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A Chat with Gloria Steinem

February 15, 2010

(Regular contributor Michael Seltzer spoke with Gloria Steinem last week about the economic downturn and its impact on women and nonprofit organizations that serve and support women and girls. In his last post, Seltzer shared his thoughts about what donors to Haiti relief efforts can learn from past disasters.)

Steinem Michael Seltzer: There has been a lot of discussion among nonprofit leaders about the fact that nonprofits have become the nation's de facto safety net for those most affected by the economic downturn. Do you agree? And what do you think the Obama administration should be doing to address the situation?

Gloria Steinem: Americans need more than a safety net. They really need a trampoline to get back on their feet. The New Deal provided that by creating jobs at the bottom, where they were needed most. In this recession, in contrast, all we've seen are "trickle down" approaches to the problem. Money has not been injected at the bottom, but instead has gone mostly to the big financial institutions and banks at the top of the heap.

MS: Some journalists have used the term "mancession" to describe this downturn. To what extent do the unemployment numbers support that characterization?

GS: The public is pretty aware that industrial manufacturing and construction have been especially hard hit in this recession, which means we've lost proportionately more of the blue-collar, higher-salary, good-benefit jobs where men tend to be employed than the lower-paid, lower-benefit jobs in the pink-collar ghetto that are disproportionately held by women and people of color.

Those jobs have been in a recession for a long time, but economists and journalists seem to take it more seriously when white males lose jobs or suffer income loss. Job loss is even used to excuse male violence, but never female violence. This shouldn't be a competition for sympathy. A growing number of women find themselves in the position of having to support their families on less money than might have been the case a few years ago, whether it's because they're the sole breadwinner for the family or because their male partners are now out of work. In any case, most women are working at two jobs, with one being inside the home. In fact, one of the positive things that could come out of this recession is if more men become equal partners and parents at home.

What's really interesting to me is the way we talk about the economy -- it's like the old maps of Africa that only showed where white folks had settled and labeled the rest of the continent "unexplored." Let's face it, it's always been a recession or a depression in black and other minority communities, whether you're talking about urban ghettos or Native American reservations. And our politicians have always conveniently ignored that fact. I remember when Richard Nixon only asked for the unemployment rate of white married men, as if nobody else counted.

We haven't really come too far from those days with all the talk about a "mancession." The way I see it, the issue is not so much about joblessness as about who is supposed to have a job and how work is defined. For example, about a third of the productive work in the country takes the form of human maintenance and caregiving, and 90 percent of it is done by women. But it isn't even counted as work. That's crazy. Caregiving work, whether done by women or men, should be given an attributed value and be made tax-deductible.

MS: In the best of economic times, organizations supporting women, girls, and families have never enjoyed the level of philanthropic support that they need to truly advance their missions. What are you seeing and hearing from those kinds of frontline nonprofits now?

GS: Broadly defined, the entire women's movement still only attracts about half the contributions given to, say, museums. And anti-choice organizations still have more resources than pro-choice organizations, even though 70 percent of the country believes that reproductive decisions should be made by a woman and her physician, not by judges or government bureaucrats.

MS: Do you have any specific recommendations for individual donors and foundations?

GS: The good news is that at least some of those foundations dealing with women and girls in other countries are beginning to realize that investing equally in health, welfare, and economic autonomy for females is the way to achieve the most impact on everything from reducing violence to spreading democracy. Similarly, In the United States, women of means are beginning to insist on controlling their own financial resources and are using them to support women and girls. They are beginning to understanding that we'll never end the feminization of poverty until we end the masculinization of wealth.

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Ruth Minger  |   February 18, 2010 at 05:45 AM

Thanks for this thought-provoking piece and for bringing us the insight of one of America's great women.

Ms. Steinem makes a strong point in clear language: "we'll never end the feminization of poverty until we end the masculinization of wealth."

What's really needed to address pressing social issues in America and around the world is new thinking, new ways of framing ideas. Words matter. They are powerful tools for presenting truth, for guiding new thinking.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   February 18, 2010 at 06:19 PM

Thank you, Ruth, for your comments and for a richly-deserved tribute to Gloria Steinem. Others will not necessarily know that you are joining in this conversation from the Netherlands, which gives your words extra meaning.

Gloria is a great writer, activist, citizen of the world, and my favorite wordsmith.

Posted by Georgia R  |   February 19, 2010 at 01:22 PM

Red Cross efforts to distribute food in Haiti and other human catastrophic conditions began their efforts by distributing food to women only. In their work they discovered that providing to the women created the fastest even distribution of resources. Gloria's well aimed comments here address this on a financial level.

Posted by Joyce Yu  |   February 22, 2010 at 01:00 PM

Dear Michael, Having worked with Gloria at the Ms Foundationfor Women and then, to work in the world's largest multiateral donor agency - UN Development Programme, it was refreshing to make the dots connect. Your interview with Gloria really brought home the need for more public discourse on the financial crisis from a feminist point of view. The fundamental questions raised in your interview and Gloria's responses have indeed an important historical perspective lacking in today's news. What is work? How is it counted, renumerated and celebrated? And then, what can we do to "make change" through philanthropy? Great interview and look forward to your next piece.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   February 27, 2010 at 05:31 PM

Thank you, Joyce, for sharing your thoughts.

Last night on the PBS News Hour, Don Peck, deputy managing editor of The Atlantic, joined the ranks of other male journalists in using the phrase 'mancession'.

His article in the current Atlantic unsurprisingly ignores the recession's impact on women. While women now constitute a larger percentage of the work force than any other time in our lifetime and perhaps, in our history, Mr. Peck quotes an expert who raises the 'threat' of a future of a more matriarchal society. I find it amazing that he could actually lay the blame on women for a future deteriorating economy and family structures as well.

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