Anytime I sit down with a book written by Gloria Steinem, I actually pause and reflect before opening the cover. After all, it was her Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem that rocked my world when I first read it over twenty years ago. Her explanation of core self-esteem versus situational self-esteem forever changed the way I viewed myself, and set me on a healing journey that was long overdue.
This time I found myself staring at a cover with a youthful Steinem staring back at me, her eyes penetrating my soul with a look that said, “What are you waiting for? No one said this was going to be easy. Get over here and help me push this boulder back up the mountain—again.” I turned the book over to see a current photo of the author. I smiled. Amazingly, her appearance has changed little over the years. At 81, she looks remarkably similar to the woman who played a lead role in second wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. While I would imagine that decades of activism would wear a person down, in Steinem’s case it seems to have energized her, and she shows no signs of slowing down. I know this because I was lucky enough to meet her a couple of years ago when she spoke in Denver on International Women’s Day. I could not believe the woman in front of me was about to turn 80. She emanated pure energy and hope and light.
I opened this new book and began to read, wanting to learn how she has not lost hope—how she can continue to push this boulder up the mountain, when backlash after backlash sends it crashing back down, crushing her—and me—and the women’s movement in the process.
What I discovered within My Life on the Road is so much more: “The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present” (xix). Yes. Getting down and dirty in the trenches gives you a perspective that many don’t have. You can discuss theory all day long without truly applying it. Steinem understands that it is often what happens behind the scenes—the stories you hear in taxi cabs and on planes, the connections you make through grassroots community meetings or even in truck stops—that truly impact your life and give birth to ideas that lead to real change. It is meaningful, face-to-face human connection that matters.
I also walked away with a much greater understanding of our country’s recent political history. Who better to tell that story than the woman who experienced much of it firsthand? The connections she makes between seemingly unrelated events stunned me. While I have often thought of the impact that the Supreme Court decision had on determining the outcome of a presidential election, I had not known to trace that decision back even further. I have spent much time contemplating what the US reaction to being attacked on 9/11 would have been had Al Gore been president. But Steinem begins long before that, by referencing Harriett Woods’ defeat in her run for the US Senate in the early 1980s. Her Republican rival, John Danforth, was the incumbent, and she did not have the unlimited campaign funds he did. She also faced the uphill battle of trying to become the first woman to win election to a statewide office in Missouri. She made it close, losing by less than 2 percent of the votes.
Steinem points out that if Woods hadn’t lost, Danforth would not have been serving in the Senate, which means he wouldn’t have been able to take Clarence Thomas with him to Washington as a staffer. If Thomas had not gone to Washington, he wouldn’t have risen to power by being appointed to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and he wouldn’t have been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court (the first President Bush appointed Thomas to the EEOC and nominated him to serve on the Supreme Court). If he hadn’t been serving on the Supreme Court, he wouldn’t have been able to cast the deciding vote in favor of halting the Florida court-ordered vote recount in the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. If that recount had been completed, Al Gore would have become president (as was concluded by a postelection examination of all uncounted ballots). And if Al Gore had been president, it is likely that we would not have become mired in two wars. It is also likely that our environment and economy would be in much better shape (175-176).
Her point? We must fight to vote, and to have our vote counted. We can never know what impact any one action, or lack of action, might have on our future.
By the time I finished reading this book, I felt as if I had crisscrossed the country countless times. Steinem took me on an incredible journey, giving me insight into the lives of Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and even Ho Chi Minh. She also gave me the gift of intimate glimpses of women like Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, and Shirley Chisholm. But what truly moved me was Steinem’s recounting of interactions with people who were not so well known—countless taxi drivers, hotel staff, restaurant wait staff, and students. These interactions provided her with some of her greatest life lessons, and she was always open to receiving them—to listening and learning from each person who crossed her path. These are lessons that require face-to-face human interaction; they cannot be replicated in cyberspace. Steinem is a lifelong learner. She soaks up the stories of each individual who crosses her path, processes those narratives, expands her own knowledge and understanding, and shares what she has learned with others. She wakes up every day excited about the new knowledge she has yet to uncover.
My biggest takeaway from My Life on the Road was the idea that we are “simply ignorant of what the oldest cultures have to teach” (222). Native cultures, in place long before our ancestors arrived on this continent, were often matrilineal: “female and male roles were distinct but flexible and equally valued….Native languages, Cherokee and others—like Bengali and other ancient languages—didn’t have gendered pronouns like he and she. A human being was a human being” (222-223). While I learned of the social construction long ago, the idea of original cultures is new to me. I don’t know enough about the original cultures on my own continent—Serpent Woman and Spider Woman—the source of all creation and energy: “Feminists too often believe that no one has ever experienced the kind of society that empowered women and made that empowerment the basis of rules and civilization. The price the feminist community must pay because it is not aware…is necessary confusion, division, and much lost time” (Paula Gunn Allen qtd. in Steinem 225).
There is so much I have yet to learn. Thank you, Gloria, for being one of my greatest teachers.