As part of Gloria Steinem‘s book tour for her new book My Life On the Road (2015), the literally non-profit organization Hedgebrook that supports women writers organized a literary evening at Benaroya Hall, which houses the Seattle Symphony, on November 8, 2015. Gloria Steinem spent the evening discussing her new book with Cheryl Stayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012), a memoir that was adapted in 2014 by the Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée and starred Reese Witherspoon. The sold-out event attracted over 2,500 people.
In her book Steinem wrote: “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 alive in the present” (Steinem xviii).
Steinem wrote part of her book at the Hedgebrook writers’ residence on Whidbey Island (about 56 km north-west of Seattle). The book is a personal memoir of her life as a feminist activist, travelling and organizing feminist “talking circles” in the U.S. and around the world, as well as a reflection on her family, upbringing, and the various roads that led her to become who she is. “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. For more than four decades, I’ve spent at least half my time on the road” (Steinem xvii).
Steinem dedicated her book to Dr. John Sharpe, 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.'” Steinem opened her book with this preface: “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.”
When Cheryl Strayed (whose new book, entitled Brave Enough (2015) – a collection of empowering and inspiring quotes from her other works) introduced Steinem as brave, and thanked her, noting that “by raising her own consciousness, Steinem raised our collective consciousness,” Steinem replied: “I have been on the road all these years, but I have never once been without a refrigerator. This is the brave woman!” referring to Strayed. After expressing great admiration for each other, the two authors proceeded discussing Steinem’s book and the various personal, political, professional, and passionate journeys that shaped her over the past 82 years.
“I think the world is divided into two kinds of people,” Steinem joked, “those who divide everyone into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. […] But when you’re on the road, you see that there is an incredible variety of people, and you hear individual stories and you see solutions. You see that change does grow from the bottom up, like a tree, it doesn’t usually come from the top, and that people who have a problem are the ones who have a solution.”
Her first major journey on her own, after a travelling childhood with her parents (her father sold antiques), was to India, after she graduated from college. Having broken off an engagement, she embarked on a two-year adventure that would transform her and introduce her to the power of talking circles. “I’m a 1950s person,” Steinem explained, “so I totally and utterly believed that you got married and had children and that you lived your husband’s life and couldn’t make a home for yourself. So I thought that was going to be my life. And the only reason I began to act otherwise was that I believed it so completely that the choice who you married was the last choice you had, that it began to seem a little like death. So I just kept putting it off. I was engaged when I was a senior in college to a wonderful man, really nice, funny, terrific guy, but we never should have gotten married – we were so different – so I fled to India – otherwise I would have gotten married – so that was my first journey. […] I think we sometimes make our decisions in increments because we can’t admit that we are making a single decision, so we do it a little bit at a time.”
“If I had to name the most important discovery of my life, it would be the portable community of talking circles; groups that gather with all five senses, and allow consciousness to change. Following them has given me a road that isn’t solitary like my father’s or unsupported like my mother’s. They taught me to talk as well as listen. They also showed me that writing, which is solitary, is fine company for organizing, which is communal. It just took me a while to discover that both can happen wherever you are” (Steinem 40).
Upon returning from India, Steinem moved to New York to become a journalist.
“The reason I started to go out and speak,” Steinem explained, “was that I could not publish what I wanted to publish. So, here was all this explosion of consciousness and excitement and the editors I’d been working for were just not interested. Or I got one editor to say that he would publish my article saying women are equal, providing that he would publish one next to it saying that we were not equal, in order to be objective.” [the audience laughed] “You can’t make this stuff up! So I got desperate and started speaking in public, which was my nightmare. I was in my thirties and had put huge energy into never speaking in public. But because I had written about the movement, I was getting invitations to speak in public. So I asked a friend of mine, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, to do it with me.”
One of the pivotal events in Steinem’s life was the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, where she came to realize that writing and activism were not mutually exclusive, and where she got “a glimpse of a way of life in which the circle, not a hierarchy, was the goal” (p.67).
“It was a conference with 2000 elected delegates,” Steinem explained, “and we came together around all the fundamental issues that we now have in the women’s movement. That was huge! And there was a big delegation of women from many native tribes and nations, and that’s really what changed my life, because I began to realize that much of what we want was once here.”
