My life, as I have lived it so far, has been largely enabled by feminists. I can vote, read, write, choose not to have children, play sports, wear pants, am not the property of my husband, and can even use an honorific that doesn’t depend on my marital status. That honorific–Ms.–was famously used by Gloria Steinem as the title of the feminist magazine she helped found in the ’70s. Steinem, a leader and spokeswoman for the feminist movement of the late ’60s and ’70s, has spent her entire adult life campaigning for equality. This campaign has led her all over the world giving lectures, leading discussions, and writing, and it is these travels that she uses as the structure for her most recent book My Life on the Road. Something of a memoir, the book chronicles Steinem’s life as it pertains to the physical journey, from her meandering cross-country trips with her family as a child to her time spent in India–at times traveling village-to-village helping those displaced by violence–to criss-crossing the United States covering and giving speeches for equality.
My Life on the Road provides a fascinating glimpse into the events of Steinem’s life. Personally, I think of the movements for social justice in the 1960s and ’70s as a sort of renaissance with heroes like Martin Luther King Junior and, well, Steinem herself leading the charge. Given that Steinem was a journalist as well as an orator she is able to provide a brilliant view-from-the-ground of everything from King’s “I have a dream” speech to the National Women’s Conference of 1977, an event which Steinem found so profound that it literally divided her life into two halves: the half before the conference, and the half after it.
Through her eyes, the reader is given visions of the world Steinem was working tirelessly to change. In a cab she’s sharing with Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, Talese, speaking as if she isn’t even present, says, “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.” Her early publishers refused to print articles about equality, providing nothing but mind-bogglingly sexist justifications. And even when Steinem is writing about more recent events, she deftly points out the difference in the types of questions the media poses to female politicians as compared to their male counterparts.
In describing these fascinating glimpses into the turmoil that surrounded her work for equality she writes beautifully, describing, for example, the womens-only overnight train cars she traveled in during her time in India, the rage she felt when one of her cab drivers was so bigoted and racist that she actually ended the ride in the middle of nowhere just to get out, and the “New Mexico moon bright enough to reveal the lines in [her] palm.”
The book’s stories are continually interwoven with Steinem’s views about equality and feminism. I admire her continual fight to define what feminism is–a movement to create a world with equality for all–and to fight misconceptions that continually try to derail it–most notably, the idea that feminism seeks to raise women above men or that feminists are in a battle with those who fight for racial equality, rather than working right alongside them.
Having said that, I think the biggest failures in this book are the moments in which Steinem presents her views on something controversial as fact, or tells her interpretation of a series of events as veritable fact. She does this everywhere from talking about her parents marriage, where she writes as though she fully understands her mother’s decisions and why she made them, often interpreting things with a heavy feminist slant, to making broad socio-political statements that can’t be verified, like her assertion that women being pressured to have too many children is the biggest cause of environmental distress. I was particularly displeased with her ideas, presented as facts, that the reason some female voters might not like Hillary Clinton is because those voters feel disempowered in their own marriages and are likely to have been cheated on themselves. In general, I found her writing to have a preaching-to-the-choir kind of slant on it that belied the need for facts to back up many of her statements and assertions.
I was also disappointed by Steinem’s overall dismissal of the Internet as a tool for activism and social change. In her eyes, important connections can only be made when people are face-to-face, speaking in a respectful circle–the importance of “talking circles” is highlighted continually throughout the book–rather than a hierarchy. Yet I think this completely ignores the ground-breaking ability of the Internet to connect people and facilitate global communication. If connectivity is the goal, the Internet is a godsend. Just ask Malala Yousafzai.
Steinem begins the book saying that she wants to “open up the road” for women. I think this goal gets muddled throughout the book. At times, the theme of travel seems to nearly evaporate–particularly in the many pages covering her organizing of the National Women’s Conference. At other times, the idea of travel is the only theme holding the book together, as in her section on riding in cabs that is simply a bulleted list of short stories. The last chapter of the book focuses on her more recent work in the native American community. It’s a moving chapter, but another in which the theme of travel has only a tenuous connection to the story being told. I also have to express a level of discomfort with the pedestal on which she places people of native cultures. Given her many battles to bring women down from the pedestal, I found her oversimplified glorification of native culture and practices particularly disappointing.
Early in the book she references one of the many problems women face: the danger of traveling alone. Yet she doesn’t continue this discussion. I wish she had. I wish this book had either been an in-depth discussion of about traveling the world as a woman backed up with facts and presented with less opinionated slant or, on the other hand, a memoir in which all the opinions and slant in the world would have seemed appropriate and welcome. Toeing the line between the two left this book in uncomfortable territory at times. Still, it was territory I often felt happy to be lead through by the revolutionary Steinem, a woman on whose shoulders I–respectfully–stand.
My life on the road is the first book in Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club started by Emma Watson. You can join the book club on Good Reads. Watson will interview Steinem about the book at the How to: Academy on February 24th. A video of the discussion will be uploaded to Good Reads. I would love to hear your thoughts on the book and/or the book club!