"I think we are just getting closer and closer as an evolving species to being able to accept this," she said. "But look around the world. ... Women are living as we were in this country in the 19th century in many, many, many parts of the world. They're bartered, they are property, they don't have the rights we have -- it's very difficult for us to understand all those things. But we do have a sense that for us, that's in the past."
Still, she said, "those vestigial things are in every negotiation I have with people in my business," she said. "Three of the nominated films this year have 26 men and one woman [in featured roles] -- 'Slumdog [Millionaire]' and 'Milk,' and 'Frost/Nixon.' You know, we accept it. It's not unusual. But we would go nuts if three of the nominated films had 26 women and one man. It would be a very, very unusual thing.
"We're still not telling everybody's story in our country and that's where we are," she said.
As for Sister Aloysius' story, Streep thinks her character loves the children in her school, despite her approach.
"I absolutely think that, insofar as she is letting those feelings engulf her, yes she does," she said. "But I think she holds things at a distance. Why? ... Because she's vulnerable to them."
Streep said she didn't want to give away too many of her characters' secrets, explaining that "when you make a character, when you inhabit somebody thoroughly, you feel like you know them and, in a way, sometimes I make up little things about their background that nobody knows, that aren't in the script, but that sort of fuel the ways that they manifest, the ways that they behave.
"I just think it's valuable to load yourself up with the ammunition of life, you know, with experience," she said. "Movie scripts are notoriously spare. It's not a novel ... so you have to sort of fill in the blanks for yourself, you have to write the interior story, and that's part of the fun of it."
Many older actresses' careers suffer, but not Streep's. The annual Oscar race more or less comes down to four nominees ... and whatever Streep did that year. Still, Streep downplays all the praise. The title "world's greatest actress," she said, is "completely meaningless."
"There is no such thing," she said. "There is no such entity."
And she added that she's constantly amazed by the work of her peers.
"I sit absolutely in the theater in awe of the work of people that I admire," she said. "I get inspiration -- I steal things from other people! You just get energized by seeing great work. I mean, that's what we do. And actors love to watch other actors work. You all like it, but we love it."
She praised the work of her co-star, Viola Davis, who was nominated for best supporting actress.
"She's just an amazing actress," she said, calling Davis' performance "titanic."
She's far from an old lady, but Streep says her mother is a good role model for what she hopes her life will be like someday.
"I'm just never gonna measure up; she was just something," she said. "But that's my goal. Part of the thing is she didn't work full time. And part of her gifts were the richness of her friendships, and that's really hard. It's not texting each other, it's face-to-face. You have to be in your friends' faces and in their lives. That's something that I think I've missed by working so hard and having so many thousands of kids."
But she doesn't regret paving the way for other female actors.
"There's just so many, many talented actors and actresses and I think there's more opportunity now for actresses," she said, "interesting work, complicated, demanding stuff than there maybe was 20 years ago."