I consider myself a feminist (as Adichie says, we should all be feminists). I don’t have a slogan, or a chip on my shoulder, and I do wear bras. I believe in the equality of all humans—regardless of gender, class, or race. Like writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, I believe “when humans are ranked instead of linked, everyone loses.” Unlike Steinem, and in part because of her, the world is open to women of my generation in ways only imagined by our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.
Steinem’s latest autobiography, “My Life on the Road,” does more than provide a chronicle of one woman’s life, or of the feminist movement. Steinem’s essays, reporting, and speeches over the last four decades already provide a record of both. She examines her life, and the politics of the last several decades, from a distance with clarity and hindsight—no less feminist, but perhaps less zealous. Steinem acknowledges the ways the very roots she avoided putting down for her first 60 years actually enrich her life, invigorate her zest for travel, and provide the haven her young self didn’t know she was allowed.
Steinem, now in her early 80s, draws a line from her nomadic childhood, through the influences of her parents, her travels to India in her early 20s, and her travels as a freelance reporter, to her eventual role as a feminist leader. She has finally settled into a sense of home in the last two decades. According to Steinem, being a feminist doesn’t mean rejecting home, but does mean living in an on-the-road state of mind (and taking our little purple motorcycles out on the open road).
Steinem’s love of the road might be genetic—her childhood years informed by her father’s wanderlust as the family spent much of each year traveling to acquire and sell antiques and other artifacts. After many years, the divorce of her parents, and several more personal crises, Steinem, 20 years old, traveled to India. Here she encountered talking circles.
“My love of freedom came from my father, and my love of community came from seeing the price my mother paid for having none. That’s why if I had to name the most important discovery of my life it would be the portable community of talking circles; groups that gather with all five sense and allow the consciousness to change.”
Armed with both an on-the-road state of mind, and the lessons of talking circles, Steinem became a freelance reporter at a time when male editors still viewed women-writer as an oxymoron. According to Steinem, in the 1960s, the “gender ghetto in journalism was not just a glass ceiling, it was a glass box.”
In 1963 Steinem attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, where a fellow marcher, Mrs. Greene, helped draw her eyes to the “parallels between race and caste—how women’s bodies were used to perpetuate both. Different prisons. Same key.” Steinem began feeling the urge “to report on this new view of the world as if everyone mattered.”
Steinem succeeded in her goal of writing as though everyone matters, whether going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, helping to found both Ms. magazine and New York magazine, or writing of presidential candidate Nixon: “We who learned who Kennedy was only after he died may find out who Nixon is only after he is president.”
In the preface to the second edition of “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions,” released in 1995, Steinem wrote that she hoped the essays would help readers whose “idea of the recent feminist past is secondhand.” For the women of my generation and those younger, both Steinem and the feminist, or women’s, movement are recent history, one filtered to us through elective college courses, pop culture, and social media. In her latest memoir Steinem offers an alternative to the “contradictory descriptions of the monolithic movement” by putting people, and their unique stories, first—“people before paper.”
Women who grew up with Steinem might not be immediately drawn to this book—haven’t I read this already?, they might wonder. The answer is no, we haven’t read this particular Steinem before, positioned as she is to see where the women’s movement started, how far the movement has come, and the enormous work still left. She is smiling as she proffers the baton—this is not our burden but our right, to fight for freedom and equality.