Gloria Steinem’s first book in more than two decades is classified as a memoir, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Although this first chapter starts like a traditional autobiography, documenting her unconventional childhood as the daughter of a travelling antique salesman and a mentally ill mother, the rest of the book is about the people she’s met. Her book is about the mothers and stewardesses and cabdrivers she’s talked to, the colleges where she’s spoken and the other feminist workers she’s worked with. At 81, Steinem still isn’t interested in taking a victory lap, and her book reflects that. My Life on The Road feels like you’re sitting down with Steinem and listening to her tell stories.
In her twenties, Steinem traveled to India where she was introduced to the concept of the “talking circle” where “anyone may speak in turn, anyone must listen and consensus is more important than time.” She comes back to that idea again and again, and it’s clear that it was a defining moment in her life. I was worried before I picked up this book that Steinem would only be interested in talking about women like her-straight, white, hetero, cis, educated women. Luckily I was wrong, and Steinem is more interested in honoring that talking circle, and giving voice to other women. She talks about working with Native American women and her role in “the most important event nobody knows about” the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston where women across racial barriers tried to work together. She talks about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of Cherokee nation, and Florynce Kennedy, a black civil rights lawyer who taught Steinem the art of the one-liner (when asked by a man if she was a lesbian, she shot back, “Are you my alternative?”).
The book isn’t perfect. There are a couple of coincidences in this book (meeting a sexist lingerie-obsessed cab driver who pops up years later after successful gender reassignment surgery) that I find hard to believe. And Steinem isn’t really interested in talking about the present, and mostly glosses over her some of the fairer criticisms of her work. Although she devotes a lot of time to the fallout from her 2008 Op-Ed about why she was supporting Hilary Clinton over Barack Obama (essentially it boiled down to being a woman is harder than being a black guy) she mostly blamed the media for misinterpreting her. Still, I really enjoyed her book.
Steinem dedicated this book to a man called John Sharpe. In 1957, she went to him to get an illegal abortion and he made her promise she would do what she wanted to do with her life. Steinem wrote, “Dear Dr. Sharpe…I’ve done the best I could with my life.”
Yes, she did.
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