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Trump has inspired level of activism never seen ‘in my whole life’: Gloria Steinem

American feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem is photographed during a Globe and Mail interview at Branksome Hall, on Oct. 23 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Feminist and author Gloria Steinem told a Toronto audience of young girls that Donald Trump – who she refuses to call the president of the United States – has inspired a level of activism that she has never seen before.

In a wide-ranging discussion on Monday at Branksome Hall, an all-girls private school in Toronto, Ms. Steinem told the students that she doesn't accept that Mr. Trump is president because more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. The students applauded her remarks. Ms. Clinton received the most votes overall, while Mr. Trump won the electoral college, and therefore the election.

But Ms. Steinem added that Mr. Trump's actions on a range of issues from women's rights to immigration have galvanized a movement that has made her hopeful.

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"The presence of somebody who just conveniently, efficiently represents everything that's wrong has awakened and unified all kinds of women and men," she said. "We are now woke."

She recalled a time earlier this year when Mr. Trump's executive order to keep many foreigners from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States led to large crowds of protesters at airports around the country denouncing the ban. The order was defeated by the courts.

"Personally, I have never seen such activism in my whole life. Never, never, never. It's huge. It's enormous. People are self-energized [and] doing whatever they can," Ms. Steinem said. "I do feel an enormous amount of energy and activism and wokeness coming from the bottom up."

Ms. Steinem spoke to about 600 middle- and high-school students at Branksome Hall, answering questions on the feminist movement, sex-segregated schools, sexual harassment and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

She said she is grateful Canada has a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, and complimented Mr. Trudeau for his gender-balanced cabinet, which she said was greeted with "great celebration in the U.S. and was part of the reason that we keep saying we're going to come here and live."

She also said there is so much more work to do in the feminist movement, especially in the wake of sexual-abuse accusations made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement which followed on social media where people describe experiences of abuse.

Ms. Steinem described herself as an optimist. She said that when she was growing up, sexual harassment was never discussed. "It was just called life. It wasn't illegal, [there were] no rules against it," she told the audience. "You are inspiring to me because you have way higher standards … You get angrier and have higher hopes."

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Ms. Steinem told the girls that there is value in attending gender-segregated schools. She attended Smith College, a private women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail after her discussion with students, she said sex-segregated schools are not for everyone, but it is important for young people to have a choice when it comes to school.

"I think that any group that is not equal in society is often helped by having a time in their life in which they are central, not peripheral, to feel what it's like, to understand that they can play all the human roles. Otherwise we tend to … expect that we can't do certain things," she said.

It was a different time in the 1950s when she attended Smith College. The school was not diverse. Further, the president believed that educated mothers would lead to educated children, she said. "But … I probably spoke up in class in a way that I might not have had it been a classroom with both men and women," she said.

Astrid Ling, a Grade 12 student at Branksome Hall, said she found Ms. Steinem's words "inspiring" and found her presence at her school "surreal."

"She wasn't afraid to disrupt the status quo," Ms. Ling said.

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She added: "She was so real and gracious. Her humour and humility and the fact that she's so human inspired me because it showed me that any of us in the room can be just as courageous and have a similar impact."

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