Gloria Steinem’s lifelong road trip began in the car with her nomadic father, making a home anywhere and never settling down. Her love of travel and exploration continued into adulthood, as a writer, a feminist, an activist and a woman. Steinem joined Jim Braude and guest host Emily Rooney on Boston Public Radio to discuss her biography, My Life on the Road.
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO:
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death:
I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you.
—Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road
You write about moving around and not being able to go to school. How did not having a formal education affect you?
When you’re describing me— I was finding myself thinking, ‘this is the experience of being on the road.’ If you talk to someone, you discover their unique story, and you figure out that the signals you thought you knew about who they were are really only ten percent of it. Yes, it affected me in ways that I only realized later in life. At the time, I wanted to go to school, like other kids, as we all want to be like what we see in the movies, but in later life, I realized it was not such a bad thing, really, that I did not go to school, because I escaped a certain amount of brainwashing into Dick and Jane books, and so on.
Did you remember things as you were going through the process of writing about your childhood that weren’t in your regular recall when you were just living your life?
Absolutely. I think when we write anything of any length, we discover a lot about ourselves that we hadn’t had the contemplative time. At first, I wasn’t going to include a chapter about my father at all, because I was just going to write about my movement life on the road. Then after I sat down, I thought maybe the fact that I grew up in a trailer for the first ten years of my life has something to do with the fact that I am at home on the road, and also that I was living an insecure life from an outside point of view, as my father was really proud of never having a job.
Early in the book, you talk about how traveling alone, women on the road, got a bad reputation, that there are all these perils associated with traveling alone, from Amelia Earhart to Thelma and Louise...but then when you think about what happens at home, with domestic violence, mercy killings and honor killings, the dangers of being at home are equal, if not greater.
We think of the road as mainly male territory, and it has been, from Jack Kerouac, and back for centuries. It’s been treated that way, the hero’s quest. I didn’t want to say look, the road belongs to all of us, and to encourage women to travel too, but it was only after I was writing this that I thought, wait a minute, look at the statistics. The most dangerous place for an American woman is in her own home, that’s the place she’s most likely to be beaten or killed by a man she knows. So ironically, statistically speaking, the road is safer than home for women.
I am always struck by your optimism.
It’s called being a hope-aholic.
You said somewhere that it was, in part, being a traveling soul that gave birth to this optimism. What does one have to do with the other?
I think if you are traveling and you are vulnerable, you’re open to people. You listen to them. You discover that the act of being vulnerable, listening, paying attention, often brings out a pretty good person in them. It’s the tyranny of expectation. In a way we could be divided—the world is divided into two kinds of people, those who divide everything into two and those who don’t— so I hate to do that, but I think people who view the world and the universe as basically friendly have different experiences from those who view it as basically unfriendly. I don’t know whether this is inherited, I suspect it’s mostly about the way we are treated as children that makes that determination. To some extent, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You had a number of life-altering events… starting with the March on Washington, you said when you were first in that crowd, you didn’t really notice the fact that there were no women speakers.
I was just accepting it. I think we do accept as “normal” what we’ve grown up with or what is around us. Only because of accidentally marching in that way that you end up —for hours with people you don’t know—[I met] a woman who was kind of angry that there were no women speaking was calling out names.
This was the first big huge March on Washington of the civil rights movement. It was quite controversial, because the fear was that to martial this, many people would turn to violence, or there would not be enough people. In either case, it might endanger the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. and everyone who planned the march continued anyway, and it turned out to be huge. Not only in numbers, but as a turning point in national consciousness, because people had come there from all over the country. It was not violent, it was very self-consciously peaceful, and an ocean of people, all peaceful. Martin Luther King’s speech lives on with us, ‘I Have A Dream,’ with Abraham Lincoln seated behind him… it was if finally, the African American parts of the nation and the European-American support for them had said, this is our country, this is our capital, we’re here.
You said you didn’t intend to go to the march, but you ended up just going. What did you mean by that?
