Gloria Steinem, a political activist, journalist, and one of the first self-proclaimed feminists in the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960’s, recently published her autobiography, My Life on the Road. A riveting telling of her life on the road and full of searing personal anecdotes, this book is a must read for feminists of any gender and for feminists on each end of the “feminist spectrum.” This book could have very easily turned into a long, sprawling, and self-indulgent memoir, however she keeps the book in tight focus, highlighting specific accounts of activism and beautifully illustrating the lessons she has learned from her many, many travels.
I very much hesitated when picking up this book. I carried it around while browsing for more books; going back and forth on whether I should buy it. After all, Steinem represents what some consider an “extreme version” of feminism. Also, I worried that Steinem would exemplify those negative stereotypes often attributed to feminists. However, as Steinem herself writes in the book, none of these stereotypes are accurate.
“At first, feminists were assumed to be only discontented suburban housewives; then a small bunch of women’s libbers, “bra burners,” and radicals; then women on welfare; then briefcase-carrying imitations of male executives; then unfulfilled women who forgot to have children; then women voters responsible for a gender gap that really could decide elections.”
Steinem has done much to advance the women’s movement and has also been an outspoken advocate for civil rights. She has lived long and well and dedicated her life to creating positive change for marginalized people groups across the country.
Despite some ideological disagreements that I have with Steinem, I still found this book to be remarkable and wonderful. I encourage everyone, despite these ideological differences, to pick up this book and read it with an open mind. It is a sign of a healthy and astute mind when one can pick up the writing of someone with opposing opinions and read it openly, gaining knowledge but at the same holding fast to one’s personal convictions. Steinem’s book provides a sagacious commentary on the many major social justice events in which she participated.
Throughout the book, I found many of her stories of the civil rights movement or her commentaries on events involving the subjugation of women to be strikingly parallel to the events of today. For example, in her lifetime, Steinem has effected much change to benefit immigrants and much of her observations regarding America’s political and social attitude towards immigrants is painfully relevant (especially in light of Trump’s recent immigration ban). As she writes, “I don’t have to tell you that ever since the terrorism panic of 9/11, some Americans’ fear of foreigners just keeps increasing.” Additionally, Steinem recalls a Nixon presidential campaign rally that she reported on in the 1970’s in which Nixon used the war in Vietnam to instill “neighbor fearing” into the people of the United States.
“Suddenly I felt tears welling up. It was as if we were surrounded by resentful, neighbor-fearing people-or rather by good people whose neighbor-fearing instincts were being played upon-and these ungenerous ones were going to win, and not just this election but the power to impose themselves, here and in many other countries, for a long dark time to come.”
How unfortunately and clearly has this fear-mongering been paralleled in the recent election of Donald Trump? The similarities are both numerous and disturbing.
Because Steinem’s primary platform has been feminism and women’s rights, it should come as no surprise that some of the most eye-opening words of the book are on this topic. For me, one of the most poignant moments is where Steinem writes, “I was angry about the human talent that was lost just because it was born into a female body, and the mediocrity that was rewarded because it was born into a male one.” This reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a young man in which he told me that “a woman’s place is in the home.” When I asked him how this could be the case, for why then would God give women talents in advanced calculus or micro-biology? He replied that a woman should use these skills in the home, should pass these skills on to her children but was implicitly stating that they could pass these skills on to their sons.
Steinem also writes of the 1984 selection of the first female Vice President, Geraldine Ferraro.
“At every stop, Catholic officials condemned her for supporting family planning. I noticed they hadn’t attacked Senator Ted Kennedy, also a pro-choice Catholic, in the same way-as if tacitly admitting that it was strong, rebellious women who were the problem. Also reporters kept asking Ferraro if a woman could be “tough enough” to “push the button,” meaning declare a war, though they didn’t ask the male candidates if they could be wise enough not to.”
This brought to mind the recent election cycle and the sexist ways in which Clinton was attacked: for her “loud, shrill” voice, for getting pneumonia, for her clothing choices, for her husband’s sexual history, etc. etc. As Steinem reveals in her historical commentary, the standards by which men and women politicians are judged are still vastly different and unjust.
All politics aside, Steinem’s memoir is packed with dozens of wise little sayings:
“In many languages, even the word for human being is “one who goes on migrations.” Progress itself is a word rooted in a seasonal journey. Perhaps our need to escape into media is a misplaced desire for the journey.”
“If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live. If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye-to-eye.”
“It dawned on me that if a sexual connection is the only bond between a husband and wife, an affair can make her feel replaceable-and perhaps cause her to be replaced. This was not only emotionally painful but devastating when it also meant losing social identity and economic security as well.”
“As my mother said, for some people, the Depression never ends.”
“Within driving distance of where you are reading this right now, there are secret worlds of migrant farm-workers far from home and immigrants who fear the loss of home.”
If we wish to change facets of culture deemed unjust, learning from our history is one of the most important things that we as Americans can do, especially so as to never repeat the gross mistakes of our forefathers. Gloria Steinem has been at the forefront of nearly all social justice causes of the past century and has effected more change than most women or men her age. Whether or not you may agree with her on all issues, if you call yourself a feminist or are an advocate for social justice, this compelling memoir is a must-read.