When it came time for questions from the audience, people lined up on two sides of the stage to ask questions that were near and dear to their hearts and minds. Two teenage girls asked Steinem what advice she had for them, and she replied: “I love that you’re here, I love that you’re fifteen, and here is my advice: don’t listen to me, listen to yourselves. Each of us is a unique being, a combination of both millennia of heredity and environment that will never happen again, we each have a voice inside us, something that tells us what we love to do so much that we forget what time it is, what we’re drawn to, so trust that voice!”
Another young woman asked a similar question: How do you find your voice and your uniqueness that you want to fight for? “I’m not sure I can tell you that,” Steinem replied, “I think you kind of know it when you find it, but I do think it has to do with what you’re drawn to, and literally what you forget what time it is when you’re doing it. What you would do whether you get paid for it or not, though I devoutly want you to get paid! Follow your interests and what it is you do when nobody tells you to do it, or if you don’t care if people disapprove of it – but it speaks to you, it’s what you want to do, and want to do enough even if it requires some sacrifice. And also you’re drawn to other people who are in that same field.”
When asked to comment on the tradition of women’s colleges in the U.S., Steinem replied: “Once in your life – it may not be at a women’s college – but at least once in your life you need to be able to see people who look like you doing everything. And it’s still true that women who achieve in the sciences and math, and so-called non-traditional fields, and in politics too, are more likely to have gone to a women’s college.”
When she was asked about women who don’t like to be labelled as feminists, she responded: “When women say ‘I don’t have to be a feminist,’ I say good luck!”
On the subject of intersectionality, Steinem pointed out that “There is a kind of a progress, I think, or process. The part of us that is invisible has to be made visible first, and then we begin to see the connections. Maybe we each identify with the thing that’s hurting the most first, and then we make the other connections. But you have the right to use all the words with which you’ve identified and that creates your unique voice.”
And when asked about transgendered identity, she noted that “It benefits everyone to shake up and disrupt the restricting categories of gender polarities.”
During the question period, I went up to ask Gloria two questions that have been important to me over the last few years. The first question was about creativity and writing. In one of her books, Steinem talked about writing as being frightening, and I asked her whether that has changed over time and what role creativity played in her writing. She replied: “Creativity is very scary to me because it is totally mine, it is what I care about the most, and it is totally controllable by me, so it is both the single thing that when I’m doing it, I don’t think I should be doing anything else, but it’s also scary. But the scariness comes from caring.”
My second question was about relationships. While there is seemingly more equality for women in the professional sphere, heterosexual women still struggle with inequality in our personal lives and relationships, and I asked for her comment on this sad fact: “Raising children or being raised to raise children is the way men become whole people, just as we become whole by being active in the world outside the home. All those qualities that are wrongly called feminine – attention to detail, empathy, patience – they’re just what you need to raise kids. Men deserve the full circle of human qualities developed in them just like we deserve it. So just demand it. […] Pretend you’re living with a woman and now just don’t lower your standards!”
Steinem and Strayed got a long standing ovation from the huge auditorium, and we all left feeling inspired, empowered, and wanting to be better and do better. Just as the protagonist of Rilke’s poem, who was moved by admiring an ancient statue of Apollo, the god of arts and culture, we left the symphony hall, knowing, unequivocally, “You must change your life.” Being in the same room with Gloria Steinem is electrifying. She sets your heart on fire, and opens your mind, and inspires you to be fully alive and imagine an even better life based on equality and respect.
Photos by Bre Lebeuf, with kind permission of Hedgebrook.
Here are some more words of inspiration from Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (2015)
“Perhaps our need to escape into media is a misplaced desire for the journey” (p.8).
If you find yourself drawn to an event against all logic, go. The universe is telling you something (p.41).
“Home is a symbol of the self. Caring for a home is caring for one’s self” (p.249).
“It’s time to leave – there is so much out there to do and say and listen to. I can go on the road – because I can come home. I come home – because I’m free to leave. Each way of being is more valued in the presence of the other. This balance between making camp and following the season is both very ancient and very new. We all need both. My father did not have to trade dying alone for the joys of the road. My mother did not have to give up a journey of her own to have a home. Neither do I. Neither do you” (p.251).
