Gloria Steinem answered to some questions on violence against women.
Q: What do you think are the origins of male violence against women? Is it rooted in a patriarchal society? Is it biological? Sociological? A desire for power and control?
A: The origins of violence against women by men are not biological. If that were the case, it would exist in every culture. And it doesn’t exist in every culture. There are tribal and less patriarchal cultures in which there is very little violence, or in which the violence is almost equal, you know, especially among boys and girls. But in any case, there is no organized violence. There is no frequency of rape and so on. So it can’t be biological. It has to be social.
It comes in a very deep sense from teaching men to dominate. If you’re going to have a male dominant system, to maintain the system, you have to teach men to dominate. So they come to believe that at a minimum, control is part of masculinity. And some men really, not through their own fault, got born into this culture too, but they get hooked on violence and control as a kind of drug, you know, so that if you talk to men who have been violent against women in their lives, they will speak about it almost like an addiction. I needed a fix, you know, I didn’t feel like a real man. She was daring to not have the dinner ready on time, whatever it was that made him feel even marginally out of control, then causes him to respond with violence.
Q: How do gender roles tie into violence against women?
A: Well, if you consider that the gender roles are just political, then what you come to see is that the full circle of human qualities is divided up so that two-thirds are masculine and one-third is feminine. Women are missing more of their human qualities, so you’ll find us on the fore-front of trying to change this. But men are missing some too. And because they are taught that some inevitable qualities of vulnerability and compassion and empathy and uncertainty, sadly, are feminine. Then they suppress them and hate them and feel shame about them in themselves.
That is a loss of self. Those things are part of yourself, so that’s the deepest origin of a loss of core self esteem. When you see those qualities in other people, you may be threatened by them. You’re afraid to be close to women. Because it’s not masculine to be close to women. The last time you were close to a woman, you were a child. Men may feel just disempowered by intimacy, by being close to a woman, and also by feeling the tender feelings that they’re ashamed of.
Q: Some say society is structured to allow men to be violent? Do we not only allow but encourage men to be violent?
A: Society definitely encourages and condones men’s violence toward women. Not as much as it used to be when it was less visible, and there were still laws on the books that made it alright for men to beat their wives, as long as it was within certain limits, and women were chattel. During the first suffragist wave in this nation, women were possessions, like a table or a chair. So violence toward them was quite condoned. The attitude has diminished, but it’s still there.
It starts with the slippery slope of the supposition that gender that sexual relations between men and women are dominant passive. That’s the beginning of it. Because that’s not true. So, you know, it condones domination by saying that. And then it goes all the way up the scale to beatings, torture, murder, you can hardly open a newspaper today without seeing that a woman has been killed by a man for clearly gender-related reasons.
Q: Does society also encourage women to be victims?
A: Yes, society certainly encourages women to be victims in every way. I mean if we want approval, we have to sing the blues, even as singers we sing the blues. It’s not okay for a woman to be in control of her own body, her own reproductive system, much less of her life. There’s opposition even to that. So passivity is rewarded as feminine. And when you stand up for yourself and try to be autonomous and self-determining, you’re called a lot of names that we all know and that are very common. You may lose your job. You may lose custody of your child. You may be blamed for the failure of your marriage even though it was the man who couldn’t tolerate an equal relationship. If you are beaten, you’re said to have incited it. If you’re raped, you’re said to have invited it. I mean we all know these things that are very deep in the culture. They’re diminishing. I don’t want us to be discouraged because we have made progress. But they’re still very deeply rooted.
Q: What can we do as a society to discourage violence? There are those who say it’s inevitable. Is it? Can we change? How do we change?
A: Violence is not inevitable. I mean, the only inevitable form of violence is the kind that we understand, the only legitimate (if there can ever be legitimate violence) and that’s self-defense. No other form of violence is legitimate. It is never acceptable to use violence to solve a problem. Whether personal or political. So that, added to that statement I just made would be fiercely contested by a lot of people. They would say well there’s always been wars, men have always beaten women. But it isn’t true in all cultures. It doesn’t have to be true. And the first step is imaging.
You know, we have to imagine change before we can begin to move toward it. Then we also need to not only stand at the side of the river bend and rescue the people who are drowning, which is crucial, which is why we so badly need much more money spent on programs that aid victims of domestic violence and rape and so on. But some of us also need to go to the head of the river and see why people are falling in. You know, that has to do with boys being taught that it’s masculine to be dominant and girls being taught that it’s feminine to be dominated or to be passive. We’ve had a lot of people in this country have had the courage to raise their daughters more like their sone. Which is great because it means they’re more equal, and whole women who are now standing up for themselves, is why we’re having this program. But there are many fewer people who have had the courage to raise their sons more like their daughters. And that’s what needs to be done.
Q: Is part of the answer gender equity?
A: Yes, but not just equality, because equality can sound like making a feminine equal to masculine and that’s not the point. The point is because we will, if we keep on talking about masculine and feminine and following those stereotypes, then we will make women suppress and despise their so called masculine qualities and men suppress and despise their so called feminine ones, and that’s where all the trouble starts. So, what we’re talking about is a completing the circle of ourselves. To seeing that all people have all human qualities. Not carving up the self. You know, which is the cause of this cavernous inner, unfillable vacuum. You know that then we try to fill with violence, drugs, work, I mean all kind of addiction.
Q: In Revolution Within, you talk about self-esteem, saying that self-hatred leads to the need to dominate and be dominated. Is part of the answer to improve self-esteem in addition to challenging traditional gender roles? Is it a matter of teaching mutual respect? What specific advice would you give women? Men?
A: Well, I think that the advice is not different because it’s challenging gender roles. But it may sound different because even though we’re trying to complete the circle, we’re traveling in the direction we haven’t been in order to do that. So, for instance, if you think about the golden rule, which was written by men for men, and is very smart, you know, to treat other people as you would like to be treated. That’s very important and very helpful. But women need to treat ourselves as well as we treat others. We need to reverse it. We also need to recognize that there are some people who will be unable to change. So we need to enforce the law. You know, there’s much of a concern about crime in this country but not when it’s crime against women and children.
Q: How do we, as you say, diminish violence, not just punish it?
A: Well, we need to stop raising boys to think that they need to prove their masculinity by being controlling or by not showing emotion or by not being little girls. You can ask kids and if you ask a little girl what do you want to be when you grown up, she’ll tell you three things. And boys are the reverse. What do you want to be — well they name lots of things, but if you say do you want to be, what if you were a little girl, they get very upset at the very idea they might be this inferior thing. They’ve already got this idea that in order to be boys they have to be superior to girls and that’s the problem.