Lucy and Todd

Gloria Steinem — My Life on the Road

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on December 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

I gave a speech in New York earlier this year in favor of female supremacy. At the end of it, I told the men in the audience to hand over all their cash to the women in the audience. There wasn’t universal compliance on the night, but some money did change hands. It was my first experience of this kind of activism and boy was it fun! So I can almost see how, once you get the bug, you can’t stop.

Gloria Steinem can’t stop, and that’s a great thing. She was the right person at the right time: flexible, modest, tolerant, indefatigable, determined and canny enough to weave her way past the ramparts. She calls herself a wandering organizer, and this book has a wandery form of organization too. Part memoir, part campaigning history, it mirrors Steinem’s keen antipathy to all forms of hierarchy. Unhampered by chronology, its chapters are almost interchangeable. So among her other achievements Steinem has helped liberate the memoir form.

It’s an inspiring political chronicle, illustrated by personal anecdotes and a few statistics, in the style of many a Steinem speech no doubt – which she deliver anywhere from subway stops, bowling alleys and bagel shops, to school gyms, flatbed trucks, YWCAs, churches, bookstores, college campuses, and backyard barbecues. Much of it is concerned with the patient business involved in getting bills passed, candidates selected and elected, consciousnesses raised, and enemies thwarted (Betty Friedan was one; the Pope another). It can get personal, and moving, but she’s not going to dish the dirt on her love life if that’s what you were hoping. She mentions merely a handsome boyfriend in high school, her engagement to a ‘good’ but ‘wrong’ man in college, one amorous tryst in a taxi, and her misguided attempt to fundraise in Palm Springs among her rich boyfriend’s rich friends, one of whom was Frank Sinatra, who seemed more interested in showing off his hangar full of miniature trains. ‘I try not to think about how much all this cost’, Steinem ruefully remarks. ‘In three days of talk about how to make money, I haven’t been able to insert one idea about how to use it.’

In the 1960s, Steinem wrote: ‘If men could menstruate…[they] would brag about how long and how much.’ My Life on the Road may lack that kind of sparkle, but it too has its moments. There’s the time she gave a speech on institutionalized sexism at a Harvard Law School banquet, nearly reducing one professor to apoplexy (a pity she restrains herself from making this scene as funny as it could have been). When writing an article in 1967 in defense of Ho Chi Minh, she needed to fact-check so she sent Ho a telegram. Finding his address wasn’t easy, and then he never got back to her – must have been busy. She also reveals that Bella Abzug once injured her vocal chords yelling at Friedan.

As well as co-founding New York magazine and Ms, Steinem wrote abundantly about presidential campaigns. She notes here Nixon’s excruciating attempts to ingratiate himself with members of the press at the back of the plane, by spouting some totally out-of-date personal detail about each reporter. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern both disappointed her: McCarthy for his aloofness, and McGovern for his reluctance to openly support abortion rights. Robert Kennedy would have been better, she feels. People doubted whether Geraldine Ferraro could ever be ‘tough’ enough to press the button, but ‘they didn’t ask male candidates if they could be wise enough not to’. She notes that the response to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 fight for the democratic nomination was way beyond rude, with nutcrackers made in her image, T-shirts that said ‘BROS BEFORE HOS’, and Rush Limbaugh banalities such as “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older on a daily basis?” and his comparison of Hillary Clinton’s legs to Palin’s. (How about his legs?) Steinem comments, No wonder the misogyny toward Hillary was almost never named by the media. It was the media.

We follow the growth in Steinem’s thinking about sexual politics from the early it’s-not-fair stage, through her adoption of Gandhian tactics in India, to her fascination with the Iroquois Confederacy, ‘the oldest continuous democracy in the world’. The real narrative that emerges here is Steinem’s increasing involvement with Native American culture and prehistory. She was helped in this by Wilma Mankiller, the first woman ever to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. Steinem was stunned by witnessing how Native American activists hold meetings: ‘It took me a while to realize, These men talk only when they have something to say. I almost fell off my chair.’

The best character here is Steinem’s father, whose marriage proposal to her mother was, “It will only take a minute.” His letterhead said, ‘It’s Steinemite!’ and he spent his life in the car, continually on the move, selling antiques to roadside stands. His ‘idea of childrearing was to take me to whatever movie he wanted to see, however unsuitable; buy unlimited ice cream; let me sleep whenever and wherever I got tired; and wait in the car while I picked out my own clothes… [T]his resulted in such satisfying purchases as…Easter shoes that came with a live rabbit.’ Steinem didn’t go to school until she was 10, and learnt to read by studying roadsigns, with their helpful illustrations of hotdogs and hotel beds. She was thus ‘spared the Dick and Jane limitations that school then put on girls’. But there’s a sense here that her mother, who’d once been a newspaper reporter, sacrificed a career, a life in New York, and her sanity, in order to have children. Steinem has been ‘living out the unlived life of my mother’ ever since – when she isn’t traveling, in imitation of her father.

Steinem is hooked on travel, and urges us all to do more of it. It is a bit silly for women to stay at home, when that’s where (statistically) they’re most likely to be murdered. For Steinem, travel has been a compensation, a compulsion, and a political tool. It’s the communal aspects of it she craves, not the glamour. She doesn’t drive, and reviles the isolating effect of private cars and private jets, or taxis with window barriers between the driver and passenger, that make her feel like she’s ‘ordering French fries’. A whole chapter is devoted to taxi drivers she’s met, including a racist she had to ditch mid-journey, a vocal (female) advocate of tantric sex, and a guy abjuring all forms of media so as to live in the real world. “I’ve been clean for eight months,” he proudly reports.

My Life on the Road downplays the assault on the female psyche that was ’60s America, but there are glimpses of what Steinem endured as punishment for being smart, good-looking, ambitious, angry and politicized. During Robert Kennedy’s New York senate race, she was sitting in a taxi between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. Talese suddenly leant across her to inform Bellow: “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Steinem didn’t erupt (neither did Bellow), but she admits that it’s been trying, having her success continually attributed to her appearance.

Steinem’s other major obstacle in becoming an organizer was her dread of public speaking. She found a way around it by teaming up with partner speakers. These included Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Margaret Sloan and Florynce Kennedy, African American activists who brought with them, as an extra bonus, a more diverse audience. It was a breakthrough for Steinem. Florynce Kennedy even tried to cure Steinem of her statistics addiction, by saying, ‘If you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle…you don’t send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!’ It didn’t take – Steinem kept her journalist’s weakness for numbers, but she still became an engaging if not flamboyant speaker. A firm believer in the power of talking circles, her biggest thrill is when people in the audience start answering each other’s questions, leaving the her out of the picture.

Early in her career, when she tried to get journalism assignments to write about women, she was told that articles about equality would have to be ‘balanced’ by ones in favor of inequality, for the sake of objectivity. Things have perhaps moved on. But Steinem’s still stuck trying to persuade people up and down the land that reproductive freedom is essential to gender equality. Curiously, she’s not in favor of matriarchy, and argues that it’s ‘a failure of the imagination’ to have one group dominating another. Now, this I resent. Equality’s the failure of imagination! It might do, in a pinch, but female supremacy would be a lot more fun. Men are too keen on money, oil, plastics, beef and golf. Only by restraining them can we hope to reverse the social and environmental damage patriarchy accomplished over the past five thousand years. And in this revolution, men can lick the envelopes and make the sandwiches.

LE

A version of this review appeared in Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2016.

 

 

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  1. Excellent 😉 But where do we send the CA$H?!

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