On fathers and mothers:
“I finally understood that having a loving and nurturing father made a lifetime difference. Only after I saw women who were attracted to distant, condescending, even violent men did I begin to understand that having a distant, condescending, even violent father could make those qualities seem inevitable, even feel like home. Because of my father, only kindness felt like home” (p.22)
“It’s said that the biggest determinant of our lives is whether we see the world as welcoming or hostile. Each becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My mother had performed the miracle of creating a welcoming world for my sister and me, even though she herself grew up in a hostile one” (p.23).
“In the words of so many daughters who don’t yet know that a female fate is not a personal fault, I told myself: I’m not going to be anything like my mother. When I was in college and read Virginia Woolf’s revolutionary demand for “a room of one’s own,” I silently added, and a car. But by the time I came home from India, communal travel had come to seem natural to me” (p.69).
“Always look at what people do,” as my mother said, “not at who they are” (p.127).
“I could see that not speaking up made my mother feel worse. This was my first hint of the truism that depression is anger turned inward; thus women are twice as likely to be depressed. My mother paid a high price for caring so much, yet being able to do so little about it. In this way, she led me toward an activist place where she herself could never go” (p.129).
“If you don’t stand up for yourself, how can you stand up for anybody else?” (p.42)
“I also learned from my speaking partners. When we were in the South especially, some man in the audience might assume that a black woman and a white woman travelling together must be lesbians. Florynce Kennedy modeled the perfect response: “Are you my alternative?” If someone called me a lesbian – in those days all single feminists were assumed to be lesbians – I learned just to say, “Thank you.” It disclosed nothing, confused the accuser, conveyed solidarity with women who were lesbians, and made the audience laugh” (p.51)
“Then, as if an answer to a riddle posed years before, you will realize that this growth came from seeds you planted or watered or carried from place to place – and you’ll be rewarded in the way that we as communal beings need most: you’ll know you made a difference” (p.124).
“I’ve noticed that great political leaders are energized by conflict. I’m energized by listening to people’s stories and trying to figure out shared solutions. That’s the work of an organizer” (p.137).
On social change:
“The most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself – or will use military violence against another country – is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence” (p. 43)
“In truth, we don’t know which of our acts in the present will shape the future. But we have to behave as if everything we do matters. Because it might” (p.176).
“Only in the last five hundred to five thousand years – depending on where we live in the world – has godliness been withdrawn from nature, withdrawn from females, and withdrawn from particular races of men, all in order to allow the conquering of nature, females, and certain races of men. Though patriarchal cultures and religions have made hierarchy seem inevitable, humans for 95 percent of history have been more likely to see the circle as our natural paradigm. Indeed, millions still do, from traditional Native Americans here to original cultures around the world. The simple right to reproductive freedom – to sexuality as an expression that is separable from reproduction – is basic to restoring women’s power, the balance between women and men, and a balance between humans and nature” (p.204).
“Here, people arrived from another continent and, by war, disease, and persecution, they eliminated 90 percent of the residents. From 1492 to the end of the Indian Wars, an estimated fifteen million people were killed. A papal bull had instructed Christians to conquer non-Christian countries and either kill all occupants or “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” From Africa to the Americas, slavery and genocide were blessed by the church, and riches from the so-called New World shored up the papacy and European monarchs. Whether out of guilt or a justifying belief that the original occupants were not fully human, history was replaced by the myth of almost uninhabited lands” (p.215).
“Feminism is memory. With the help of Paula Gunn Allen, I finally did understand. “Feminists too often believe,” she wrote, “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.” Her conclusion was simple and mind-blowing: “The root of oppression is the loss of memory” (p.225).
“A writer’s greatest reward is naming something unnamed that many people are feeling. A writer’s greatest punishment is being misunderstood. The same words can do both” (p.170).
“Spiders should be a totem of writers. Both go into a space alone and spin out of their own bodies a reality that has never existed before” (p.237).
On humour and laughter:
I was the only “girl writer,” probably because the power to make people laugh is also a power, so women have been kept out of comedy. Polls show that what women fear most from men is violence, and what men fear from women is ridicule. Later when Tina Fey was head writer and star of Saturday Night Live, she could still say, “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity” (p.180).
It turns out that laughter is the only free emotion – the only one that can’t be compelled. We can be made to fear. We can even be made to believe we’re in love because, if we’re kept dependent and isolated for long enough, we bond in order to survive. But laughter explodes like an aha! It comes when the punch line changes everything that has gone before, when two opposites collide and make a third, when we suddenly see a new reality. Laughter is an orgasm of the mind” (p.181).