The Moment of Greatest Danger;
The Moment of Greatest Freedom
By Gloria Steinem
[More than four years ago, in the fall of 2013, The Shalom Center celebrated the approaching 80th birthdays of Gloria Steinem and myself with a gathering titled "This is what 80 Looks Like: Activists as Elders, Elders as Activists." I certainly do not need to tell you who Gloria Steinem is. On that evening, Gloria said something that has echoed in my mind and heart ever since. It is the quote with which she begins this comment on where we stand today. -- AW, editor]
“American society is living now at the moment when an abused wife walks out of the household. It is the moment of greatest possibility for freedom, and the moment of greatest danger that the abusive husband will try to kill her. Freedom depends on her having a community to protect and nurture her. Right now, many abused communities are walking out of their abusive households. Almost certainly, there will be attempts by those in power to choke these energies to death. Together, we can nurture them and all of us to greater freedom, greater justice.”
Those were words I said to you-all at The Shalom Center when we were last together in the fall of 2013. That they were written down at all, I owe to the generosity of Arthur Waskow. Since the 2017 Presidential election -- and all that has flowed from it -- they have turned out to be more of a truth and warning than I could have known or guessed at the time.
It has taken a voter turnout rate lower than that in India, an outdated Electoral College, and a name popularized in TV “reality” shows to empower the third of the country that is in backlash against social justice movements. Yet that third of voters did elect to the top of our hierarchy a President who represents powers that are indeed trying to “choke those energies to death.”
This is happening even though – and also because -- the issues of social justice movements are now supported by the majority of Americans in public opinion polls.
Yet two big things also happened the day after the election. First, we learned that Donald Trump was the second man in modern history to win the Presidency despite losing the popular vote -- and the one who lost it with by far the largest margin. Second, we probably didn’t learn that Rebecca Shook, a retired lawyer living in Hawaii, posted on Facebook her idea that women should march on Washington in response to the first thing.
Now a year later, the energy released by that obscure woman –-- and by everyone who has ever stood up and said, “It’s not fair!” -- is beginning to rival the power that is choking us from the top.
Not only was that Washington March with its sister marches all across America the biggest demonstration in the history of the nation –- not only national but global –-- it was a reminder of all the marches of past and present against racial and economic injustice.
It set off a wave of protests against anyone in elected office who wasn’t following or listening to the majority will. It also initiated candidacies by Americans who had never run for office before -- or perhaps even voted. We cannot minimize the danger we are in, from war talk with North Korea to judicial appointments we will be facing for years to come.
But in my long life, I have never seen such a populist, spontaneous, long-lasting, and self-willed rebellion. Planes have been stopped on the tarmac to warn those aboard that exclusionary immigration policies might not let them back in. Candidacies have been launched by Americans who are supposed to be outsiders by race, sex, class, gender, and/or sexuality, yet they have beaten longtime representatives at the polls.
Donald Trump himself has helped galvanize the March and the rebellions that have been happening ever since. By his fact-free Tweets, narcissistic lashing out at the smallest criticism, seduction by any praise, even from his country’s enemies, and appointment of a fox to head every chicken coop in Washington, he has depressed his Gallup poll ratings to a level way below that of any previous President.
Also, because he rose to office as the unpunished Harasser-in-Chief, he has turned a Me, Too movement into a coast-to-coast It’s About Time! Movement. This has just turned the Golden Globes into the first ever mainstream television event that belonged to women as much as men; to an organizer of household workers as much as a movie star.
Though we always knew that Trump would be richer if he had just invested what he inherited from his father, now we know he would be more popular if he just disappeared.
So in recognition that we, too, need Twitter-length versions of why we are in this struggle together – why we need a deep democracy of human beings who are linked, not ranked -- let me just remind us that sexism, racism and class systems are all intertwined. That’s because controlling reproduction, and therefore female bodies, is the only way to maintain differences of race and class in the long run.
Of course, racism often affects women differently. White women have been more likely to be sexually restricted in order to maintain racial “purity,” while black women have been more likely to be sexually exploited in order to produce cheap labor. For both women and men, class negates our equal status at birth inn all kinds of ways from inheritance to health and education. Altogether, there is no such thing as freedom for anyone as long as racism, sexism and economic class decide our fates.
The bad news is that we are in maximum danger. Like the woman escaping from a violent household, we are at the moment when our captor is most fearful and likely to strike.
The good news is that we are now Woke! Like that escaping woman, we see the maximum danger, and yet know we also could be free.
We must work hard, organize every minute, and take care of each other. Yet I think there is no turning back. We are escaping old divisions.
We just might be on the way to new freedom.