Gloria Steinem worked as an undercover bunny for 17 days at Hefner's Playboy Club. She did an exposé that revealed how bunnies often waitressed long hours at low wages under humiliating conditions.
“If you are not feminist in love, you fail to recognise someone who does not love you,” says Gloria Steinem. “Feminism makes love easier. Otherwise, there is the danger of feeling romantically drawn to someone who does not see you as an equal.”
She would know. The 79-year-old American feminist has spent over 50 years fighting for all forms of love – of women and men as equals, and same-sex love; of one’s body and reproductive freedom; of social and political justice for all.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist, where everyone can be themselves. Men are as dehumanised by the masculine role forced upon them as women are by the feminine role,” she says. "We need to raise our sons more like our daughters, so we do not cut off empathy.”
Ask her about the reputation of feminists being a bunch of angry, bitter, man-hating, bra-burning women and Steinem says most people still do not understand feminism. “Anyone who believes in social, economic and political equality for the sexes is a feminist,” says Steinem.
But she believes in the importance of anger.
“Anger is energising. The opposite of anger is depression, which is anger turned inward,” she says.
“Women are not accustomed to using their voices against injustice. Female inferiority is internalised by us. Women need a lot more confidence.”
Indeed, when the political activist looks back at the women’s liberation movement she gave a face to in the late 1960s and 70s, she wishes she had been less well-behaved.
“We were too well-behaved, too patient. We were asking for reform and rights, instead of forcing them,” smiles Steinem, who first came to India as a 22-year-old student on a fellowship.
Now her relationship with India is “permanent”.
She has spoken to women in India ranging from college students to the sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district. But she objects to the term ‘sex work’.
“Body invasion is not work. It is a function of inequality.”
She believes neither legalising nor decriminalising prostitution is the answer. Instead, she advocates the Nordic model, which originated in Sweden: decriminalise the prostitutes, but penalize the customers and prosecute pimps.
The radical feminist icon also has a nuanced view of erotica, which she sees as very different from pornography.
“Porn is about sexual violence and domination of women, while erotica is about mutual pleasure and choice,” she says.
Steinem is happy with the tremendous turnout of women protesting on the streets, in the aftermath of the December 16 gangrape in Delhi.
“Women must take back the streets. Instead of keeping the women safe from the streets, we must make the streets safer for women,” she says.