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Learning from Experience
Life Between the Lines
There have been days in the last ten or twelve years when I thought my collected works would consist entirely of fundraising letters, scribbled outlines of speeches, statements hammered out at the birth of some new coalition, and introductions to other people's books.
I don't regret the time I've devoted to those projects. Writing that leads to action, puts some common feeling into words, or introduces people to one another may be just as important in the long run as much of the fact and fiction published in conventional ways. If I were to name an emotional highpoint of my twenty or so years as a writer, it might be the two sleepless days I spent as an invited outside scribe for diverse caucuses at the 1977 National Women's Conference (an event also described here in "Houston and History"). Women representing every group of "minority" Americans, from the oldest Indian nations to the newest Vietnamese refugees, had decided to forge a shared resolution. As words were found to describe the common experiences of women of color while preserving the special issues of each group, and as that unprecedented shared resolution passed by acclamation of two thousand delegates representing every part of the country, I felt a pride in being a writer that was at least as pleasurable as the pride that comes from seeing one's more personal words in print.
In the same way and supposing there is such a thing as posterity, I might be just as pleased if my part in it were much shorter than a book or an essay: perhaps the invention of something as brief and pithy as the phrase reproductive freedom, a democratic substitute for such old paternalisms as population control, and a Fifth Freedom of special importance to the female half of the world. Finding language that will allow people to act together while cherishing each other's individuality is probably the most feminist and truly revolutionary function of writers. Just as there can be no deep social change without art and music (as Emma Goldman said, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution"), there can be none without words that create the dream of change in our heads.
Nonetheless, it's one of the ironies of trying to be a writer and an activist at the same time that just when you feel you have the most to write about, you have the least time in which to write it.
I regret very much that I never kept a diary during more than a dozen years of traveling at least a couple of days a week as an itinerant speaker and feminist organizer. Though most of the ideas and observations in this book were born during those travels (including its title, as you will see in the last essay, "Far from the Opposite Shore"), I could have written a book-length, blow-by-blow account of just one early year. For instance, a year that included being the first woman speaker for the powerful few at the National Press Club in Washington (they gave me a tie) and a Harvard Law Review banquet (where, supplied with research from the few women students at this school that began admitting females only in the 1950s, I committed the sin of talking specifically about Harvard instead of generally about The World). Or finding three thousand people gathered for a speech in a basketball stadium in Wichita, Kansas, while the media was still reporting that feminism was the invention of a few far-out women on either coast, and New York colleagues were predicting either indifference or the strong possibility of my being stoned to death. Or meeting women who were protesting everything from sex-segregated help-wanted ads in Pittsburgh to Nevada's practice of pressuring welfare mothers into prostitution in order to save money and increase tourist attractions.
Despite deprecations the media were then reporting about "Women's Lib" or "bra burners," several more years like that one at the start of the 1970s taught me that daily rebellions and dreams of equality were sprouting up everywhere—inside families and in public life. And these new ideas were not confined to any predictable demographics of age, race, education, or geography. If anything, rebellion was less rhetorical and more real in parts of the country where women's alternatives were more restricted than in the big cities of New York or California, and at economic levels that made women's salaries even more crucial to survival than among the middle-class rebels who were the focus of the press.
Those regular travels also gave me good news to bring back to women writers and editors in New York who were growing impatient with the old "feminine" and "masculine" stereotypes in the media, and who had just held historic sit-ins at The Ladies' Home Journal and RAT, a so-called radical paper that actually prospered on pornography. The good news was that there were more than enough readers for a new kind of women's magazine for, by, and about women. Though feminism was (and sometimes still is) a misunderstood word, many women readers wanted a magazine that supported its real definition: the equality and full humanity of women and men. After all, even those magazines directed at women were totally male-owned and controlled, and mostly edited by men. In order to right the balance, women needed a national forum—indeed, many such forums.
Meetings with other women in the publishing world uncovered war stories that either made you laugh or cry. Look magazine told Patricia Carbine, who had been essentially running that magazine for years as executive editor, that a woman could never be editor-in-chief. At The Ladies' Home Journal where I was an occasional consultant and writer, one of its two top editors (both men, of course) was so convinced that I was nothing like its readers (whom he described as "mental defectives with curlers in their hair") that he used to hand me a manuscript and say, "Pretend you're a woman and read this." Even at that, he was more flexible than the owner of Seventeen, who ordered an end to my editorial consulting there when he discovered I was raising money for the legal defense fund of Angela Davis. An editor at New York magazine, where the women's movement was at least understood as an important news event, still insisted the whole thing was a minor upper-class discontent that could be solved by importing more maids from Jamaica. The New York Times Magazine seemed to be continuing its usual practice of allowing women, minorities, and homosexuals to write first-person confessional pieces, but, in the name of objectivity, assigning white male heterosexual "authorities" to write definitive articles on these groups. A memo from Hugh Hefner smuggled out by a woman office worker at Playboy magazine in Chicago was a three-page diatribe against publishing an article on the women's movement that one of his editors had assigned to a professional male journalist, and thus had come out too "objective" and "well-balanced" for Hefner's purposes. As he wrote, "Doing a piece on the pros and cons of feminism strikes me as rather pointless for Playboy. What I'm interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend.... These chicks are our natural enemies.... It is time to do battle with them.... What I want is a devastating piece ... a really expert, personal demolition job on the subject." I remember assuming that the staff member's brave release of that memo to the press would have a chilling effect on anyone who cared about journalism, much less women's equality. Wrong. It was treated with chuckles and smiles. Objectivity was for serious concerns, not for anything relating to women.
