In her 81 years on Earth, including a long former career as a journalist, Gloria Steinem has only written six books, three of which are essay compilations. None are specifically about her life, despite its figurative importance to so many people; she’s never quite explained how she’s accomplished all that she has, how she never appears fully frazzled, given real dirt on personal relationships—any of the things large audiences presumably want to know. Her new book My Life on the Road, out today, appears ready to answer these questions, and it does. But, as has been true of Steinem’s body of work, this book is as focused on the stories of others as her own. It’s a memoir—but really, it’s a lens through which to see a great many people, a vessel for their stories, a mouthpiece to share them.
Steinem starts My Life on the Road off by creating the feeling that this will be the time—finally—that you get juicy new stories from her personal life. In the first chapter, she writes about her family in more detail than she ever has before. We learn that her father, who was a traveling antique salesman of sorts, gave her a love of travel, as well as a desire for an itinerant lifestyle that was reinforced by her mother’s mental illness and occasional confinement to the house. Steinem went in the opposite direction. Of her penchant for moving from place to place for her work, Steinem writes, “It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
But after the first chapter, her family stories cut off. They’re followed mostly with chapters about Steinem’s time organizing—the colleges she’s been to, the stewardesses she’s talked to, the friendships she made with other feminist leaders like Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller. (On cab drivers: “They tend to be shit-free guides to the state of social issues, and are often better political predictors than most media pundits. After all, they spend more time listening to random strangers than any public opinion poll could afford; they overhear more private conversations than a wiretapper; and they often are themselves new immigrants or work with those who are.”) She bullet-points small stories, one after another, a slow wave of miraculously touching individual moments—more than it seems possible one person could have in a lifetime. But, gradually, it becomes clear that what she’s been saying all along is true: her personal stories aren’t as interesting as the ones she’s picked up from those around her. Steinem is interesting in the way that all people are interesting, special snowflakes, just more so because she’s gathered so many other experiences.
If that sounds hokey, so be it. In person and in her writing, Steinem exudes a rare combination of calm, humility and honesty about her weaknesses that explains all she has accomplished and why she’s become the figurehead she has. Take, for instance, her description of her contentious relationship with Betty Friedan, who Steinem criticized for her flavor of second-wave feminism—one that shut out women of color as well as lesbians.
Steinem’s friend Bella Abzug, she writes, “once literally damaged her vocal chords shouting back at Betty,” but that wasn’t her way:
I never responded in person or print, on the grounds that it would only feed the stereotype that women couldn’t get along, so Friedan wasn’t afraid of me and attacked me more. Truthfully, and in retrospect, I was avoiding conflict. I was being my mother’s daughter. I needed a teacher in surviving conflict, and Friedan was definitely it.’
It’s a rare human that takes a conflict with a purported enemy and manages to move past feeling self-righteous to find something about themselves to critique. And in moments like these, Steinem’s honesty in her own flaws makes her seem all the more flawless.
For those looking to Steinem’s life as a guidebook for how to be better humans themselves, her secret appears to be a surprising willingness to be open to learning from her incredibly varied audiences. “They taught me to talk as well as listen. They also showed me that writing, which is solitary, is fine company for organizing, which is communal,” Steinem writes of the people she’s met during her traveling life. “Fortunately, traveling and speaking took me to audiences full of down-home common sense,” she says of the period when her looks were all anyone seemed to want to comment on. “You leave a dark basement and try to explain to people in the sunshine what it’s like to live down there,” she comments of the strange discrepancy that occurs when shifting between fundraising among bigwigs and talking to the people who need the money those bigwigs will provide. She’s “learned that audiences turn into partners if you just listen to them as much as you talk.”
The longer she goes on, the more you buy what she’s selling—that, as she told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that aired Sunday, “what happens in a room when you are present cannot happen on the printed page or on the screen. It’s really true that the hormones that allow us to empathize with each other are only produced when we’re together in all five senses”—through her simple prose and her thorough citations of facts, historical moments, and the people who taught her what she’s passing on. There are moments where her selflessness seems otherworldly, like when she’s discussing her response to her mother telling her that if she’d left Gloria’s father as she had sometimes wanted to, Gloria would have never been born. “I never had the courage to say: But you would have been born instead,” Steinem writes, with intense humility that seems partially attributable to a long life lived but which she seems to have always possessed in some form.
Last Wednesday, Steinem spoke in conversation at Hearst Tower with Joanna Coles, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, for a Hearst MasterClass attended mostly by the company’s employees. It was, I believe, the third time I’d seen her speak—once before in college, and another time at the premiere of PBS’s Makers—and as usual, she was methodical and considered, her comments on the inequalities and injustices in the world much more interesting than her thoughts on the news items of today. I found myself uninterested in hearing about what blogs she likes, or what woman reporters she admires—topics I would normally been intrigued by—because she herself seemed bored by these questions. They would only reveal details about her own preferences, rather than those of the people around her with less of a platform.
“Answers, answers are good too,” she told the audience, to a laugh, when the question and answer portion of the program was announced. When a woman asked Steinem what she was the most proud of that she’s accomplished, she gave an answer she’s given before: that she hasn’t done it yet. “I live in the future,” she said, before clarifying that she was aware that that’s not necessarily “a good thing because we can only really live in the present.” She politely dismissed Coles’s suggestion that her consistent tendency to always suggest others who might be better than her to speak at an event might be symptomatic of women who don’t think they’re good enough. “I’m not saying I have a magic prescription because each of you has knowledge I don’t have,” she said, while responding to a question asked about how she personally could provoke change for women.
Steinem in South Korea with other activists on International Women’s Day
Many have lamented the current feminist movement for its obsession with turning on women who hold the “wrong” opinions, for its screaming and in-fighting online (never mind the fact there was screaming and infighting long before the internet, and that part of that perception might just be due to visibility). Despite her long career, Steinem has barely marred her image with opinions that have been taken as wrong-headed, even in recent years, which seems remarkable, given how easily public figures of all sorts today do so. In My Life on the Road, Steinem doesn’t touch on internet vitriol much, except to remark on a moment in the run-up to the 2008 election when an op-ed she wrote the New York Times about Hillary Clinton and President Obama had people accusing her of “ranking sex over race.”
“Only conflict is news,” she writes, explaining in a list what she learned from that experience. At another point, she says of academia: “Scholarly language may be so theoretical that it obscures the source of feminism in women’s lived experience.” Online feminism certainly doesn’t have that problem; it is full of personal stories and lived experiences, many of which turn people against each other. Steinem makes a heavy case for the role of listening more to those stories, instead of shouting back. Her consistent emphasis on the importance of meeting someone face-to-face in humanizing their experiences, in making it easier to disagree with them calmly and without malice, makes her traveling life make much more sense. She has to take in stories to survive, to justify herself. And if that’s her own kind of selfishness, it is a rare one, and good.
“Life is an organizing problem,” she told the audience at Hearst, her voice still full of curiosity. “Don’t accept things the way they are. It’s so boring.” We can’t all be as open-minded, considerate and understanding as Gloria, but she certainly thinks we can—or, when push comes to shove, wants us to try.
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Images via Getty, Penguin Books