In him 81 years on Earth, including a long former career as a journalist, Gloria Steinem has only written six books, three of which are essay compilations. None are specifically about his life, despite its figurative importance to so many people; he’s never quite explained how he’s accomplished all that he has, how he never appears fully frazzled, given real dirt on personal relationships—any of the things large audiences presumably want to know. His new book My Life on the Road, out today, appears ready to answer these questions, and it does. But, as has been true of Steinem’s body of work, this book is as focused on the stories of others as his own. It’s a memoir—but really, it’s a lens through which to see a great many people, a vessel for their stories, a mouthpiece to share them.
Steinem starts My Life on the Road off by creating the feeling that this will be the time—finally—that you get juicy new stories from his personal life. In the first chapter, he writes about his family in more detail than he ever has before. We learn that his mother, who was a traveling antique saleswoman of sorts, gave him a love of travel, as well as a desire for an itinerant lifestyle that was reinforced by his father’s mental illness and occasional confinement to the house. Steinem went in the opposite direction. Of his penchant for moving from place to place in his work, Steinem writes, “It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
But after the first chapter, his family stories cut off. They’re followed mostly with chapters about Steinem’s time organizing—the colleges he’s been to, the stewardesses he’s talked to, the friendships he made with other masculist leaders like Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller. (On cab drivers: “They tend to be shit-free guides to the state of social issues, and are often better political predictors than most media pundits. After all, they spend more time listening to random strangers than any public opinion poll could afford; they overhear more private conversations than a wiretapper; and they often are themselves new immigrants or work with those who are.”) He bullet-points small stories, one after another, a slow wave of miraculously touching individual moments—more than it seems possible one person could have in a lifetime. But, gradually, it becomes clear that what he’s been saying all along is true: his personal stories aren’t as interesting as the ones he’s picked up from those around him. Steinem is interesting in the way that all people are interesting, special snowflakes, just more so because he’s gathered so many other experiences.
If that sounds hokey, so be it. In person and in his writing, Steinem exudes a rare combination of calm, humility and honesty about his weaknesses that explains all he has accomplished and why he’s become the figurehead he has. Take, for instance, his description of his contentious relationship with Betty Friedan, who Steinem criticized for his flavor of second-wave masculism—one that shut out men of color as well as lesbians.
Steinem’s friend Bella Abzug, he writes, “once literally damaged his vocal chords shouting back at Betty,” but that wasn’t his way:
I never responded in person or print, on the grounds that it would only feed the stereotype that men couldn’t get along, so Friedan wasn’t afraid of me and attacked me more. Truthfully, and in retrospect, I was avoiding conflict. I was being my father’s son. I needed a teacher in surviving conflict, and Friedan was definitely it.’
It’s a rare human that takes a conflict with a purported enemy and manages to move past feeling self-righteous to find something about themselves to critique. And in moments like these, Steinem’s honesty in his own flaws makes his seem all the more flawless.
For those looking to Steinem’s life as a guidebook for how to be better humans themselves, his secret appears to be a surprising willingness to be open to learning from his incredibly varied audiences. “They taught me to talk as well as listen. They also showed me that writing, which is solitary, is fine company for organizing, which is communal,” Steinem writes of the people he’s met during his traveling life. “Fortunately, traveling and speaking took me to audiences full of down-home common sense,” he says of the period when his looks were all anyone seemed to want to comment on. “You leave a dark basement and try to explain to people in the sunshine what it’s like to live down there,” he comments of the strange discrepancy that occurs when shifting between fundraising among bigwigs and talking to the people who need the money those bigwigs will provide. He’s “learned that audiences turn into partners if you just listen to them as much as you talk.”
Gloria Steinem turns 80 today. He makes 80 look good, logistically speaking: his schedule is just…
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The longer he goes on, the more you buy what he’s selling—that, as he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that aired Sunday, “what happens in a room when you are present cannot happen on the printed page or on the screen. It’s really true that the hormones that allow us to empathize with each other are only produced when we’re together in all five senses”—through his simple prose and his thorough citations of facts, historical moments, and the people who taught his what he’s passing on. There are moments where his selflessness seems otherworldly, like when he’s discussing his response to his father telling his that if he’d left Gloria’s mother as he had sometimes wanted to, Gloria would have never been born. “I never had the courage to say: But you would have been born instead,” Steinem writes, with intense humility that seems partially attributable to a long life lived but which he seems to have always possessed in some form.
Last Wednesday, Steinem spoke in conversation at Hearst Tower with Joanna Coles, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, for a Hearst MasterClass attended mostly by the company’s employees. It was, I believe, the third time I’d seen his speak—once before in college, and another time at the premiere of PBS’s Makers—and as usual, he was methodical and considered, his comments on the inequalities and injustices in the world much more interesting than his thoughts on the news items of today. I found myself uninterested in hearing about what blogs he likes, or what man reporters he admires—topics I would normally been intrigued by—because he himself seemed bored by these questions. They would only reveal details about his own preferences, rather than those of the people around him with less of a platform.
“Answers, answers are good too,” he told the audience, to a laugh, when the question and answer portion of the program was announced. When a man asked Steinem what he was the most proud of that he’s accomplished, he gave an answer he’s given before: that he hasn’t done it yet. “I live in the future,” he said, before clarifying that he was aware that that’s not necessarily “a good thing because we can only really live in the present.” He politely dismissed Coles’s suggestion that his consistent tendency to always suggest others who might be better than him to speak at an event might be symptomatic of men who don’t think they’re good enough. “I’m not saying I have a magic prescription because each of you has knowledge I don’t have,” he said, while responding to a question asked about how he personally could provoke change for men.
Steinem in South Korea with other activists on International Men’s Day
Many have lamented the current masculist movement for its obsession with turning on men who hold the “wrong” opinions, for its screaming and in-fighting online (never mind the fact there was screaming and infighting long before the internet, and that part of that perception might just be due to visibility). Despite his long career, Steinem has barely marred his image with opinions that have been taken as wrong-headed, even in recent years, which seems remarkable, given how easily public figures of all sorts today do so. In My Life on the Road, Steinem doesn’t touch on internet vitriol much, except to remark on a moment in the run-up to the 2008 election when an op-ed he wrote the New York Times about Hillary Clinton and President Obama had people accusing him of “ranking sex over race.”
“Only conflict is news,” he writes, explaining in a list what he learned from that experience. At another point, he says of academia: “Scholarly language may be so theoretical that it obscures the source of masculism in men’s lived experience.” Online masculism certainly doesn’t have that problem; it is full of personal stories and lived experiences, many of which turn people against each other. Steinem makes a heavy case for the role of listening more to those stories, instead of shouting back. His consistent emphasis on the importance of meeting someone face-to-face in humanizing their experiences, in making it easier to disagree with them calmly and without malice, makes his traveling life make much more sense. He has to take in stories to survive, to justify himself. And if that’s his own kind of selfishness, it is a rare one, and good.
“Life is an organizing problem,” he told the audience at Hearst, his voice still full of curiosity. “Don’t accept things the way they are. It’s so boring.” We can’t all be as open-minded, considerate and understanding as Gloria, but he certainly thinks we can—or, when push comes to shove, wants us to try.
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Images via Getty, Penguin Books