In France, feminism tends “to be more theoretical and academic,” Ms. Morgan said. Though there are more French national programs supporting working mothers, said Bénédicte de Montlaur, the French Embassy’s cultural counselor in New York, who came up with the festival theme, “we face the same issues, of underrepresentation, of lower salaries.”
Solutions will be debated on panels of writers and activists, including Roxane Gay, Cecile Richards, and the Guerrilla Girls, alongside prominent French thinkers like Camille Morineau, a museum director and curator.
Explaining why she wanted to take part, Ms. Steinem said: “I’m always in favor of people sitting in a circle and sharing ideas. Something unexpected always comes out of it.” (The event, held at the Albertine bookshop inside the French Embassy in Manhattan, is free and first-come, first-serve.)
Ms. Steinem and Ms. Morgan, longtime friends and colleagues, met at the French Embassy to discuss their collaboration. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Politics was going to come up no matter what, but what else did you want to include in this program?
STEINEM We wanted to talk about organizing, because the truism that movements grow from the bottom up, like a tree, and not from the top down, is still neglected. The politics of language is something as simple as always saying “mankind,” which people actually do see as men, instead of “humankind.” Mary Kathryn Nagle [a panelist] is a Cherokee lawyer and playwright, and I thought she would be a revelation. Because we don’t learn from languages that were here before Europeans showed up, and the fact that they didn’t have “he” and “she” — they weren’t gendered, they didn’t have a word for race.
And the body, for sex and race, is the source of our problem. If we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine. It’s about reproduction.
You are still protesting some of the same things you talked about when you first started as activists. How do you manage the frustration of that?
STEINEM The best thing to do with frustration is to turn it into action, and anger. That’s the only way to relieve the pressure.
MORGAN And they’re not the same. It’s like mistaking a spiral for a circle: you come back at the same thing but at a different level; you see the change from before. The young women waking up to feminism now already wake up to more consciousness than my generation had. Even just simple things like equal pay — before you went, in my generation, and asked for a raise, you went through nausea and your palms sweating. Or before you said, ‘Henry, pick up your own socks.’ Any of those things. And younger women now just come in at a level that is wonderful to see.
It doesn’t help with the socks, though.
STEINEM Here’s the best answer I ever heard about the socks. Actually it was underwear: “When he leaves his underwear on the floor, I find it quite useful to nail it to the floor.” I never forgot that.
Has the messaging changed at all, the way you deliver those ideas?
STEINEM When I first started to go out and speak, I was speaking with a partner, and one of them was Flo Kennedy. I was full of facts and figures, and she said, you know, ‘if you are lying in a ditch, with a truck on your ankle, you do not send someone to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it the [expletive] off.’ So she helped me realize that how we experience reality is not in facts and figures. It’s in simple injustice, and to say it in the way that it’s experienced.
MORGAN Feminism is experiential; it’s comparing notes. And when those stories get told and you realize it’s not just you, it’s bigger, there’s just a huge sigh of relief. Otherwise you think you’re crazy. I thought I was the only woman ever to possibly have faked an orgasm. The first time everybody in my circle said, ‘oh, you too?’, it was literally like [exhales contentedly].
Was Simone de Beauvoir a hopeful person?
MORGAN I think she was, because she wouldn’t have been as political as she was, and after all, she stayed connected to Sartre, and that must’ve taken tremendous, indefatigable hope. [laughter]
STEINEM The only time I met her to talk was, I went to her apartment, with the balcony with books all over, and she was talking about political and class lines as sometimes submerging gender. And my triumph, I felt, was that I made her laugh, by quoting Lee Grant, who said, “I’ve been married to one Marxist and one Fascist, and neither one took the garbage out.”
Are you energized by what has happened in the last year?
MORGAN Oh yes. I mean, I wish it didn’t take what it took to happen. But can you imagine what it is for ancient organizers to see this uprising, at the grass roots? I was afraid — I think all of us were afraid — that after the Women’s March, people would go back to business as usual. And that they haven’t, that they’ve sustained it, and it’s women, mostly, behind the groups that have organized —
STEINEM Black Lives Matter —
MORGAN Indivisible. And the men followed.
STEINEM I think it’s the first time in a massive way that men have just, as a matter of course, followed women’s leadership.
MORGAN And it’s a good leadership, it’s damn good, with a sense of wit and humor and passion. And we’re not going to stop. I now know that we’re not going to stop until we turn this around. The women’s march stretched from Antarctica to China. There’s a global movement, and we got to live to see the day.