BY ELLA KIRBY
Tuesday, April 21 marked a historic day for St. Norbert College, as bell hooks joined with Gloria Steinem in an unforgettable dialogue in the Walter Theatre on the St. Norbert College campus. The dialogue was part of bell hooks’ week long Residency on campus, lasting from April 20-24.
These two women have been friends for over twenty years and they came to St. Norbert College to share their conversation titled “Talking Together: A Legacy of Solidarity.” The event received an audience of over eight hundred people. One 16 year old high school student = made the long journey up from Arkansas with her mother to see this event as part of her coursework.
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as bell hooks, is a widely known author, social justice scholar and feminist. She has achieved an abundance of awards, including being named as “the leading public intellectual” by The Atlantic Monthly.
At 19 years of age, hooks had already begun writing her first book “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” and at the present day she has over forty books published.
Gloria Steinem is a feminist, social activist and writer. She became an inspiration to the women’s movement and feminism, as well as helping to create Ms. Magazine. In 2013, Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for devoting her life to supporting the women’s movement and social justice.
hooks and Steinem’s conversation began with hooks recounting how she and Steinem created this inspiring friendship. At the cover shoot for a Ms. Magazine issue, hooks stated “I met Gloria after falling down a hill in Skowhegan.”
hooks needed a cast on her arm from this incident and Steinem sent her a box of shirts which were more suitable for this medical mishap. hooks said that this was the first moment of friendship for her, “I was so touched that she cared enough. To me, that’s one of the real traits of Gloria, she cares. She cares about the suffering in the world and she cares about injustice. She teaches us how to care.”
The dialogue then proceeded to the topic of feminism and how both women became interested and involved in its advocacy. Steinem began as a freelance writer and became more and more a part of the feminist movement as time progressed.
After covering a hearing about abortion, Steinem stated “That was the moment of the light coming on for me. That was when I realized if one in three of us in this nation, then and now, has had this experience at some point in our lives, why is it illegal? Why is it dangerous? Who owns women’s bodies?”
hooks and her abilities as a writer were often demeaned and overlooked. “We were being told by male professors at Stanford that we couldn’t be writers and thinkers because we’d all get married,” said hooks.
Many other experiences occurred for both of these women, which motivated them to share their voice and words with the world.
Next, hooks asked Steinem with regards to patriarchal dominance and the women’s movement: “I was wondering how you perceive where we have come?”
To this, Steinem replied that society goes through a series of stages, the first being consciousness and becoming aware of these ingrained issues. Steinem went on to say “Understanding that it doesn’t have to be this way, it’s not human nature, it’s not inevitable.”
Experiences and stories that people thought were isolated turned out to be occurring more frequently than originally thought. The next stage was spreading the word to tackle these instances in society, in order to change the law and therefore, begin to change the culture.
It was once thought that women could not be pilots because they “lacked” upper arm strength and that men were unable to use typewriters because it “took too much precision.”
“So much of what we once believed about gender, people don’t believe anymore,” stated hooks.
The feminist movement changed the ideals of what it meant to be male or female, benefiting both genders. “I think of feminism as one the most amazing, in many ways, quiet revolutions,” said hooks.
To this, Steinem added “This is a moment of both danger and opportunity, so we have to look after each other and be careful, but we also have to understand that we’re not going to stop. Just as we would not tell somebody to stay in a violent situation.”
hooks then went on to talk about how gender and race are intertwined and she said “White women began to challenge the assumption that gender was the most important thing.”
Particularly regarding birth, the first question that came to people’s minds about their newborn child was the child’s gender.
On this idea, hooks said “I thought no, that’s not the case for black people. When the baby is born the first thing black people think about as the baby comes out of the womb is ‘what color is it?’ Because we know the extent in which color will determine that child’s fate.”
This was another reason why Steinem and hooks solidified such a meaningful friendship.
“One thing that’s been special about Steinem is she has been absolutely consistent in being open to hearing how race changes the picture,” said hooks.
The next question hooks raised was “How do we talk about the amazing leaps we have made forward?”
To which Steinem replied “At least we recognize it” and “We know the steps to make change. We’re much healthier, women’s psychological health is up by every measure because we tell our stories and talk to each other. There are many men who are supportive and understand that the masculine role is bullshit too, there is no such thing as gender.”
Although significant progress has been made, hooks also stated “How do we replace notions of domination with notions of mutuality and partnership?”
To end the dialogue, hooks commented on the fact that there are people who critique both her and Steinem’s conversations on the grounds that they were not insightful enough, to which she replied “I think those people have no idea how strife between women, has torn women apart. Strife/racial/sexual practice and that for us, the fact that we have been able to stay together, in solidarity, with issues we absolutely don’t agree on, but still making that place for commonality, is so crucial.”