So, as you may remember, my last book reviewed was How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran’s manifesto and instruction manual on being a feminist in our modern world. It was the April pick for Our Shared Shelf, and I loved it. Soon after I added that book to my Overdrive list, I added the first OSS book that I knew about (still getting to you bell hooks and Alice Walker!!!), which was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road.
Here’s what I knew about Gloria before I read the book: she is/was a feminist. THE feminist that sort of represents all feminists in the eyes of the American public. She founded Ms. Magazine in the 70s, which went under a little more than 30 years later. She’d been around for a long time. And that’s it. My sum knowledge of a person who is KNOWN.
Well, this is where things get vaguely exciting, because it turns out that people’s lives are infinitely interesting, especially when you’re as long-lived and as involved in the world as Ms. Steinem is and was. Her childhood – spent traveling the country with her parents and sister in a trailer as antiques dealers – sounds bizarre and fascinating. She went to Smith, and then she spent two years in India where she learned about activism by traveling from village to village with a group and engaging the locals in discussions about what needed to be done.
On returning to the US, she became a journalist. She was very involved in politics. She helped to start the National Women’s Political Caucus, and to organize its first convention in 1973. Now, I’ve heard of the NWPC, but didn’t know about it’s origins, and certainly didn’t know that they organized a massive convention that was one of the largest gatherings of women in the United States at the time. Steinem’s description of that event, and the brokering that she did through the various racial and interest groups who were involved is a lesson in bringing groups together.
Most importantly in this book is Steinem’s description of her most important work, which I had never really understood. She thinks of herself first as an activist and organizer. This may seem like simply a part of the political and journalistic efforts, but after hearing her talk about it, it’s easy to see the distinction. An activist organizer in Steinem’s case is someone who goes to a place to engage the population and figure out what’s wrong. Perhaps she goes to a university and after giving a speech, has a long and involved question and discussion session where people talk about the problems they are experiencing. The organizers job is not to tell the audience what their problems are – it is to listen and to facilitate. After the discussion, the organizer helps the leaders to formulate a plan, and begins them on their journey of making change for themselves.
Did I enjoy it? Yes. I felt like I learned a lot. It wasn’t always entertaining, but it was engaging and interesting. It’s not always serious, but if you’re looking for a light and fun read, this is not it. If you, like me, feel like you’ve missed out some feminist history, this is probably an important read. Has anyone else read it? Or have other recommendations on books about important feminist leaders and the history of the women’s movement?
Details: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, published 2015 by Random House
Third-wave feminism has been generally pretty dismissive of the second-wave feminists, which I always kind of felt was a little myopic. After I read this book, it was clear to me how much we third-wave feminists owe to Steinem and her generation. They worked for so much, and we are continuing many of her battles today. I loved her especially for her bravery of talking about her abortion and the politics of women’s reproduction, and her sheer talent at coalition building. One can learn a lot from her example.