As a feminist, I know there are certain books and certain authors that I should read in order to be as informed as I can about the previous struggles and the many successes of feminist. The reason to impose such a view on myself comes mainly from my love for books, rather than an external obligation. Imagine the internal conversations I had with myself when I realised that I had never read by Gloria Steinem, one of the key figures in feminism and activism in the 20th century. Imagine my reaction when my beloved Margaret Atwood – who I think can do no wrong – recommended Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road, as one of the books of 2015 in a list for The Guardian. Imagine, again, my surprise and my delight when, after talking about this to the boyfriend, he bought me My Life on the Road for no other reason than love for my feminist reading.
My Life on the Road is not a typical autobiography, and I would have not expected anything different from Gloria Steinem, someone who has never done things by the book. Even though she covers everything from her childhood to her current life as a feminist celebrity, she approaches events from a point of view: Her travels. She credits her father for her love for adventure, and she describes how the whole family would get into the car and travel – with no budget – to a destination her father chose randomly. With such a childhood, it is not a surprise to find that Steinem had not spent more than 8 days home during her life, and that she did not create a home until the 1980’s, when she was already in her fifties. It was only fitting then, that I took this book with me on my week to Bath and Cardiff and I started reading it at the airport in Barcelona, among huge amounts of diverse people heading to their destinations all over the world while I wondered what kind of lives they led.
I was surprised to find out that My Life on the Road only portrays some of Steinem’s travels inside the United States of America rather than her world-wide travels. I was a bit disappointed at first, since I have never been to the States, and I thought I would not be familiar with the interests and motivations behind her enterprises. I was partly right, and partly wrong. Even though I would have love to read about her travels around the world examining the very different ways in which feminism is articulated, she spent a good part of her autobiography giving a voice and making sure we learn about Native American feminism. As a European, we do not get to hear much about the struggles of Native Americans in general, and Steinem goes beyond the all-masculine idea we have of them and presents readers with feminist leaders to whom people like ex-president Bill Clinton thanked for their contributions. Native American feminists are present all over the world, but Steinem devotes a whole chapter to one of them: Wilma Mankiller, who Gloria approaches from a candid perspective both as a friend and as a feminist and introduces readers to a different approach to life:
You cannot think yourself into right living. You live yourself into right thinking – Native Elders
Yet, I think the book’s real power to inspire and change women’s life is how Gloria Steinem has lived her life. Even though Mankiller sadly passed away in 2010, we are presented with Steinem’s grief, and how she moved on. Death is present in Gloria’s life as much as her desire to change women’s situation all over the world. While reading, I was reminded that life is both good and bad, but we have a choice to surrender or to keep going. Steinem did not make it California to see her father before he passed away after a bad car accident, and she has regretted this her whole life. But rather than letting it stop her from living, she has learned from the experience and she has moved on as better as she could. Throughout the book we are reminded that we can give up, but we do not have to. We are reminded that life is hard work, but that hard work has its rewards.
One of those rewards – probably the most important – is love. Not romantic love, not love in a traditional, white-wedding way. But love for the people in our lives, and love from them in return. Feminism has the difficult task of trying to dismantle the wide-spread idea that women cannot be friends with other women, because we bicker, and we fight, and we get jealous. Luckily, Steinem’s life of female friendships is proof enough to deconstruct that myth. Being on the road does not mean to be alone, and Gloria’s friends appear at the turn of every page to remind the reader that women can work together successfully. Not only that, but if we support other women who are fighting for women’s rights, and if we help them, we will all benefit in the end. Steinem makes no effort to hide her dislike for those who do not fight for women’s rights, and her political alliances with politicians such as Bella Abzug and Hillary Clinton is patent. I was surprised to read about Betty Friedan’s grudge towards Steinem, and how Gloria herself does not distinguish between Republicans and Democrats, but urges women to forget those labels and support those who will fight for their rights.
In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t.
I can’t recommend My Life on the Road enough to every woman out there. Gloria Steinem is a key figure in Western feminism, and although some of her recent comments have been controversial, she is a woman who knows who she is and she is not apologetic about it. At one point I found myself reading about one luxurious Thanksgiving spent with the then partner – who remains wisely unnamed, because this is Gloria’s story after all – in Palm Springs with three very powerful couples, among whom she quotes a snack mogul. It included limousines, private planes, and a private concert by Frank Sinatra. I realised then that I was not reading any feminist biography, but about a very privilege’s one. But, after all the hard work that she has done, could it be otherwise? Should it be? Was it cynical of me to expect less of one of the key women for the feminist movement in America? I do not have an answer, but I believe women should be rewarded for the hard-work they do. Gloria Steinem has done her share, and I am very happy she is giving us the opportunity to peer into her life, and remind us that life is good, and we have the power to make it good for others, but also to ourselves.
Altogether, if I had to pick one place to hang out anywhere, from New York to Cape Town and Australia to Hong Kong, a bookstore would be it.
My Life on the Road is personal, yet well-researched. There are notes, at least 10 for each chapter, and an index, so that anyone looking for specific information regarding anything, from abortion to Florence Kennedy, will be satisfied. Every chapter is also introduced by a picture of Gloria with someone who inspired the chapter – and she makes no distinctions between her mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, to international politicians – so that we are reminded of the people in our lives, and the importance of love, support, second-opportunities and change. Because, if there is a theme that infuses the book is change, be it through activism, travelling, deaths and births, different jobs, or by simply letting ourselves be free, enjoy life, and break way with traditional ways of being and thinking. But – in Gloria’s spirit– don’t let this review tell you what My Life on the Road is. Go out, find a copy, and experience it for yourself.
This is review #3 for my 20 Books of Summer project