By Rebecca Mead
The night before Holly Spinelli, an energetic high-school English teacher, was due to attend a seminar with Gloria Steinem, she had a nightmare in which she arrived at the event only to discover that her name wasn’t on the list. The following day, Spinelli, who teaches at City-As-School, a public school in the West Village, showed up early at the New-York Historical Society to discover that she was, in fact, expected, as were fifteen other teachers from public and private schools around the city. From Dalton came Catherine Edwards, a history teacher, whose eager students had shown her how she might take a surreptitious photo of Steinem on her phone by pretending to make a call. From Wings Academy High School, in the Bronx, came Matthew Foglino, a social-studies teacher. Two-thirds of the students in his school qualify for free lunch, and it has a nearly twenty-per-cent truancy rate. “A lot of my kids hate my guts, because when they see they have me as a teacher they know I am going to make them work their butts off,” Foglino said. “I’m grateful to be here—and so are my kids, I should say.”
“I’m Gloria Steinem, and I wish I were in every one of your classrooms,” Steinem said by way of introducing herself to the group, whose members sat at tables arranged in an egalitarian square shape in the society’s imposing library. The seminar, which was organized by the Academy for Teachers, a not-for-profit dedicated to educating educators, was devoted to the question of how best to address feminism in the classroom. Edwards, the Dalton teacher, said that her students were well informed about issues of injustice overseas—“They know where Matt Damon is on a daily basis”—but were reluctant to look at inequities in their own country. Steinem pointed out that upper-class women don’t always have it easy, even in the United States. “Women in families of inherited wealth are often in deep, deep shit,” she said. “We need to acknowledge that women are not always in the same class as their fathers and husbands. They never get the confidence of a paycheck.” Alexa Encarnacion, who teaches history at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, in East Harlem, said that her female students had a hard time relating to feminism, too. “As soon as you bring out the word ‘vagina,’ it’s like, ‘Ugh,’?” Encarnacion said. “I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with you? You all have a vagina.’ ”
Arnie Mansdorf, who teaches at the High School of American Studies, at Lehman College, in the Bronx, asked whether there was a role for men in the ongoing pursuit of women’s equality. Steinem said warmly that there was. “First, we were dependent, and we rebelled against that; and then we became independent, and we presented ourselves—‘Here we are,’ ” she said. “Only then were we able to be connected. We had our declaration of independence, and now we need a declaration of interdependence.” Steinem, who will turn seventy-nine this month, demonstrated a familiarity with evolutions in gender-related liberation struggles after Emily Schorr Lesnick, a drama instructor in her first year of teaching at Riverdale Country School, described herself as a cisgender woman. “At first, I thought, Oh, no, give me a break,” Steinem said. “And then I thought, Maybe I should have an adjective if everyone else does.”
Steinem said she was encouraged by the wide front of contemporary feminist activism. “Part of the reason you know me and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm is that we were twelve crazy people. Now there are so many.” She defended Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” project. “I think it’s positive, and she’s had such a backlash,” Steinem said. “Only in a woman would success be seen as a barrier to giving advice. Meanwhile, Trump, whose brain is deteriorating under the heat of his toupee, is fine giving advice.” She played a clip from “MAKERS,” the recent PBS documentary about the history of the women’s movement in the United States, which showed Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League school, Brown University, who grew up in the segregated South as the twelfth child of sharecroppers. “Don’t you think she should be President?” Steinem said.
Holly Spinelli, the nightmare-suffering teacher, asked Steinem for suggestions on how to persuade her students to embrace the very word “feminism,” which many resisted. “I do think you need to send people to a dictionary to see what that means,” Steinem replied. “When I get really frustrated, I say you’re either a feminist or a masochist—those are the only two choices. But I don’t recommend that.” After Steinem left—with promises to send all the teachers bracelets like the one she was wearing, made with beads that spelled out “We are linked not ranked”—Spinelli declared herself inspired and energized. “Are there words for these feelings?” she said, with a sigh of relief that the list had included her after all.