Gloria Steinem: Nomadic Purpose

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From her days as a freelance journalist to her decades as a feminist activist and organizer, Gloria Steinem has devoted much of her time and energy to travel. Along the way, she has befriended taxicab drivers and flight attendants, campus activists and Native American tribal leaders, absorbing and preserving their stories, changing both their lives and her own.

In her long-awaited new book, My Life on the Road, Steinem, eighty-one, describes her most meaningful encounters in chapters with titles such as “One Big Campus,” “When the Political Is Personal,” and “Surrealism in Everyday Life.” She praises the idea of journeying as a means of discovery and urges other women to take to the road. And she writes movingly about her relationship with her father, Leo Steinem, who for years drove the family around the country while buying and selling antiques. Even as she sought to distance herself from his itinerant example, she realizes, she ended up emulating it, while also pausing, finally, to make a home of her own. Steinem and I spoke by phone about her book and the issues close to her heart. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. — Julia M. Klein

The Barnes & Noble Review: I’ve read that you’ve been thinking about this book since 1997. Can you talk about how the idea developed?

Gloria Steinem: As I think I said in the book, I realized that I was writing least about what I was doing most. I would write about particular interests or people or subjects I met along the way, but I wasn’t writing anything about the process of being on the road, which I was spending at least half my time on. I began to realize how important to me it was. I confess that I didn’t realize it, obvious as it seems now. This was partly because I had grown up that way.

BNR: Did you re-conceive the book over time?

GS: Of course every change in your life changes whatever you write. It was more about time — because I would work on it a month in the summer and not for eleven months.

BNR: Because in fact you were busy traveling and organizing?

GS: Exactly — I was too busy being on the road to write about being on the road.

BNR: Apparently this is your first book in twenty years.

GS: It is, except for a book I published in India [As If Women Matter, a collection of her writings].

BNR: That seems like a lot of pressure.

GS: I’m sure you could interview my editor, Kate Medina, who was in the Olympics of patience. [Laughs] I was writing short pieces, and op-eds, and all kinds of other things, but the process of putting together a book, even though the chapters are essays in a sense because they’re on somewhat different subjects, just got set aside — and also got too long. I’ll have lots of stories that were cut out to be put on a website [gloriasteinem.com].

BNR: What made you decide against writing a chronologically organized memoir?

GS: It’s not a memoir — to me, it’s an “on the road” book. I mean, I don’t think Jack Kerouac described his book as a memoir. It would just be impossible to do it chronologically — there’s just too much. You have to depend on your memory to be selective about what’s important and what’s moving and what you want to say.

BNR: This form allowed you to pick what was important to you.

GS: General areas, first of all, as you can see by the chapters. For instance, when I first did an outline for the book for the editor, I did not include a chapter about my father. That kind of wrote itself as the first chapter.

BNR: I was very moved by the dedication to the doctor who referred you for an abortion. I wonder how you arrived at that.

GS: First of all, I had dedicated other books to family and friends and lovers. But I think the very fact that I had promised him that I would not tell anyone his name kept me quiet about it, even knowing that he had died long ago. (He was quite an old man at the time.)

But perhaps [the motivation was] all the opposition that we are now seeing state by state, since the right wing didn’t get what it wanted in Washington, and also didn’t get what it wanted by murdering eight abortion doctors, which they were surprised to find was unpopular. They have now taken to making individual clinics impossible by bizarre regulations in state legislatures. So it just came to seem to me, as it always has, whether it’s the gay and lesbian and transgender movement or whether it’s us talking abortion, that a key to change is just telling the truth.

BNR: You say that you always knew that you were living your mother’s unlived life. I wonder whether before this you realized how much you resembled or owed to your father.

GS: It took me much longer to realize that because I spent a fair amount of time thinking I was rebelling against a peripatetic, disorganized life. It takes a while, I think, for us to look back and see the patterns in our life that resemble our childhood — not so much resemble, as [that] we have found a way to honor what’s familiar and still have a way of making it more complete. So my father never had a home; I have a home that I love coming back to. I have found a way to continue something familiar without giving in to it completely.

BNR: Trying to find the right balance . . .

