Book Review: My Life on the Road
It feels so unimaginative to write that Gloria Steinem is my hero. But, Gloria Steinem is my hero. She’s the woman I most admire, and the only consistent guest at my fantasy dinner party.
Reading her new memoir, My Life on the Road, is probably the closest I’ll ever get to actually having dinner with Gloria. The book is a winding account of Steinem’s years of travel—organizing, working on political campaigns, selling ads for Ms., writing, and speaking: on campuses, at conventions, with world leaders, and on book tours. Of course, it becomes clear after a few chapters that most of Gloria’s life has been spent traveling, and so this isn’t really a book about just one slice of her life. It’s a sweeping account of her work and why she did it.
Do you know how many hours of Gloria Steinem’s life have been spent organizing people into productive, proactive groups? Me neither, but the answer is somewhere between “dizzying” and “countless.” Steinem’s tireless, decades-long diligence as an organizer is described in illuminating detail. For every successful conference, there were months of sleepless nights, phone calls, fundraising, red-eyes, and research. For each well-publicized article, there were men in the wings scoffing at her writing, disparaging her as a means of undercutting the women’s movement. I’m floored by the sheer amount of work—gritty, urgent, detailed, administrative work—that dominated much of Steinem’s daily life.
And yet she goes to great pains to point out how many others were doing this work alongside her. I learn about her friend and speaking partner Florynce Kennedy, whose company she calls “better than any college education.” I find myself balancing the book on my knees to pause and look up names like “Margaret Sloan,” “Barbara Jordan,” and “LaDonna Harris” on my laptop. I realize that I’ve never heard of any of them. And that all of them are women of color. I realize that in these pages, Steinem is still fighting the battle she began in the early ‘70s: to make all women’s voices heard, to help people understand that gender equality is impossible without inclusivity.
I learn that for many years, Steinem refused to lecture or organize unless a woman of color was invited along with her. I learn that Betty Friedan yelled at her for bringing Flo Kennedy to the founding meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus. I start believing that fourth-wave feminists like myself identify so strongly with Steinem because the issues that we are championing today were her issues decades ago—racism, sexual violence, police brutality and LGBTQ rights, to name a few. Any young reader of My Life on the Road will recognize their own frustrations, fears, and hopes in these pages.
And then there’s the stomach-turning stories about the challenges Steinem faced as a young journalist, then as a feminist activist. She recalls sharing a cab with Gay Talese and Saul Bellow while working on Bobby Kennedy’s Senate campaign. Mid-conversation, Talese leaned over Gloria to tell Bellow, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Later, she tells of being confronted with protesters at a Catholic Church where she was invited to speak. Their signs read “Gloria Steinem is a baby killer” and “Gloria Steinem is a murderer.” She calls the scene familiar, says, “repetition can take the surrealism out of anything.” These stories fill the pages of My Life on the Road. More than 50 years of sexism and personal attacks. Why did she do it? How did she keep going?
If I take one thing away from My Life on the Road, it’s that Gloria Steinem’s greatest gifts, beyond even her talents for writing and bringing people together, are resilience (see above) and optimism. Her faith in other people—including and at times especially the taxi drivers, stewardesses, community leaders, and cowboys she met on the road—to educate her and enhance her understanding of the world strikes me as the most optimistic, hopeful way to go about life. Steinem never stopped learning and never underestimated the people around her. She withstood attacks on her character in service of a movement fighting to make lasting change for other people.
The changes brought about by Steinem’s work are of course profound: when she first spoke at Harvard Law School, the faculty was 100% white and male. (At the time, the men’s bathroom there was simply labeled “faculty.”) Yet the work left to be done in the name of equality remains vast, underscored by the fact that at 81, she’s still at it. Steps (leaps?) backward in certain areas, especially in women’s health and abortion rights, are especially sobering. As I read My Life on the Road, Texas defunded Planned Parenthood, an organization that Steinem recalled as “one of the most trusted organizations in America” in 1995.
My Life on the Road opens with a moving dedication to a Dr. John Sharpe, who in 1957 referred a 22-year-old Steinem for an illegal abortion. He told her, “You must promise me only two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”
“Dear Dr. Sharpe,” writes Steinem, “I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.”
What would the world look like today had she been unable to get a safe abortion? Would another woman have risen to her fill shoes had she become a wife and mother, relegated to listening to stories of the women’s movement on the radio rather than writing them herself?
I finished My Life on the Road certain that no other woman would have appeared in Gloria’s absence, despite what her own humility would have you believe. Gloria Steinem was and is a singular leader, the exact right person at the exact right time, here to tell us to listen, to learn from everyone we meet, and to keep moving.
Buy “My Life on the Road” here or at your local independent bookstore.
How to cite this page
Metal, Tara. "Book Review: My Life on the Road ." 29 October 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/bookclub/book-review-my-life-on-road>.