Produced and hosted by activist, journalist, and feminist leader Gloria Steinem, Viceland’s Emmy-nominated television series WOMAN offers a cross-cultural view of violence against women—its root causes and how it impacts society at large. Ms. Steinem joins WOMAN's executive producer Ariel Wengroff on August 30 at the David Rubenstein Atrium for a screening and discussion of the episode "USA: Assault in the Military."
In advance of the screening, the two discussed the origin of the collaboration and the goals of the project.
Ariel Wengroff: First, can you tell us about the issues that this series addresses?
Gloria Steinem: On the news, we may see isolated stories of violence against females, but they are usually about one case and country. We get drawn into the details of the story—which are crucial—but they may leave us blaming a particular circumstance or culture or religion, or, in the past, even blaming the woman herself. Was she in the wrong place? Dressed the wrong way? Did she disobey the rules? By finding fault with the victim, we're hoping: If I just don't do that, it won't happen to me.
Only by seeing violence against females collectively, across cultures, can we begin to see that, statistically speaking, anyone can run into a violent man. Male dominance as a philosophy teaches males they are not "real men" unless they are superior to women. There are a lot of brave male allies who don't buy this, but male dominance is a drug that many men get hooked on and whole cultures and religions enshrine as a norm.
Only looking at anti-female violence in more than one country—from, say, son surplus and daughter deficit in much of Asia to domestic violence here—can explain to us why there is so much violence against females globally. As the United Nations statistics tell us, there are now fewer females on earth than males—perhaps a first in human history. Male-dominant systems have only been in the majority for the last five percent or so of human history—original cultures were more likely to be matrilineal (not matriarchal) and about balance. But new or old, we are now endangered by the false notion of a right to dominate by sex or race.
For instance, thanks to a pioneering book called Sex and World Peace, we know that the biggest indicator of violence in any country—whether it's violence in the streets or the use of military violence—is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy. It's violence against females. That's what we see first in our neighborhoods, even our own families, and it normalizes the idea that one group is born to dominate another—whether by sex or race, or caste or class. It makes us believe that humans are ranked instead of linked.
WOMAN takes a look at many continents and cultures. Each segment focuses on a different issue and country, including the United States and Canada. All of these instances—child marriage in Zambia, murdered indigenous women in Canada, sexual assault in the U.S. Military, mass rape in the Congo—are connected. We can uproot them together by challenging the whole idea of male dominance, wherever we are.
"Violence against females is the single best indicator of all other violence."
AW: How did this project come about. Why VICE?
GS: I was at a meeting organized by Google, and I said something that I've said a hundred times before—that violence against females is the single best indicator of all other violence, and is now so severe that there are fewer females on Earth than males. [VICE CEO] Shane Smith was there, too, and suggested we meet at home in New York and figure out what we could do together. Actually, he told me there were tears in his eyes because he has daughters. I told him I had said this to other people with daughters, and they didn't respond in the same way. The truth is that Shane has a heart. I was there with my colleague, Amy Richards, and so we met at the VICE offices in Brooklyn and began to envision this series.
If you're asking because VICE has been seen as being a guy audience, I would just say that's changing. There is a different woman correspondent for each segment of this series—each with a gift for asking questions in a way that doesn't dictate the answer, and all responding as a human being, not a talking head. All of those women correspondents were chosen by VICE, and the result is the closest thing to being there yourself.
AW: There are eight segments. How did you determine which eight issues to focus on?
GS: We could have done many more—we're talking about more—but we wanted to start with a global series that made clear that no country is without anti-female violence. For instance, child marriage is a fact of life in many countries, and in Zambia, we could tell a personal story, and also talk to a woman high in the government and young women going on bikes from village to village to speak against child marriage. Women are not only victims, but strong and active. In Canada, there is massive violence against Native Canadian women, even though that country has been better than the U.S. about admitting, say, the generations of abuse in religious boarding schools that both our countries forced Native children into. In this country, we focused on mothers in prison because we may know that the U.S. incarcerates a bigger proportion of our citizens than any other country in the world, yet we only envision only men, and don't realize the intergenerational cost when those prisoners are parents, and especially, given lopsided responsibility for children, when they are mothers.
"We now know that we're not crazy, the system is crazy."
AW: You have spent most of your life fighting for greater rights for women. Where have you seen the most change?
GS: Where once there were only a few women protesting unfairness and violence, now, support for all the issues of equality is the majority. That's a huge difference. We now know that we're not crazy, the system is crazy. Also there was always some understanding that sexism and racism can only be uprooted together—females are half of every population, and also perpetuating racism means controlling reproduction and women's bodies—but I hope there is now more understanding that movements must be connected, not put into silos. For instance, the women's movement came out of the Civil Rights movement, and now, Black Lives Matter was started by three young women. Also you can't talk about global warming without a root cause in forcing women to have more children than they want. Wherever there is reproductive freedom, population settles at a little around replacement level; after all, it's a health issue for women.
AW: How can this series make a difference in the lives of women?
GS: At a minimum, each viewer will see more of the reality of women's lives, and the women themselves will know they are no longer invisible. That's the reason for the subtitle: "BE A WITNESS." At the end of each of the eight documentaries, there are also practical ways of turning this knowledge into activism.
AW: And specific to violence against women in the military: Is there a solution?
GS: In the military, at least there is a way of requiring better behaviors, as there is not in civilian life. It's especially important there since trusting each other, having each other's backs, is key to success and even survival. The military itself is also a major source of education, training, and jobs. It once enforced racial segregation, but when men began to work together and depend on each other for survival, it washed over into the rest of society. When women and men can respect each other as comrades, it will change them and life outside the military, too. But we have a long way to go. Senator Gillibrand and many others are trying to point out that there must be a system of justice that is not the same hierarchy that imposed injustice. The first step, as always, is seeing real life. I hope our documentary contributes to that.