immigrants, nor could Bush senior because of his support of Planned Parenthood.

>Despite progress, popular culture has never been more focused on pressuring girls and women to look like a very narrow ideal of Barbie beauty, with the rise in eating disorders and cosmetic surgery taken to ridiculous lengths to prove it. What's the solution to that seemingly unstoppable juggernaut?

Rebellion. When the civil rights movement got under way and began to be successful, suddenly there were all sorts of race-related scientific theories about intelligence. They try to relocate the problem to the person who's rebelling. So now the people rebelling are being told, if you just looked different, everything would be fine.

A 12-year-old girl at one of my talks got up and said she'd stopped reading beauty magazines because they made her feel ugly. She decided to go on a media fast and just look at real people for a month. It's like cutting refined sugar out of your diet -- it gives you a completely different reference and changes your context, like a meditation that affirms your inner reality.

>You have cited the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's" as an influence. Why?

The story was so touching. It was the first mainstream movie in which a woman was allowed to change classes, be independent, be sexual and still be a heroine.