Gloria Steinem’s latest book is part auto-biography and part political philosophy. Steinem examines her early years with her family, a seminal trip to India, and her subsequent political activity through the prism of travel. Steinem presents a brief history of post-war US feminism here as well as the links between feminism and other civil rights’ movements. Steinem’s goal is to inspire readers to take risks, pursue dreams, and connect, to speak up but also to listen. As she has famously said, she does not want to “pass her torch” to others, she wants to keep her torch and use it to light many torches, creating more light. This book is a fine example of that philosophy and is an excellent piece to read if the current political situation in this country pisses you off. I hope it inspires readers to active listening and purposeful action.
Steinem writes about being on the road because so much of her life, starting in her childhood, has been spent there. She provides several stories about her parents and their itinerant lifestyle. Her father in particular was drawn to travel and would pack up the family and travel around the country for months at a time. Steinem suspects that he suffered from a fear of home, of being rooted and having a boring and eventless life. Her mother was adventurous in her own way; she had pursued a career in journalism, but being female and then married were formidable obstacles to her professional dreams, and after divorcing, her mother became essentially homebound, relying on her daughters to help her. Steinem sees that both of her parents had lives out of balance, that home and travel can co-exist; she wishes her father could have seen the benefits of having a stable home to return to and that her mother had been as free as her father to go out and do as she pleased.
Steinem’s desire to travel seems to be rooted in this family situation; through her father, Steinem saw the excitement and pull of the road, while her mother’s depression and need were an incentive to get out when she could. Steinem’s trip to India after she graduated from Smith was a life-changing event. She spent two years traveling India among Gandhians and observing talking circles. She describes circles as
… groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.
Gandhian wisdom is summarized thus:
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.
That philosophy and the knowledge of circles formed Steinem’s subsequent activism when she returned to the US. That activism, however, took some time to develop. Steinem’s goal had been to write, and she did freelance work, often writing style pieces and celebrity profiles, the types of work deemed suitable for women writers. Still Steinem found ways to turn those jobs into something meatier. In 1963, while working on a profile of James Baldwin, Steinem found herself in Washington, D.C., in attendance at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Her perspective on that day, informed by the witness of an African American woman named Mrs. Greene, is absolutely fascinating. Mrs. Greene pointed out to Steinem that despite the fact that women of color were instrumental to the civil rights movement, their presence on the stage was minimal and no women were invited to speak.
Mrs. Greene made me understand the parallels between race and caste — and how women’s bodies were used to perpetuate both. Different prisons. Same key.
Steinem also reports that it was Mahalia Jackson, one of the few women on that stage, who called out to Dr. King to tell the crowd about the dream.
If Steinem’s strength is the power of her listening and organizational skills, then her self-professed weakness has been public speaking. As the women’s rights movement took flight in the early 1970s, Steinem was approached more and more often to speak about feminism and the rights movement. In order to deal with her fear, she made a point of speaking with another speaker, usually a woman of color such as her friend Florynce Kennedy, a civil rights attorney. In doing so, Steinem saw that they were able to bring in larger and more diverse crowds.
…the first ever nationwide poll of women’s opinions on issues of gender equality showed that African American women were twice as likely as white women to support them.
Not only were African American women drawn to the movement, but so were Native American women, hispanic women and latinas, and, controversially, lesbians. Within the US women’s movement, some of the older leaders such as Betty Friedan initially opposed the inclusion of lesbians. In fact, Friedan specifically called out Steinem and Bella Abzug for hurting the women’s movement by including lesbians, welfare mothers and those outside the mainstream. Eventually Friedan came around to the way of thinking of the more progressive elements of the women’s movement, and Steinem’s description of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston shows the power of the movement’s diversity. Steinem played an important role there in liaising between the various caucuses of minority women and the larger conference.
If there’s one thing to take away from this book, I hope it will be a fearlessness, a willingness to include everyone, to let everyone speak, to listen to everyone, and not to be afraid of alienating the “mainstream,” whatever that is. I hope women will own the word “feminist” and not water it down by calling themselves “humanist” (looking at you, Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon!). I put that kind of talk in the same category as saying “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter.” Yes, all lives are important and yes, we should show respect for all individuals, but black lives are being targeted because we have a racism problem in the US, so it’s important to acknowledge that imbalance right now and stand with the oppressed. Doing so does not imply that other people’s lives are less important. And for people like these Hollywood stars to complain (rightfully) about pay inequality based on sex but then do not call themselves feminist — I just can’t wrap my head around it. The word matters. Calling yourself feminist does not denigrate men. It says we need to be treated equally and acknowledges that we are not. When I read about what feminists were doing in the 1970s, I’m so proud, but I feel like we have become lackluster. Where are the feminist leaders whose torches have been lit by Steinem, Abzug, Chisholm, Florynce Kennedy, Wilma Mankiller? We need more talking circles, where people meet face to face, and less social media. As Steinem points out, nothing can replace that one-on-one, face-to-face interaction. My new year’s resolution might be to find a circle, listen more and act. After all, I am woman.