Gloria Steinem Credited With Abortion Quote Long Attributed To Black Feminist

Gloria Steinem’s name is synonymous with feminism. She is maybe the movement’s most recognizable contemporary—hell, my computer even knew how to spell her last name. Of course there are always critics, and hers have been harsh of everything from her belts to her fingernails, but she has an overall sterling reputation at the forefront of women’s equality. She is also currently promoting her new book My Life On The Road, and has been making the press circuit befitting of a feminist icon, from a sit down interview with Katie Couric, to being interviewed by Lena Dunham for Dunham’s email newsletter, Lenny (which was discussed here recently for its bizarre, nostalgic reverence for second wave feminism). But this most recent surge of Steinem blurbs has revealed that perhaps she isn’t as intersectional as one would expect a feminist hero to be.

The thought first passed through my mind when listening to Steinem’s NPR interview this week, in which she was asked the silly question of if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, will the fight for women’s equality be over. I pray the question was just to get a more spirited response from Steinem, but for being such a simple-minded inquiry, it actually elicited something more revealing. Steinem compared Hillary winning to Obama winning, in that neither victory meant or will mean the end of the struggle for black people or women, respectively, but that it was for Obama, and could in Hillary’s case, be a huge step forward. As she spoke of the frequent sociopolitical faux pas sometimes spread around by casual white racists, the idea that we live in a post-racial world, she mislabeled the term as “post-racist…,” a disconnect was palpable. It became glaringly obvious that perhaps the leading white feminist’s feminism might be out of touch.

And then I saw something that proved this in my mind. It was a Guardian headline that read, “Gloria Steinem: If Men Could Get Pregnant, Abortion Would Be A Sacrament.” If you pay attention to the current feminist conversation, intersectionality is now at the forefront, which has been a much needed shift in thinking about the needs of women of different races, gender identities and socioeconomic classes. Despite its great achievements in the past, feminism until recently was the privilege of white women, but that is changing now. So back to the Guardian article, the glaring problem with that headline is that quote has long been attributed to Florynce Kennedy, a black lawyer, civil rights activist and feminist who passed away in 2000.

Actually, until I saw the Guardian headline, I’d always considered that quote to have come from Kennedy. Even Dunham, Steinem’s second wave champion, posted the quote embossed on Kennedy’s image to Instagram a few months ago. I began scouring the long interview with Steinem for where she makes the statement from which the headline was taken. It read:

“Steinem says, as she must have said thousands of times over the last 40 years and with the amusement that permits her to go on, ‘If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.’”

The whole presentation leaves a bad taste—a younger white feminist using the quote of an older black feminist who is now dead to the point that it’s become her catchphrase, at least the way the author of the piece sees it, as I’m sure many other people do as well. The idea that she is seen as having said it a thousand times, and with amusement, just conjures the idea of a plagiarist itself. What caught me even more by surprise was the fact that Florynce Kennedy is even mentioned by Steinem later in the piece, as a side note about when the two marched together once, and never in reference to the fact that perhaps she was the original author of the quote.

I’m not saying Gloria Steinem is a bad feminist—even though that might not necessarily be a bad thing if you look at the way Roxanne Gay commandeered the term into its own kind of feminism—but perhaps she does need some updating on what this generation of women want from their feminism before she is venerated in an adoring press junket. It’s also unclear which of these two well-respected women first coined the adage. But white people white washing the words of black activists is a long endured evil, and for there to even be a question looks worse for Steinem that it does Kennedy. What’s most problematic is that no journalist is willing to directly ask her about the quote, because for such a tough broad, she shouldn’t be afraid of a tough question.