My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

25639996Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Random House, 2015. 304 pgs. Purchased.

In this collection of anecdotes from the road, Steinem’s premise is that the only way to understand one’s fellow citizens and, therefore, enact change is to hit the road and engage in face-to-face conversations. Which makes the book a rather ironic choice for Emma Watson’s online, feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf.

The book begins with Steinem sharing about her own childhood — the father who never settled and the mother who never had a choice — and how these experiences shaped her into a person who longs to travel, to live out her life as she wants to. And she touches briefly on how this is a rather revolutionary concept for women are often discouraged from traveling alone either out of concerns about their safety or because such acts would bring shame upon the family. If a women can go out on a self-willed journey and be welcomed warmly when she comes home, then perhaps the world is less restrictive and patriarchal than it has been in the past.

It’s said that the biggest determinant of our lives is whether we see the world as welcoming or hostile. Each becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have often heard Steinem and other mainstays of the feminist/women’s movement in America be lambasted for their lack of interest in intersectional feminism. That is, by focusing on gender pay gaps, political representation, and access to education, feminists too often ignore that a person’s identity and, therefore, oppression is multifaceted. I can no more change my skin color than I can change my disabilities or my sexual orientation. Reading this memoir, though, makes it apparent that this charge does not apply to Steinem.

…one of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.

There are two moments in Steinem’s life on the road that had a profound influence on her — a conference on women’s rights in Houston in the 1970s where state representatives were directly elected by women and her time in Oklahoma with a Native American activist named Wilma Mankiller. In both instances, Steinem devoted her time and efforts listening to the stories and desires of women of color so that feminism and the women’s movement could address the issues within their communities.  And, in fact, the biggest lesson I took away from reading Steinem’s memoir was that I need to increase my own understanding of life in Indian Country. I need to listen and learn. I need to be a better intersectional feminist.

…the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself — or will use military violence against another country — is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.

In discussing her efforts to increase representation of minorities both within the movement at large and at Ms. Magazine, Steinem does fall into the trap of proclaiming herself as “I’m not like those other women”. She wrote earlier in the book about how important is to resist ranking instead of linking humans, and it was disappointing to see her repeatedly set herself up as the anti-power activist to Betty Friedan’s desire to serve on one board after another. Do I agree that there need to be more voices and more people within the feminist movement? Obviously. But I so loathe segregation perpetrated by comments about not being like “other girls”, which are far too often used by people across the gender spectrum to put down women as shallow and stupid, that it was disappointing to see Steinem fall into this trap herself.

Aside from that quibble, I was greatly heartened by Steinem’s confession that she loathes public speaking even after all these years of being an activist. (Organizer, as Steinem would probably correct.) But she explained that she looks at her talk as a way to open the door to a greater conversation. If she can get the audience to engage with her afterwards, then she has done her job as a speaker. If she can get the audience to engage with each other but answering questions asked to her, then she has done her job as an organizer. This approach may not directly translated into the business world, especially since women are routinely talked over or disregarded, but it is certainly a different and rather inspiring way of approaching a presentation or lecture.

The selection of this memoir for January was particularly well-timed as the public is being re-reminded of Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs and Hillary Clinton’s response to them. In discussing her decision to support Clinton in the 2008 presidential election, Steinem discusses how she listened to and conversed with numerous “Hillary Haters” — white, well-educated feminist women who did not want Clinton as president — and learned that their hatred stemmed from Clinton’s refusal to leave her husband over his affairs. They wanted to see Clinton eviscerate her husband because they were unwilling to leave their own husbands and jealous of the equality within the Clintons’ marriage. This reasoning does not exactly jive with my recollection of the 2008 nomination process, and I admit that I dismissed it out of hand. Yet, two days after I finished this particular section of Steinem’s memoir, there was an article in the New York Times about how Clinton is losing support of feminists over Bill’s 1990s affairs.

In describing this memoir to family and friends, I said that it was a bit like getting coffee with Steinem and listening to her recollect moments in her life. She does seem to jump from one event to another, and the book switches from being arranged topically to chronically and back again. But it was one of the better coffee dates I’ve had in some time as it reaffirmed the importance of intersectional feminism and pointed out the places I still need to visit and learn from. Time to go on my own self-willed journey.

2 comments

  1. I had already too many book commitments for January when I saw the announcement of Our Shared Shelf, to join this month, but am planning to make it to next one. Is the book already chosen?

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