The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.

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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: Long before the most recent wave of disturbing revelations about sexual assault and harassment, activists like Gloria Steinem have been working tirelessly to put a spotlight on the global epidemic of violence against women and its root causes and effects on society. In 2016, as executive producer and host of Viceland's Emmy-nominated television series WOMAN, Steinem joined a packed house at Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium for a special screening of one of the episodes, "USA: Assault in the Military."

Before the screening, I caught up with Steinem backstage to hear more about the series, and to get her thoughts on the relationship between the arts and activism, and the importance of access to—and representation of—a diversity of voices in the media landscape.

A little note on the audio for this episode: We recorded this conversation in an office just above Broadway and it had a lot of windows, so you'll hear some background noise and even some sirens at one point.

This is Lincoln Center with Gloria Steinem.

KG: Let's begin with what brings you here to Lincoln Center. You're hosting a screening and discussion of WOMAN, a new series for Vice Media that you're executive producing and hosting. Can you tell us a little bit about that show and how you came to the project?

Gloria Steinem: It was really a fateful event. Because I have been saying for a very long time, and many people have been saying for a very long time, that if you now add up all the forms of violence against women around the world, it turns out that, as the U.N. will tell us, there are now fewer females on Earth than males for the first time. And the fateful part of it was that I happened to say that at a Google Camp, a place of discussing ideas, where Shane Smith, who is one of the inventors of Vice, was. And he, unlike lots of people I've said it to, took it to heart and said, "We have to talk about showing this." I know that we use the term "reality TV," but I think this is reality TV, not what we usually call that.

KG: And you decided to not only executive produce, but to actually host the show as well. You're sort of the face and the voice of the program.

GS: Well, I mean, I introduce and exit, but there are eight female correspondents from many different countries around the world who are on the ground doing the reporting and they do a great job because they ask questions in a journalistic way that doesn't assume the answer. But they also respond like human beings. I mean, they don't pretend that they're not moved by what they are seeing. And the result is like being there yourself. It is not a constructed documentary—which are good things because then you can do history and much more context—but this is really like being there on the ground yourself.

KG: And tell us a little bit about the specific episode that's being shown tonight, "USA: Assault in the Military."

GS: As we know, as just newspaper readers, the problem of sexual assault in the military for both women and men, but especially for women, is extreme. And it has added sets of problems that are almost like family abuse because you are so dependent on the people you are serving with, and the element of trust is so important. When there is severe abuse in that chain of command, where do you go, you know? How do you respond? And therefore, you know, I think it's very important, especially because we have not solved the problem of how to report such abuse outside the chain of command.

KG: So this story is one of many that you tell over the course of this first season.

GS: One of eight. Yeah, it's a series of eight.

KG: How did you source these stories? I mean, there are so many stories to tell. How did you focus in on these eight?

GS: Well, clearly, you know, there could be many more, but we wanted to make clear that this was not someone else's problem. It wasn't "over there" in some other continent. So we especially wanted to have at least one here. And of course there's also mothers in prison here, and also in Canada, native Canadian women. Then the question is, you know, there are worldwide problems and where is it possible to tell the story? So Zambia, for instance, where child marriage is situated. Now, that's a problem in many different countries of the world, but in Zambia, you see it and you also see a government trying to do something about it. There is a woman high up in the government who speaks about it. It doesn't "otherize" people. You know, it shows that people there are also trying to make change. And there's a great scene at the end with girls on bicycles going from village to village saying, you know, organizing.

KG: What do you want people to take away or to do after watching the show?

GS: I think the first thing that came to my head, anyway, is be a witness, which is why it's one of the subheads of the show, because when something terrible is happening to us, I think we want first to know that we're not invisible. That somebody sees us, you know. We feel that, we all feel that. And then that perhaps they can help. So at the end of each of these episodes, there is a place or places where you can be helpful, you know, by money, by awareness, by learning more. We don't want to leave people feeling hopeless. On the contrary, we hope this is a springboard to action.

KG: So I want to switch gears just a little bit and talk about the Women's Media Center, which you helped found in 2005. I'm going to quote a little bit of its mission statement. It says: "We are directly engaged with the media at all levels to ensure that a diverse group of women is present in newsrooms, on air, in print, and online, in film, entertainment, and theater, as sources and subjects." A big mission for sure.

GS: Yes, very big.

