I picked up this book, well actually, audiobook, because a couple of the “feminist” pieces I’ve read this year referenced Steinem, her writing and her work. I had heard of her, of course, and had some inkling of what she has done, but decided that perhaps I should know more. It’s always a richer contemporary reading experience when you truly understand the references they’re making. Long story short, I just finished listening and I truly enjoyed the experience.
“If you travel long enough, every story becomes a novel.”
Steinem was there for what was (is?) the history of the modern feminist movement in America. And hearing her observations and experiences from the 1970s to today was fascinating. She tells her story, if you will, through the lens of being on the road. From the constant travels of her childhood (her father was quite restless) through the itinerant organizing of her adulthood, she shows us how much a person can learn and do simply by not settling down. The narrative jumps around a lot, in much the same manner as her life, which is both a little confusing (there is no true timeline) and probably an accurate story-telling parallel to the way her life actually flows. I thought that the way she wrote, in a sort of conversational stream of conscious, did help to smooth out some of those quick/numerous transitions, but definitely be prepared.
There were a few sections I particularly enjoyed. One was the part where Steinem highlighted why, for all her traveling, she never drives. She talks about everything she has heard and learned from taxi drivers and on public transportation and really does show how much you would miss if you insulate yourself in your own vehicle while on the road. The stories she tells about what she hears from drivers, and the changes she has seen when she’s bumped back into them years later (by chance) are so interesting and entertaining. On a more emotional level, I’ll say that the passages about the cooperation and ground-breaking at the National Women’s Conference in Houston were so inspirational and beautiful that I totally teared up while listening. That conference changed so much for women in this country and it’s the basis for a lot of women’s health rights that we covered in my own studies. So hearing about how powerful it was from someone who was not only there, but helped organize it, is something I am incredibly grateful for.
In a general sense, the breadth of what Steinem has lived through and worked on is mind-blowing. She covers so many aspects of feminism, from the basics and the start of the modern movement to the issues of intersectionality in race and gender and culture (including the internal conflicts regarding those crossovers) to the grassroots political movements involved (and then the larger political movements…) to her own personal journeys in speaking about these topics. In particular, I felt she did a great job addressing those issues of intersectionality and giving voice and focus to groups that are even more marginalized than women in general, like Native American, black and homosexual women. Plus, there were some wonderful cameos from other up and coming powerful women, now household names, like RBG and Hillary Clinton and Wilma Mankiller. Seeing their connections to one another before they became as “famous” as they are now was thrilling and a little surreal.
Overall, Steinem’s life and stories are mesmerizing. And the knowledge she drops, born of experience, is remarkable. Here’s a couple examples to whet your appetite, but I would still recommend reading the whole memoir for yourself.
“You’re always the person you were when you were born,” she says impatiently. “You just keep finding new ways to express it.”
“Decisions are best made by the people affected by them.” and “Anybody who is experiencing something is more expert in it than the experts.”
“No wonder studies show that women’s intellectual self-esteem tends to go down as years of education go up. We have been studying our own absence.”
“Human beings have an almost infinite capacity to adjust to the expectations that surround us, which is both the good news and the bad news.”
“Women of all groups were measurably more likely than their male counterparts to vote for equality, health, and education, and against violence as a way of solving conflict. It wasn’t about biology, but experience.”
“The first step towards speaking for others is speaking for ourselves.”
“The root of oppression is the loss of memory.”