Speaking with Steinem - always provocative

More than 16 million cable subscribers now have access to the most consistently insightful interview show on television. A Conversation With . . . airs on Lifetime, the Hearst/ABC-Viacom Entertainment Services's recently reorganized combination of Daytime and Cable Health Network. The show can usually be seen on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Mondays at 4 p.m.

With Ms. Magazine's Gloria Steinem as host, it is not a militant feminist show, although most of her guests tend to be egalitarian.

Rather, the interviews by Ms. Steinem concentrate on character. Often, what emerges is an honest, in-depth portrait as well as a revealing look at the straightforward character of Ms. Steinem herself.

The series started this year with a rather mild interview with Walter Cronkite in which Ms. Steinem focused on the personal side of Uncle Walter. This past week Ms. Steinem conducted an extraordinary interview with an extraordinary person - Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. ''You never know about establishment prizes,'' she said about her American Book Award. ''They make you nervous. You don't know who the people are who give them. I would have felt happier if I had gotten such a prize from the women of my mother's church, because I know these women and I know they have high standards.''

Next week, viewers can catch Ms. Steinem's incisive interview with the first female astronaut, Sally Ride.And following that, there are interviews with Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Betty Ford, Edward Asner, John Kenneth Galbraith, Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby), Bianca Jagger, and ''Megatrends'' author John Naisbitt.

Quite a varied cast of characters. But Ms. Steinem manages to hone in on the essence of all of her guests.

Lifetime cable is a free, advertising-supported 24-hour-a-day service, concentrating on cooking, health, exercise, and life styles. It's available on more than 1,600 cable systems.

A chat with Gloria Steinem

The offices of Ms. Magazine seem to reflect a rebellion against old-fashioned housekeeping.

Although the staff moved to the 40th Street headquarters in the heart of New York's Garment District more than a year ago, there is still an air of surface disorganization about the place: piles of magazines on the floor, crates of papers against the walls, and desks lined with papers as if the occupants had been arguing editorial matters far into the previous night.

It is 8:30 a.m., and Gloria Steinem, one of the founding editors of Ms., has asked for an early interview: She is catching a morning plane to the Midwest for a speaking engagement.

Despite trendy changes in style, Ms. Steinem's long hair and aviator glasses have remained constant throughout her career. Constant also has been her no-nonsense intelligence, her sense of humor, and her obvious compassion for people within and without the contemporary feminist movement, in which she has been a prime mover since its earliest days.

Ms. Steinem stresses the fact that in her Lifetime cable interview show ''. . . it's important that I make myself as vulnerable as I'm asking my subject to be. Otherwise, the audience, whether it identifies it or not, feels uncomfortable. There's a balance of power that's not right.''

But she says that ''you don't always quite know when you invite somebody to be interviewed how willing they are going to be to (speak critically of) the role that they play in their work.

''For instance, Sally Ride, the astronaut, is in a tough position. She is a very . . . straightforward woman who is also supposed to be a spokesperson for NASA, and she is under the thumb of this administration. . . . I do think, though, that her essential honesty and down-to-earthness come through regardless of what she says. And that is the virtue of television that no print media could ever replicate - you get a feeling of character.''

Walter Cronkite was a surprise to Steinem: ''I like him very much. I think of him as a pundit. But the truth is that he is an employee of CBS. And that's the way he thinks of himself - as an employee. I assumed that he could do whatever he wants to do, (but) . . . he's waiting for CBS to tell him what to do . . . .''

Who were her most interesting guests?

''In terms of intellectual content in a classic sense, Galbraith always delivers. In terms of an interview in which you also have to tell the truth because the guest is the world's best spotter of hypocrisy, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker. Asking a question of Alice is like dropping a pebble down a well. You hear it hit. You know that she takes everything into the center of herself.''

Although her cable TV show doesn't seem to promote any special message, does Gloria Steinem herself have any message she would like to get across to women today?

''The most important message I have may seem like a conventional one, but it's nonetheless important. The women's vote must turn out in 1984. I know it's harder for women to get to the polls. We have kids, so it's harder to leave home. But if every woman reader makes sure that she is registered to vote and gets 10 other women not only registered but out there, it will make a difference. If 60 percent of women vote it will make the difference.''

There is a general perception these days that the women's movement is growing more conservative with a return to family values. Is this true, in Ms. Steinem's eyes?

''It is not a return to the family so much as it is an attempt to redefine the family,'' she says - ''to make a democratic family, to change the power relationships in the family.

''If I say to an audience of women, 'Women are going back to the family,' they get quite depressed,'' she claims. ''If I say, 'We're making a democratic family,' then . . . (they're encouraged). The important thing we must do is define what we mean by family. The right-wing sexist groups are very determined to take over the definition of family - they want it to be a male head-of-household and the woman not working.''

Ms. Steinem says one of her top priorities in the year ahead is the battle for comparable pay.

''While equal pay for equal jobs is still a big issue, it's not the whole issue. Why is a registered nurse being paid less than the garbage man? Why isn't her work comparable with the pharmacist? Comparable pay is as important as equal pay.''

Has Gloria Steinem's role as a feminist been responsible for her missing important things in life, such as marriage and family?

''No, it works the other way around. Feminism makes marriage possible. As long as marriage is a totally unequal partnership, it's quite unattractive to me. The reason, if there is one reason why I didn't get married, was not feminism. It was the 1950s. Because the '50s in which I grew up told me that if I got married I had to take a man's name, a man's identity. I would have no life of my own after that. I had to follow him wherever he went in his job. It drew an oppressive, terrible, humorless, inhuman picture of marriage.

''So feminism makes real love between men and women possible for the first time.''

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