Gloria Steinem: Trump has galvanised more activists than the Vietnam war | Karen McVeigh
The presidency of Donald Trump has galvanised more political activists in the US today than the Vietnam war, according to Gloria Steinem.
The longtime feminist activist and writer said Trump’s election was part of a “dangerous” nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-feminist backlash that is happening globally.
Steinem, 83, who has been fighting for equality since the late 1960s, said the “only good news, if there is good news” is that it had sparked a wave of activism on a scale she had never witnessed before.
Speaking to the Guardian before giving the keynote speech at a conference highlighting violence against women in the EU, organised by the European Women’s Lobby, Steinem said: “The only good news of Trump is that the galvanising of activism is like nothing I have ever seen in my life. A thousand times more even than the Vietnam war, and how important that was – or of any other thing I’ve ever seen.”
Steinem said that following the women’s marches across the US and internationally to protest against Trump’s inauguration in January this year, she was inundated with messages of support from all over the world.
“I was getting emails from all kinds of people. People were gathered at the Brandenberg Gate in Germany, saying, ‘Tell Trump that walls do not work.’ It was incredibly moving. I was getting emails from people in Nairobi, people – even more surprisingly – from Kentucky.”
Analysis from the University of Denver has concluded that the march, on the 21 January, was likely to have been the largest single-day demonstration in recorded US history. Estimates of numbers of participants in the US alone vary between 3.2 and 5.2 million, which is 1%-1.6% of the US population. Campaigners marching in Washington and in the 652 other protests across the US were joined by more than 260 marches around the world, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe.
The largest protests against the Vietnam war, the moratorium days, in 1969 and 1970, had up to 1 million participants in the US and millions worldwide.
There has been considerable debate over whether the women’s march will translate into continuing activism, mobilisation and political change.
Steinem believes so, citing an example from a recent meeting she had with university and college professors in California.
“I was on a community college campus and a university campus and in both places the professors were telling me they have spent their lifetimes trying to connect students to the electoral system. Whether or not they were activists or apathetic, they were not interested in the electoral system: ‘My vote doesn’t count, politics is dirty.’ And now it was different, and now, 70% of their classes wanted to run for office, not just vote. It has been a massive, massive energising and educational event.”
Steinem, who co-founded the feminist Ms. magazine in the early 70s, said Trump, was “as bad as he possibly can be” in opposing women’s reproductive rights. Among the worst example, she said, was his reinvoking and expansion of the ‘global gag rule’, which bans funding for groups that offer abortion, or even abortion advocacy.
“By executive order he has re-instituted the gag rule, which means that every area of our foreign aid will be restricted not only on the question of whether abortion is provided by a group but whether it’s even discussed. It would be completely illegal in the US because it has all to do with freedom of speech, but he has already re-instituted [the rule].”
Campaigners have warned that Trump’s reversal of abortion-related policy could stop billions of dollars of aid to groups combating diseases worldwide.
Steinem, who was on the stump for Hillary Clinton during the election, weighed into the debate over Trump’s psychological state, describing him as having a “classic narcissistic” personality.
Steinem was speaking at a women-only press event before a conference marking 20 years of the EWL Observatory monitoring commitments on women’s rights made by EU member states following the landmark Bejing conference in 1995.
“Trump believes in nothing. The key to him is that he will lash out against any criticism, however small, and he will follow any praise wherever it goes. He has no idea what the facts are.
“I do not underestimate the danger of having a crazy person at the levers of power. The only other good outcome I can think of is maybe people will [be less accepting of] the US as an intrusive presence in the world.”
Asked whether she believed Clinton had made mistakes on the campaign, she said the former senator “was not a great campaigner” but had been subjected to a barrage of fake news.
“Of course she did things wrong. We all do things wrong. But here’s my measure – if I couldn’t have done better, I’m not going to criticise.
“She was not a perfect candidate, but she has also withstood 30 years of false claims. The Women’s Media Centre is making a list of all false accusations involving Hillary Clinton, from Arkansas to now. And the last one, if you’ll remember, was that she was running an infant sex trafficking something through a pizza parlour in Washington, which was so believed that somebody showed up with a gun.
“You can’t make this stuff up.”
Steinem founded the WMC with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan in 2005.
She said that Clinton also suffered from “the other deep stuff” that affects all women – that some men regress to childhood when they see a powerful women in public life, because they associate it with the authority their mothers then had.
“She was arguably perhaps the most qualified presidential candidate we’ve ever had. Was she able to be the warm, personable, funny, outrageous person in public that she was in private? No, because she’s been shot at in public all of her life. She is not a great campaigner and I can understand why.”
Steinem compared the situation in the US after Trump, and in Europe – fighting off what she said was a similarly dangerous, nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-feminist backlash – to a woman escaping a violent relationship.
“Because she is escaping control, so she is more likely to be beaten or murdered at that moment. As countries, a lot of us are at this point of escape. We have the majority of opinion now, which we didn’t have before. We have an idea of something different, we have an idea that we can be linked not ranked. So arguably, we are about to be free. And that means two things.
“We are in maximum danger, but we are about to be free.”