GS: Yes, and I’ve really come to think that the balance is in ourselves almost — cellular memory — because we were always, for most of human history, following the seasons, following animals, being migratory. But we were migratory with yurts and tents and families and groups. So we had both: We had a community and a campfire to sit around to tell stories, and a journey.

BNR: So your life is replicating this ancient pattern.

GS: I think so. I think that the either-or-ness of almost everything is relatively new — the idea that people are divided into two kinds of people, those who divide everything into two and those who don’t. It comes from dividing human nature into masculine and feminine, which original cultures for most of human history didn’t do — they didn’t have “he” and “she” in their languages, they didn’t have a word for nature because we are not separate from nature. It’s really industrialization that made us feel that we had to settle down and get a job from someone else and stop following this natural pattern of nature.

BNR: Wasn’t the book at one point supposed to be called Nomad?

GS: That was a title that Kate Medina and others at Random House liked. The problem with it is that it sounds aimless. I don’t think nomads themselves are aimless, but it had an aimless connotation.

The title I preferred was America — As If Everyone Mattered, because it had irony and meaning. But after [the movement] Black Lives Matter became important, I just used the subtitle because I thought I didn’t want to detract from Black Lives Matter.

BNR: What are the ways you think your nomadic life could constitute an example for other women?

GS: Well, first of all, the road has been an awfully male province. It’s been thought to be too dangerous for women. If you think about the novels or stories of an on-the-road life or just the hero’s journey, it’s been a masculine event. Ironically, it turns out from looking at DNA that women have been more likely to travel than men, mainly because of marrying out of the group — not in matrilineal cultures, where men join the women’s family, but in patrilineal cultures. So actually we are the on-the-road gender, men are the stay-at-homes, relatively speaking. But nonetheless going on the road has been seen as something that only men can do. So I wanted to give the road equally to women.

And also I think it’s my answer, or one answer, to meditation or mindfulness. I totally believe in meditation and mindfulness, but I take courses and don’t do it. And I think that’s because the road is my form of it. It forces you to live in the present.

BNR: You write about the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston as a key event in your life. Why was that so important?

GS: I think it was for the [women’s] movement altogether because it was a huge first time — huge because it was two years in preparation, there were conferences in every state and territory; in Albany alone there were 20,000 women at a two-day conference electing delegates and issues to be talked about and decided at a national conference. It was like a constitutional convention for the female half of the country that wasn’t at the first one. It brought the movement together around all the fundamental issues, including abortion, lesbian rights, and other issues that had been up to then thought to be controversial but turned out to be majority issues.

BNR: You talk about divisions in the movement. It seems as though you and Betty Friedan were at odds. I’m struck by a certain amount of ambivalence — you seem to have admired her, but you seem not to have liked her very much.

GS: You know, we only probably saw each other six times in our lives, and she wouldn’t speak to me most of the time.

BNR: You also speak of your attractiveness as having been something of a burden — a handicap that kept you from being taken seriously.

GS: It’s summarized in my agent sending me to Life magazine for an assignment, and the editor looking out from his desk and saying, “We don’t want a pretty girl, we want a writer,” and sending me home. It’s not exactly a hardship, but it is a stereotype.

BNR: I was really struck by the Gay Talese anecdote. [While covering Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, the writer Gay Talese leaned over Steinem in a taxicab and said to the novelist Saul 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.”] That was just astonishing. I wonder if he ever apologized.

GS: No, he’s just oblivious, I believe. You know, I shouldn’t say that because I don’t know. I don’t see him that much. I’ve never asked him about it.

BNR: Can you talk about some of the highlights of your life on the road?

GS: Simply the whole process of the National Women’s Conference was the highlight — it was huge, it was communal, it was the only time I’ve ever seen a racially, economically, ethnically representative movement in this country. Also, I was frightened that we couldn’t bring it off, so it was harrowing in a personal way. It was full of times of being literally terrified that we would fail massively in public, and yet it was such a huge success. So it had every human emotion, and it also began to teach me that I didn’t know about this land that I’d been walking around on all my life — because our studies don’t start when people started here, they start when Columbus showed up.