KG: And I want to talk about that mission as it relates to the work that we do primarily here at Lincoln Center as a home for the performing arts. So I'll start off with a big question. How have you seen and felt the arts impact your own activism and your career over the years?

GS: Well, from a personal point of view, I only saw women who were doing something atypical—that is, different from being wives and mothers and following the lead of society in my era, you know—I only saw women in the movies who were singing and dancing. I can't tell you how hard I worked to dance my way out of Toledo. This was not overwhelmingly practical (laughs). But I think that show business becomes to girls, especially in poor neighborhoods, which this was, what sports is to boys in poor neighborhoods. It's the only place you see somebody who looks like you who's doing something different, you know, from the traditional thing. As they say, "If you can't see it, you can't be it." So nothing to me is more important than the media being inclusive. You know, we've been sitting around campfires for who knows, a hundred thousand years at least, telling stories. Our brains are organized on narrative and image. We listen to each other's stories, that's how we learn. And the media are the current campfire. When people are excluded by category, you feel invisible. You don't know if you can do it because you can't see it.

KG: So how do you think the arts campfire is doing right now?

GS: There are great surveys, and the Women's Media Center's issues its own survey every year of exactly, statistically, how we are doing. But I think the easiest way to say it is the more money and cooperation you need, the fewer the women or the outside group by race, or in any way, the more white guys are there. So one-woman shows, or one-person shows... There's more diversity. There's more, there are more poets than playwrights. There are more stand-up comics than movies. If it requires less cooperation and less money, there's more diversity. But as you go up, it's really quite difficult. And especially, including behind the scenes. Who are the camera people? Who are the directors? Ms. magazine did a cover story with various actors on the cover with animals saying "Women are An Endangered Species in Hollywood" (laughs). It has not changed that much, which is interesting because it doesn't even make economic sense. I mean, if you take the same amount of money that you need for a big Hollywood blockbuster and divide that up into movies where people actually talk to each other (laughs), known as "chick flicks," perhaps... Well, let me put it this way, one "prick flick" (laughs) can cost the same amount as ten "chick flicks." And the ten chick flicks make more money, actually. Make more profit. But Hollywood still tends to go for the one big prick flick. So we need to argue the economics as well as the statistics.

KG: So what can the female artist or arts administrator do on the day to day to kind of strengthen our case and get our representation out there and stronger?

GS: You know, we can do what we have access to, you know. Suppose we're theatergoers or moviegoers. If we see a movie that does kind of represent human beings a little better, we can make sure we go on the first day that its released, when those numbers count. If we are actors and we see a casting call for a judge, and we are a Puerto Rican woman, go! How come we can't have a judge who's a Puerto Rican woman? Sometimes the adversary is in our heads, too. The expectation. You know, it depends what we have access to. I think it's not so much what we should do as doing everything we can. And it's fun, actually, you know, to invent, what we can do to make change.

KG: Well, hopefully, I guess in our small way, for our listeners out there, everyone in this room, part of our media team, are all women here today and we're making this podcast, so hopefully we are doing a little bit of our part.

GS: Hear, hear. And some of it is just looking for general change because we do have the dead white men phenomenon in academia and in the arts, and so on. You know, maybe it's because it's in public domain, I don't know, they don't have to pay that much (laughs), but what's viewed as the canon or the classics are way less representative usually than what is current. So, you know, we can point that out, too.

KG: So in your book, your very beautiful memoir, My Life On the Road, there are several examples of small, really beautiful moments of art making its way into your life. Can you give us an example, either from the book or otherwise, of a specific piece of art really sticking out as a real tool for activism in action?

GS: When you say that, I have to say what comes to my mind first is Alice Walker. Because she was published by Ms. magazine a lot, and then, you know, she became better known. But I realized, because in the beginning when we were publishing her, she wasn't that well known except to people for whom she was a lifeline. As I traveled around to campuses, for instance, people would say "You know Alice Walker?" It was like water in the desert. And so, you know, that helped to teach me how important it is.

KG: So I'd love to ask you about a specific moment that you recount in the book and ask you to tell us this story of the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston. And a story that you tell revolves around the language used by the Native American and Alaskan Native American Caucus.

