You might think she's lost her mind, but in fact, she's just using an old feminist rhetorical device:
“Suppose John McCain had been Joan McCain and Joan McCain had got captured, shot down and been a POW for eight years. [The media would ask], ‘What did you do wrong to get captured? What terrible things did you do while you were there as a captive for eight years?’” Steinem said, to laughter from the audience.The audience laughs because it's the ritual to laugh at this point. They take it on faith that men's accomplishments are valued more than women's. They may even recognize the device of naming the female version of the male hero. To ask us to visualize "Joan McCain" is to allude to Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own": "Let me imagine... what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say."
But Woolf's vivid device is horribly abused in Steinem's hands. Judith Shakespeare fell into oblivion because she was denied access to education and opportunity. Joan McCain actually becomes a pilot and suffers the same fate as John McCain, but people, looking on, deny her credit simply because she is a woman.
And yet the audience laughs.
By the way, I'm surprised the Wikipedia entry for "A Room of One's Own" is so skimpy. I guess feminists are underrepresented among Wikipedians. If it wasn't Wikipedia, you'd be able to argue that women's accomplishments are slighted by the bad people who put together encyclopedias. In fact, that this entry is little more than a stub is evidence of female underachievement.