The most memorable times are when there’s a moment of intense understanding or discovery. It can happen in a room, in a lecture, with somebody just standing up and asking a question or responding or telling their story, and the whole room suddenly being taken to a new level of understanding. It can happen just on the street with talking to someone. It’s the instantaneous moments of “Ah ha,” of learning, of perception, of mind expansion, connection.

BNR: Which still happen for you?

GS: Yes, oh, absolutely.

BNR: You don’t write much about your personal highs and lows — your marriage [to the late David Bale], for instance, or other relationships.

GS: I purposely didn’t talk about that. I said that in the introduction so people wouldn’t be expecting that. That would take up a whole book in itself.

BNR: Are we going to get that book?

GS: I don’t know. It’s almost not fair to write about something that was privately experienced by someone else, too.

BNR: Where do you think the country is now in terms of feminism?

GS: The women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian movement — all the social justice movements have won majority support, which is a huge step from a few decades ago. But the very fact that we have majority support has created a backlash. It’s quite literal when you think about the racial composition of the country — in very short order we’re no longer going to be a majority white or European American country. And this has caused a big backlash, so that the same groups are now against immigration, against abortion, against sex education and contraception because, as they often cheerfully tell you, the white race is committing suicide.

So two things are happening: We are about to be profoundly changed, and in a good way, and much more free, and [with] much more representation of the world, many more ideas of shared rights for everyone. And, at the same time, there is a backlash against it.

BNR: Are we becoming more polarized?

GS: No, we’re not polarized, because polarization implies two poles. We have the majority in consciousness, but the right wing probably has a disproportionate amount of both money and positions of power.

BNR: Is that a fault in our democracy?

GS: It is. It’s the fault of the way we finance our campaigns. It’s the fault of the way we vote, because we make it more difficult to vote than any democracy in the world.

BNR: How do you see gender playing out in this presidential campaign?

GS: I’m sure that we will continue to see Hillary Clinton’s hair and clothing covered in a way that the male candidates don’t get covered.

BNR: You say in the book’s dedication that you’ve done the best you could with your life. How do you assess what you’ve accomplished?

GS: I don’t look at it that way. I think we need to make each day resemble the best we can, the most we can, the ends we want to achieve — listening as much as we talk, especially if we’re people who are more powerful in some situations, or if we’re less powerful, talking as much as we listen. Kindness is one of the most important qualities on earth. Doing what we care about so much that we forget what time it is when we’re doing it. Laughing, which is crucial. Being our authentic selves, and in community at the same time. If we do that each day, then we’ll have advanced those causes in the future.

BNR: So it’s all about becoming?

GS: It’s all about experience in the present. It’s true I live in the future too much, but I try not to because we can only experience all five senses in the present.

BNR: So that’s a tension in your life.

GS: Between future plans and a “what if” state of mind, and a “right now” state of mind.

BNR: Can you talk about the role that Ms. magazine [which Steinem co-founded and where she remains a consulting editor] played in the movement, and might still play?

GS: It’s still the only magazine in the country that’s owned and controlled by women. It remains a major source of information and fiction and poetry that have disappeared from other women’s magazines. I’m grateful to the Feminist Majority [Foundation] for keeping it prospering.

BNR: What’s next for you, after the book tour?

GS: I’m introducing a series of documentary reports about violence against women in different countries around the world, including this one, for VICE Media.

BNR: Anything else you’d like to add?

GS: Bookstores are great community centers. We’ve lost a lot of them. The ones that are left are often the truest community centers. I love them because anybody can come in, whether they have the money to buy a book or not. I’ve never failed to learn from what people have to say there. It’s the place people come for new ideas and help and understanding. Librarians saved my life as a child.

BNR: As a child, you didn’t go to school, at least not full time.

GS: I would go till it got cold, and then my father, who didn’t like the cold weather, would suddenly decide it was the moment to leave. And we would start working our way to Florida or California.

BNR: So you would read books in the car.

GS: In retrospect, what was at least as important was that I was escaping the brainwashing — I didn’t read Dick-and-Jane books, I missed a lot of education about hierarchy, about race and class, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

BNR: So your life on the road was something of a benefit?

GS: At the time I didn’t think so, naturally — I wanted to be like other kids. But, looking back on it, I think it was an advantage.

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