From making childhood cross-country journeys with her father to speaking on college campuses and at political rallies as an adult, Gloria Steinem has spent most of her life on the road—a domain historically populated by men. In the new memoir My Life on the Road, her eighth book, Steinem chronicles her years spent traveling the country; her stories of welcoming and companionship challenge the notion that the road is no place for women. Trips such as these certainly broaden our insight, and for those of us with less experience, armchair traveling with Steinem is a pretty good stand-in.
Steinem is inspirational, and her writing no less so, but My Life on the Road isn’t exactly an easy read; it requires a fair amount of concentration because politics is, well, complicated and Steinem has copious stories to tell, all of which require some contextual background. Despite this intricacy, the book is quite poignant. The final chapter, “What Once Was Can Be Again,” centers on Steinem’s friend and fellow feminist leader the former Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller. Steinem learns from Mankiller’s community that organizing principles needn’t be hierarchical. Instead, we can embrace the idea of balance—apparent, for instance, in the feminist movement’s adoption of talking circles, a traditional Native format, rather than having a single leader guide discussions. But balance is also present more implicitly, in the equilibrium the book strikes between outrage and hope. There are enough evildoers here to make your blood boil, but there are similar numbers of strong, kind, generous people—both female and male—who provide counterpoints to all that suffering.
In just one example, Steinem recounts a story about an African American flight attendant in the 1970s who was removed from a plane for having an Afro and reading Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir about racial oppression, Soul on Ice. “The pilot of the flight refused to take off until she was put off the plane,” Steinem reports. More than 20 years later, at a radio station for an interview, Steinem was shown around by a female manager. She asked the woman how she had come to hold that position, since 85 percent of managers in the industry were men. The woman asked Steinem if she’d ever heard about the pilot who had kicked out the black flight attendant. “Well, that pilot was my husband,” the station manager said. “So I divorced him. That one true act was my beginning.”
The strength and conviction in this woman’s story made me sob, as did the way Steinem so articulately and consistently links race and gender in this book. Many of her anecdotes speak to the myriad unseen connections between all of us, and to the ways people influence, assist and provoke others. The powers that be have often exploited racial divisions to pit women against one another, but Steinem continually reports stories about support and cooperation between diverse groups and individuals.
In her work at Ms. magazine and as a feminist activist, Steinem contributed to the climate that produced such programs as Take Back the Night, an international series of ongoing events protesting sexual assault. While reading the chapter “One Big Campus,” I was reminded of helping my housemates in the feminist “theme” house where we lived to hold this event at our college. I was also reminded of the time we met Steinem in a sunny room in the campus library. I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I should have. Only now, after reading about the democratic, supportive climate of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston (which I was unfamiliar with but which Steinem says changed everything) and the National Women’s Political Caucus do I realize I am indeed in debt to Steinem and her talking circles.
My house held an unforgettable discussion after one of our Take Back the Night rallies. In a safe, closed space, where men were invited but asked not to talk unless they had a story to share, women recounted their experiences of rape and sexual assault. Many had never told their stories or known that so many others had similar ones kept secret within their memories. As Steinem writes, “Public opinion polls have long proved there is majority support for pretty much every issue that the women’s movement has brought up, but those of us, women or men, who identify with feminism are still made to feel isolated, wrong, out of step.” By letting us share our experiences and hear one another, this talking circle, born of the women’s movement, allowed us to progress beyond our grievances and together find inspiration and strength to create greater change.
This sense of history and connection is perhaps the book’s most compelling aspect: Because Steinem has been at work for so long, she has witnessed the countless ways, big and small, that the women’s movement has benefited everyone. While plenty of stories in My Life on the Road made smoke come out of my ears, many more gave me hope and reminded me that change will be possible again. “Altogether,” Steinem writes, “I’ve seen enough change to have faith that more will come.” The struggle for equality is unfortunately far from over, but books like this one help keep that goal alive.
Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig