My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem


Four stars, read in February 2016.

This book started and ended with goosebumps.

I knew even before the table of contents that I would love it, because it began with this quote that really speaks to me:

Evolution intended us to be travelers . . . Settlement for any length of time, in cave or castle, has at best been . . . a drop in the ocean of evolutionary time.
—Bruce Chatwin, Anatomy of Restlessness

I found the stories of her childhood surprising, never having known anything about it before; that she grew up on the road, her father unable to stay in one place for long, selling things along the way to earn enough money to make it to their destination; that her mother had given up all her own dreams and goals when she got married, suffered from depression, never got to have her own life. That the way Steinem lived her life was a reaction to both her parents’ extremes.

Of course, the middle chapters are full of Steinem’s own fascinating stories from a life of traveling and grassroots organizing. The chapter called “Why I Don’t Drive” details her experiences with communal transportation, from women-only railway cars in India to truck stop field trips with taxi drivers to “a lifetime of finding girlfriends in the sky,” watching flight attendants fight their way from in-flight stripteases to the right to continue working if they get married or turn thirty.

Her memories of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston made me wish I could go back in time to see it—a massive conference of elected delegates, women of all ages, representatives from all racial groups and minorities, meeting to discuss “twenty-six multi-issue planks that had emerged from the states on subjects from child care to foreign policy.” There were relay runners who carried a torch from Seneca Falls to the conference. Maya Angelou read a poem. Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter greeted delegates. Speakers and delegates included Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Margaret Mead, Betty Friedan, Mariko Tse (a Japanese American actor), Barbara Jordan (first southern black woman elected to the House of Representatives), and others. Phyllis Schlafly was there with her anti-equality forces. It was hot and hectic and it sounds amazing. Steinem includes it as the event that divides her life into “before” and “after.”

In a chapter called “Surrealism in Everyday Life,” she shares stories of the contrast inherent to organizing, when fund-raising for needy causes places her in surroundings of wealth and excess. She tells of being in health clinics picketed by anti-abortion groups, where female picketers would come in when the men weren’t around, have an abortion, and then return to picketing—with staff members completely unfazed, because they know that “women in such anti-abortion groups are more likely to be deprived of birth control and more likely to need an abortion. They then feel guilty—and picket even more.”

The further into the book I read, the more engaged I was. And in the last chapter, a chronicle of her experiences in Indian Country, I was back to goosebumps. Politics in general is a hard subject for me to follow, because there’s no end to the sheer awfulness of people, of history, of systematic inequality and oppression and everyone’s refusal to see it or care. But few things get to me quite as badly as the origins of this country, the way Native Americans were murdered and demonized and then erased from history to pretend it never even happened. Steinem’s experience is a combination of personal relationships with specific people, like Wilma Mankiller, and her study as an organizer of their systems of governance. This chapter is beautiful, and one of the sections that most gives me hope.

For me, that’s the takeaway of this book: that there’s still hope. No matter how awful people are, no matter how many Phyllis Schlaflys there are, there are still Gloria Steinems, too, and all the other unstoppable women she works with. Balance is possible, in society and in our own lives. We don’t have to give up all of one thing just because we want some of the other. Gloria Steinem is no longer totally nomadic—she has a home, and she’s found that this makes her love traveling even more.

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 seasons 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.

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