There was an even bigger problem for women of color. Black women at these meetings reported that senior editorial jobs at major national magazines included not one of their number. Even a magazine for black women was partly owned by Playboy, and, in the pattern of other women's magazines, was published by two men. As one woman put it, "At least you're getting hostility. We're still The Invisible Woman."
It was stories and meetings like those that rounded up the energy and professionalism for a national, inclusive, female-controlled magazine for women. With little capital and no intention of duplicating the traditional departments designed around "feminine" advertising categories—recipes to reinforce food ads, beauty features to praise beauty advertisers, and the like—we knew it would be economically tough. (Fortunately, we didn't know how tough. Attracting ads for cars, sound equipment, beer, and other things not traditionally directed to women still turns out to be easier than convincing advertisers that women look at ads for shampoo without accompanying articles on how to wash their hair, just as men look at ads for shaving products without articles on how to shave.) Given all these obstacles, we never would have continued if readers hadn't encouraged us. We produced one sample issue of this new editorial content—a magazine designed to stay on newsstands for three months—and it sold out in eight days.
There was a lot more hard work and uncertainty before we could raise money and begin publishing every month. Trying to start a magazine controlled editorially and financially by its female staff in a world accustomed to the authority of men and investors should be the subject of a musical comedy.
Nonetheless, Ms. magazine was born: the place where the original versions of most of the writing in this book were eventually published.
At the same time, however, my life was less a magazine than a novel. For the four or five years surrounding the birth of Ms., I was traveling and speaking as a team with a black feminist partner: first Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a child-care pioneer, then lawyer Florynce Kennedy, and finally activist Margaret Sloan. By speaking together at hundreds of public meetings, we hoped to widen the public image of the women's movement created largely by its first homegrown media event, The Feminine Mystique. (The English translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex had caused a stir even earlier, but its impact had been weakened by the fact that the rebellious women in question came from some other country, not our own.) Despite the many early reformist virtues of The Feminine Mystique, it had managed to appear at the height of the civil rights movement with almost no reference to black women or other women of color. It was most relevant to the problems of the white, well-educated suburban homemakers who were standing by their kitchen sinks, wondering justifiably if there weren't "more to life than this." As a result, white-middle-class-movement had become the catch phrase of journalists describing feminism in the United States; unlike Europe, where early writings and actions were much more populist and conscious of class.
There was little public understanding that feminism, by its very definition, has to include females as a caste across economic and racial boundaries, just as a movement against racial caste includes each individual marked by race, regardless of sex or class. There was even less understanding that sex and race discrimination are so pragmatically linked and anthropologically interdependent that one cannot be successfully uprooted without also uprooting on the other.
So, to be feminist in both form and content, we went out in what Flo Kennedy used to describe cheerfully as "Little Eva teams—something for everyone." Or, as Margaret Sloan put it, "We travel in pairs—like nuns." Dorothy Pitman Hughes and her husband Clarence had a baby who was nursing and traveled with us, so we were a trio for a while. Dorothy was convinced that some people might suspect us of renting this baby to demonstrate the integration of children into daily life—an important part of our message. In fact, one or two people behaved as if we had somehow given birth to a baby daughter by ourselves. It was a time when even one feminist speaker was a novelty, and interracial teams of feminists seemed to be unheard of since the days of Sojourner Truth.
The years of travel in such pairings brought us stares and opposition, but also great support. Our presence on the stage together made a point that women seemed hungry for, especially in the South. We attracted bigger and more diverse audiences than each of us would have had on our own, and we were complementary in other ways. As a journalist, my name was better known, so I was more likely to attract the one paid speech around which we could build other meetings and benefits. On the other hand, Dorothy could talk personally about equality in marriage and parenthood, as I could not, and both Flo and Margaret were far more experienced speakers. I always spoke first to lay a groundwork (as anyone in those audiences would tell you, speaking second also would have made me an anticlimax after the energy and style of Margaret or Flo), but the most important part of any lecture came after all of us had spoken—a long audience discussion and organizing meeting.