I had tried to get an assignment, a journalistic assignment. I was freelancing and I couldn’t get one. I had nothing to do there, I wasn’t serving any useful purpose, but it was just like a magnet. I don’t even know why I went. Maybe it was partly living in India for a couple of years and realizing that there are these huge watershed moments in which people gather...I don’t know. I just found myself going.
Do you remember how you felt when you heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak?
In the moment, I was looking at this ocean of humanity, all peaceful, all respectful of each other. I had never seen anything like that before, even in India where there are massive meetings. I hadn’t seen quite that kind of vista.
You say you’ve divided your life into the before and after of the 1977 Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas. why was it so meaningful to you?
It was a kind of constitutional convention for women, you might say, because we had not been at the first one, and Bella Abzug, Patsy Mink and Shirley Chisholm, who were concerned about the representation of American women’s views in the International Year of the Woman,—which then became the Decade of the Woman, as declared by the United Nations. We had first been represented by a group of people appointed by President Ford and headed by a guy from the State Department. We said, wait a minute— what issues, what concerns do American women really want to bring up? Thanks to those three members of congress, we actually got tax-funded (although at a very low level) for a national conference that was preceded by identifying issues and electing delegates in every state and territory. It had to be racially and economically representative. We had spent two years helping groups on a state-by-state basis...there were 20,000 women in Albany alone, in New York State. It went on for two days, selecting issues, selecting delegates. At the conference, part of the problem was that there was a right-wing, Phyllis Schlafly/Robert Dornan counter-meeting. They were elected by no one, so it was not at all comparable, but the press gave it equal coverage, much of the time. That’s part of the reason people didn’t understand the importance of Houston. It was crucial because it brought together a majority women’s movement around issues, including what had been controversial issues like lesbian rights or safe and legal abortion, and it turned out that those were majority issues.
That was in 1977, 38 years ago. How are we doing? How are we on these issues that you have spent a lifetime fighting over?
The good news is, these are now majority issues in the country. If you look at public opinion polls, they are supported by a majority of Americans, women and men, and those issues weren’t even named before. They didn’t even have names before, so that’s a huge change in consciousness. We also have a lot of laws and processes that we didn’t have before. Take domestic violence—the term didn’t exist, the idea of success on the part of a lot of police officers was to get the victim and the criminal back together...so for it to become a name-national issue with reform of laws and police department procedures, since it’s not only the single biggest source of violence but the single biggest determinant of other violence. If you have violence in the household, in the family, you’re more likely to repeat it, or think it’s normal or inevitable in the rest of life. That’s just one of many huge areas that have changes. But because it’s now a majority issue, we have had a backlash of people who really believe that there is a natural order of things that has to do with sex and race and class, and they’re against all of these. Because we had a front-lash, we now have a backlash.
Do you think we’re on a path to a goal, so that’s great progress, or do you get really disappointed that we’ve made so little on some fronts?
I thought, in the beginning, if we got the majority we would win. I didn’t understand we don’t exactly have a democracy, people with a lot of money and clout make more noise…One of the things I learned at Houston from the women from Indian country there, many different tribes and nations, was a saying, “it takes four generations to heal one act of violence.” I think we need to think in the long-term much more than we do.
You said America wasn’t ready for a woman president when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama.
I thought that, I didn’t say it, because I didn’t want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I did not think she could in 2008.
Why were we not ready then, and are we ready now?
Well, I don’t know if we are now, but I think it’s possible. Then, I didn’t think so, because we had not seen enough women honored in authority in public life. We continued to associate female authority with childhood. Most of us have been raised by women, therefore female authority seems to us emotional, or nurturing, or tied to the inner world, not appropriate in the outer world. We just haven’t seen it, and we do what we see more than what we’re told. Now, I think there have been enough women in public life, in authority, so that we can begin to entertain it. It’s still going to be very, very difficult, but I think it’s possible.
Gloria Steinem’s new book is a memoir, My Life on the Road. To hear more from her interview, click on the audio link above.