On Wednesday afternoon, a first year female student at New York City’s Barnard College was vividly recalling the excitement of casting her first-ever vote in a presidential election for Hillary Clinton—and then the crushing despair of Donald Trump’s victory.
“I told a friend shortly afterwards that I’d lost faith in American exceptionalism,” she said, her voice shaky, echoing the grief felt by millions of young women since last Tuesday.
She was one of 200 women gathered at the old the Bayview Correctional Facility, a former women’s prison in Chelsea, to participate in a “talking circle” led by 82-year-old activist and women’s advocate Gloria Steinem.
The women had been invited by Steinem and renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose new traveling exhibition commissioned by UBS, “Women: New Portraits,” officially opens to the public on Friday in the gymnasium at Bayview—the pop-up exhibit’s penultimate stop on a 10-city international tour. After the exhibition moves from New York to Zurich in December, the former prison will be transformed into The Women’s Building, a hub of activism for women’s groups that is set to open in 2020.
Steinem is one of dozens of female leaders—from Patti Smith to the Williams sisters and Andrea Medina Rosas, a women’s rights lawyer in Mexico—photographed last year by Leibovitz for the new exhibition, an update to her 1999 book project, “Women,” which featured portraits of female senators, artists, businesswomen, actors, athletes, and Supreme Court justices.
Among the 200 guests at Wednesday’s talk were advocates from ten women’s and human rights groups including the NoVo Foundation, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and the Center for Justice at Columbia University.
They sat on folding chairs in a loop of circles that expanded from the middle of Bayview’s gymnasium, surrounded by Leibovitz’s portraits: the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her study; Malala Yousafzai in a classroom; Hillary Clinton at her desk; Caitlyn Jenner on set for her Vanity Fair cover shoot.
The 41 new images hang on makeshift walls, while a slide-show of earlier pictures from Leibovitz’s oeuvre are projected on large screens that frame the gymnasium.
Steinem, who on Wednesday wore all-black with a Navajo concha belt around her hips (the activist has previously said she frequently wears “something that has a resonance from the past before the patriarchy came along”), partnered with Leibovitz on the new exhibition and has spoken to audiences in a series of “Women for Women” talking circles about subjects ranging from sexual violence against women in Mexico City to gender imbalances in Silicon Valley.
The 200 women at Bayview on Wednesday looked to Steinem for answers about the election. What are women to do with Trump in office and a Republican-led Congress that doesn’t support women’s issues? How do we bring men who care about these issues to the table? How do women move forward and grow stronger together?
“You can donate to Planned Parenthood in the name of Mike Pence so he gets to know how much he has strengthened the organization,” said Steinem, unflappable as ever, to laughs.
She told the audience to trust their own instincts; to have empathy for one another; to not demonize the 53 percent of (white) women who voted for Trump.
“There’s a voice inside all of us that says we are all human beings. We are linked, we are not ranked. That’s why these circles are so important,” she said.
She applauded the women (and men) who have protested President-elect Trump in cities across the country, noting that Poland was recently considering banning abortion, which is already illegal in the country except in cases of rape, incest, or irreparable damage to a fetus—until 6 million women protested the ban.
“We have all the powers we had [before Trump was elected] of lobbying and pressuring and making clear that the political consequences are great,” Steinem told the audience. “We may look up and feel powerless and think there’s nothing we can do, but it’s not true. There are things we can do at each level. And there’s always civil disobedience. Trump is not my president.”
It’s become familiar slogan since the election—chanted by protesters and hashtagged on Instagram—and now championed by Steinem, whose matter-of-fact, “hell no” delivery galvanized the crowd at Bayview.
“I don’t think we’re going to hear ‘post-feminism’ in a hurry now. We're not going to hear ‘post-racism’ in a hurry now. The truth has revealed itself. A third of this country is still in backlash against the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Every single issue that we care about has majority support in every public opinion poll.
“I’m telling you this is new. This is different. We were like crazy old ladies in the past! Part of the reason we’re having this backlash is because there’s a frontlash. Don’t let them invade your head and tell you that's not true. Feel sorry for these bastards. They're a thing of the past!”
As the talk came to a close, Steinem invoked the image of domestic violence, a “personal image” for her which, she said, resonates stronger than ever right now.
“When a woman is about to escape a violent household is the time when she is most likely to be beaten or murdered. She’s about to get outside of control. Just as we wouldn’t send a woman or child back to a violent household, we’re not going to go back. And maybe we're about to be free.”
Women: New Portraits by Annie Leibovitz is at the former Bayview Correctional Facility, the future home of The Women’s Building, at 550 West 20th Street, NY, until December 11. Additional "talking circles" will be hosted at Bayview on the evenings of December 5, 6, and 7. Register to atttend here.