Sunday, March 6, 2016

On the Road with Gloria Steinem

Stunningly alive and eloquent, Gloria Steinem will be remembered, I fervently hope, for her sixty years of tireless activism and not for a tossed off comment about Bernie Sanders' young followers while she was under the temporary influence of bad boy comdedian, Bill Maher. Like Diana Athill, subject of my previous post, Ms. Steinem has embraced every phenomenal decade of her life with gusto and an unselfish interest in helping others.

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I listened to the book, "My Life on the Road," in its low-key, no drama recording by actress Debra Winger. It seemed to be a fitting way to honor Steinem's admonishment to go through life listening more and speaking less - a lesson that should be adopted by our current group of presidential candidates! Steinem is so unassuming about her outsize role in the lives of women my age, as if she doesn't really get just how important she's been in the work for civil rights for all people, particularly black, female, and native American.

Gloria's writing style makes you feel that you're on a first name basis, conversational and friendly. If she spends a little too much time reminiscing about her childhood travels with her dad, a salesman who was always on the road and never met a stranger, I suppose it's because she attributes her peripatetic life to those early wanderings. In fact, she admits that she didn't settle into her own first home until she was past fifty, and then only because she feared becoming a bag lady.

A common thread among all these strong, independent women that I'm drawn to read about is their gift of self-knowledge. From Smith College, to a fiancĂ© and a pregnancy that she didn't want or need, she credits the physician who performed the safe, but then illegal abortion, with setting her on the path of activism. A year in India, a kind of listening tour, opened up her mind to the power of small groups of women determined to make a difference. Steinem was a community organizer long before the term became synonymous with Barack Obama, and used as a slur. Just look at what these organizers have done!

Always terrified of public speaking, Steinem ironically became the spokesperson for two generations of women looking for more meaningful lives. Through innumerable political campaigns, national and local, from a fascinating look at the Eugene McCarthy bandwagon, not flattering, through the Kennedy years, to Geraldine Ferraro, and on to Obama and Hillary,  Gloria was the hard-working, nose to the grindstone, presence behind the scenes.

Particularly poignant was the final chapter of the book in which she describes being honored to attend the death of her long-time friend and activist, Wilma Mankiller, first female chief of the Cherokee nation. Long plagued by cancer, Mankiller decided to end treatment and die at home on her beloved land with friends and family attending to her needs. Not in the least bit depressing, Steinem's beautiful descriptions of the native tribe's end of life rituals was a reaffirmation of the strength of family and female relationships.

My fondest wish would be that young women and men would embrace this memoir lest they take for granted the freedoms they've come to expect. We have come a long way baby as the saying went, and we women especially, stand to lose so much over the next few years depending upon which way the electorate chooses to go. Think of those wonderful three women on the Supreme Court and thank the ones like Gloria Steinem who had the courage to speak out on the road.

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