GS: I was being just a scribe. That was a huge, enormous conference that was still the most representative by age and race and class and different groups in this country that has ever been. It is, as I describe in the book, the most important meeting nobody knows about. And of course each group—the Asian Pacific Islanders, the Native Americans, African Americans, Latinas, everybody—had issues that were sometimes the same, so they could be stated mutually, and sometimes different. Say, war brides, you know, would be a different issue, or land rights would be a Native American issue. So each group—there was a mutual statement and then each group had its own statement, but there was only one that had poetry and that was the Native American one. And only one that talked about the great goddess, the great mother, the great, you know. I mean, other cultures do that but only Native American women put it in their statement. And there was, as I record, a woman who summed it up to me by saying that that was the only thing her grandmother...and all of the issues were very important, but they were all in political speak or government speak, that that Native American statement was the only thing that her grandmother would have given a damn about.

KG: Because, I'm just going to quote you quoting her here, "Issues are the head and those words are the heart." And I just love that line so much because it sums up the whole thing. You know, that the art, the poetry, the song, the film, what have you, can be the heart for political action. Words and narrative.

GS: Yeah, I know. Absolutely. How can we explain why that is, it both seems self-evident and mysterious, doesn't it?

KG: Yeah.

GS: It's the story. It's what you can empathize with and identify with and makes you feel seen and heard, and it has hope in it. If you can imagine it, you can perhaps do it. I mean, hope is a form of planning.

KG: So how do you think the role of arts in activism has changed throughout your own career as an activist. I mean, we're living in a time when anyone with a smartphone can make a podcast or make a short film or publish a blog or whatever. Has that helped? Has it hurt?

GS: I think it's mostly helped. Just as an example, ever since I was a teenager living in Toledo, people have been saying, "If you're black in America, you don't necessarily think that a cop is going to help you." So it isn't as if it wasn't happening, you know, and people didn't know it. But you couldn't prove it. So now that everybody has a cellphone, it's very helpful. Because you can see that it's real. It's made a huge difference.

KG: So the question I would follow that with is the importance still—and I go back to your book on this, the idea of talking circles and actually getting people in a room together face to face as opposed to virtual communication, because we're all communicating all the time now. We're always on text and email and FaceTime...

GS: Yes, I'm glad you said that, because I do think we need to realize that media is not reality. Reality is reality. So we can greatly benefit from iPhones and everything, but we can't actually... We can learn, but we can't fully understand, we can't empathize. I did ask my friendly neurologist if you could produce oxytocin, which is the hormone that allows us to empathize with each other...if a man or a woman holds a baby, you're flooded with oxytocin. If you see another human being in dire trouble, you're flooded with oxytocin. It's why the species survives, you're impelled to help that person. That is not produced by looking at a page, as much as I love books, or looking at a screen, as much as I love movies and the web. It only happens when we are together with all five senses, so we really need that. And I'm so grateful that I learned that by accident in my own life, because I was a writer and I was devoted to never speaking in public. I'd been two things in my life, a dancer and a writer. Both because I didn't want to talk (laughs). And I never would have been in that situation of being in a talking circle if I had been able to publish what I wanted to publish about the women's movement in its earlier years. But since I couldn't, I was forced into going out to speak. I couldn't do it by myself, I was going with another...which also was a good thing. Because we were quite different and then we made it more clear that this was a big movement.

KG: And how do you feel about public speaking nowadays? Has it just been sort of part and parcel of every day?

GS: No, I still get nervous. I still lose all my saliva, which is my (laughs).... Everybody, I suppose, has a symptom of nervousness, that's mine. It doesn't seem curable after all these years. But I have learned one, that you don't die, this is big (laughs). Two, that people understand that, if you just confess that you're nervous, they'll understand. And also that something happens in a room when we are together with all five senses that just doesn't happen anyplace else. And finally, talking and listening needs to be balanced. I'm not learning while I'm talking. So I love to listen because then I get to learn something. It's about balance, really. I mean, especially if there's a difference in power, if, say, I have more power than other people in a group, it's important that I listen more than I talk. If I have less power it's important that I talk as much as I listen, which can be just as difficult, because you're used to hiding, not talking. So just kind of simple common sense things. If we practice them in a kind of daily common sense way, really make a difference.

KG: Well, I confess that I was a little nervous coming into this conversation today, but being here with all of you and you has certainly helped.

GS: See, you didn't die (laughs).

KG: Thank you so much for taking the time. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

GS: Oh, thank you.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell and Rob Schulte.

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Read more about the collaboration between Lincoln Center and VICE News: "Partners in Truth: VICE News & the David Rubenstein Atrium"