It was then that people began to answer one another's questions ("How can I stop feeling guilty about asking my husband to do housework?"), and supply their own tried-and-true solutions. ("Imagine how you would divide the housework if you were living with another woman. Now don't lower your standards.") They informed one another of problems we never could have known about: a local factory that refused to hire women, a college hushing up a campus rape to protect its reputation, a high school counselor who advised girls to be nurses and boys of color to be veterinarians instead of doctors. They passed around literature from current feminist groups, sign-up sheets for new ones, and the addresses of politicians who deserved to be lobbied or demonstrated against. They picked up ideas for actions from the lengthening list we recited from our travels, or they decided to do something entirely new.
Small all-women discussion groups that followed the lectures were even more honest, just as consciousness-raising or networking groups were (and still are, as reported here in an essay on "Networking") the basic cells of any deep and long-term change. We discovered that the ideal proportion for a big public audience was about two-thirds women and one-third men. When matched by men in even numbers, women restrained their response and looked to see how the men were reacting, but in clear majorities, they eventually forgot about any male presence at all and responded as women do when we are on our own. That gave many women a rare chance to speak honestly, and gave some men an even more rare chance to hear them.
Most of all, women in those audiences discovered they were neither crazy nor alone. And so did we.
Though we tried to focus on parts of the country that were most removed from the little feminist activity that then existed, there were so few traveling feminist speakers that we ended up going to almost every kind of community and, I think, every state but Alaska. There were times when we felt like some combination of Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and a lost company of Blossom Time.
At the time, I wrote the brief essay here called "Sisterhood" about these travels, but many other scenes still come flooding back:
Reporters at press conferences who routinely assumed I could answer questions about all women but Dorothy could answer only about black women, or perhaps only about the few black male leaders whose names were the only ones they knew. Just as male was universal but female was limited, white was universal but black was limited. (We tried to turn this into a learning experience by letting the questions go on for a while—and then pointing out the problem.)
White train conductors in the North who let me pass into the parlor car, then explained to Dorothy that the cheaper seats were in the rear.
A black minister in Dorothy's tiny southern hometown who wouldn't let women in his church do anything but cook and sing—not even be deacons or pass the collection baskets that women's hard-earned coins did the most to fill.
A white flight attendant who pronounced Dorothy's nursing her baby onboard "obscene."
An irate man in one audience who screamed at Dorothy to "go home to Russia where you belong," causing both Dorothy and the audience to break up with laughter at the idea of her Russian roots.
A snobbish boys' prep school that produced both our toughest audience and a lifetime friend, the mother of one of the boys, who announced that she had an executive husband who liked to hunt, two obnoxious sons who thought girls were inferior, and she wanted to volunteer for Dorothy's child-care center—where she worked for years thereafter.
Margaret standing bravely with her arms crossed to block a man storming the stage against our "blasphemous" talk of equality.
Excerpted from Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem. Copyright © 1995 Gloria Steinem. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 16, 2013
About two months ago, during a class simulation, I was in the hallway speaking with several male classmates. Despite that fact that I had done my research and was an active participant, 90% of the men I was with completely ignored me, despite my overt attempts to join the conversation. It was so bad, in fact, that all but one of them walked away while I was still talking. Infuriated, I clapped my hands loudly and demanded that they listen to me. Had I not just been treated in such a way by a group of faculty members a few weeks before, I may have let it slide for the sake of civility, but I was tired of men acting as if they were placating me by allowing me to speak. They may as well have patted me on the head and told me to be a good little girl and play nice.
I’ve always been very outspoken and assertive, so I’m not entirely sure how I made it to 30 without reading Gloria Steinem, but here I am, reading her for the first time. To be honest, I don’t know that I would have fully appreciated her or her work ten years ago, so maybe it’s for the best that I read her now! I’ve always thought of Ms. Steinem as an amazing, confident, trailblazing woman. I had no idea that she had a massive fear of public speaking, overanalyzed what she had said for days on end, and was constantly seeking approval. As someone who can identify with and is overcoming these same traits, it her ability to succeed and make such a long-lasting and positive change fills me with hope.Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions is a book of essays, most of which were written decades ago, and include relevant updates to keep the reader up to date on what the current state of affairs are. As Ms. Steinem points out in her introduction, some of these updates are depressing in that not much progress has been made. The essays range from how the transexual movement has affected gender roles, her time as a a Playboy Bunny, an essay about her mother and what would happen if men menstruated.
While all of the essays covered very serious topics, they were made more interesting with a type of humor that was not haha funny, but instead amusing in a this-is-real-life way. It made the book much more approachable and less preachy. In fact, the book didn’t seem preachy or “feministy” at all and yet I finished the book wanting to jump up and shout about how great it is to be a woman.One of the things that Ms. Steinem emphasized in the book is that women tend to become more liberal as they get older, and thus are more likely to become “activists” later on in life. This is not because young women are failing to understand the importance of gender equality, but rather that until they are beginning (or even halfway through) their careers, it is not something they encounter in such a blatant way. Perhaps this is true, because while I’ve always believed in and supported gender equality, it wasn’t until the last year or two that I started to realize that I was on the unequal end of things.
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Posted June 26, 2013
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Posted November 6, 2013
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