For Gloria Steinem, the international conversation that the Occupy Wall Street protests sparked about economic inequality is, at its heart, about gender.
Start with the thousands of dollars in student loans that saddle the average U.S. college graduate. Women “are paid unequally -- so they are going to have a harder time paying back that debt,” Steinem, the 77-year-old feminist who helped start the women’s rights movement with the publication of Ms. Magazine nearly 40 years ago, said in an interview at Bloomberg News’ New York bureau. “It’s outrageous because they are kind of indentured when they graduate.”
Steinem’s comments echo a common lament among young women in the Occupy movement, which began on Sept. 17 as a demonstration against the widening wealth gap and an economic system that protestors say favors the rich. The unemployment rate for college graduates aged 20-24 rose to 9.1 percent last year from 8.7 percent in 2009, the highest on record for that demographic, according to the Project on Student Debt. Add to that the burdens of student loans, and young Americans say they don’t stand much chance.
“I have $93,000 in debt and I don’t make enough to pay it off,” said Adah Gorton, 23, a graphic designer and graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, as she marched with protestors across the Brooklyn Bridge on Nov. 17. “Have you ever had something hanging over your head, every day, 24 hours a day? That’s what it’s like.”
Graduates owed an average $25,250 in 2010, estimates the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research organization in Oakland, California. Women entering the workforce with that liability are at a disadvantage: They earned 81 cents for every dollar their male counterparts did, on average, in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nan Terrie, a Florida native who was home-schooled and at 18 is in her second year of law school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, said she already owes $10,000.
“I’m here fighting for equal pay for equal work,” Terrie said. “I’m tired of women being the backbone of society.”
She was seated on a plastic chair, near a sign calling for the return of bankruptcy protection for student loans, in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, the birthplace and physical symbol of the movement where protestors camped for about two months until police evicted them Nov. 15.
The Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York spread to cities on four continents, including London, Sydney, Rome and Tokyo. The demonstrators refer to themselves as “the 99 percent,” a reference to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study showing the richest 1 percent control 40 percent of U.S. wealth.
Steinem said the Occupy protests have inspired her, and that they have enjoyed more support than the U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s that took longer to reach a broad audience. “It’s much more immediately international,” said Steinem, who participated in the earlier causes.
The movement’s success in bringing attention to income inequality may help narrow the gender-wage gap, said Mary Gatta, a senior scholar at the Washington-based nonprofit Wider Opportunities for Women. The more people, and especially young women, talk about it, the more likely society is to reject the notion that it’s irreversible, she said.
“Seeing the pay gap as part of this larger economic inequality that’s being talked about by Occupy Wall Street, I think, is very promising,” Gatta said. “Awareness and education are really important.”
Women made some progress between 2007 and 2010, as the wage gap narrowed in 35 states, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. It was smallest in Washington D.C., where women made 89 cents for every $1 a man did, and greatest in Wyoming, at 65 cents.
Among industries, the disparity is often greater in the finance sector, with female financial analysts making 70 cents on the male dollar, the census data show.
After the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, men continue to earn more than women in 361 metropolitan areas in the country, an annual survey by the Census Bureau found. If current trends continue, it will take 45 years for women’s salaries to equal that of men’s, research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows.
According to Steinem, U.S. women earn an average of $2 million less over the course of their lifetimes than men. It isn’t because they stop working sooner, she said. “It’s because they are paid unequally.”
Were it not for the lack of women in top positions of power in finance and government, the global economy would be in better shape, Steinem said.
“Not because we are smarter or better or different, but just because we do not have our masculinity to prove,” she said. “And that is huge. Because that means that we don’t necessarily think it’s just great to earn endless amounts of money for the sake of counting numbers.”
While polls indicate there is scant chance of a female headlining either major party in the run for the White House in 2012, Steinem said Americans are ready for a female president after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
“Hillary’s bravery and smarts under fire in the last campaign kind of changed the molecules in the air, so that people can now imagine a female chief of state,” Steinem said. “I didn’t think she could win the last time. But I think a woman might be able to win next time.”
Steinem said she wasn’t surprised a black man achieved the presidency before a woman. The U.S. is far behind almost every democracy in terms of elevating women to positions of power, she said. Europe, for instance, has seen Margaret Thatcher running Britain and Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany.
And corporate boards, she said, are more likely to include a man of color before a woman of any race “because his masculinity is affirming for the guys.”
“Most children, boys and girls, are still raised by women almost exclusively and that means we associate female power with childhood,” Steinem said. “And so men, who don’t have their own example to the contrary, associate female power with childhood and feel regressed by it. The last time they saw a powerful woman, they were 8.”
Gender balance may be best achieved by reshaping traditional roles, beginning with mothers and fathers equally participating in child-rearing, Steinem said. Businesses and governments can help by adopting family-friendly policies, such as offering day care and maternity and paternity leave, which she said should be called “parental” leave.
“It’s important that it be seen not just as ‘maternity’ because otherwise it will be seen as a cost of employing women,” Steinem said. “And men won’t ever get to know their arriving babies, either.”
Traditional gender roles are behind the assumption that “one group eats and the other cooks,” she said. “It is the root of the whole idea that we are ranked instead of linked.”
Steinem is the subject of an HBO documentary released in August, Gloria: In Her Own Words, and is working on a book about her more than 30 years as a feminist organizer, “Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered.”
“Sometimes people say to me, at my age, well aren’t you interested in something other than women’s issues?” she said. “And I say ‘show me one. Show me one that isn’t transformed by including both halves of the population.’”