I’ve been thinking a lot about Steinem since the recent unfortunate episode on a TV talk show. I was heartsick. What woman gets past 80 without a single regrettable senior moment? But most of us will be fortunate enough to have a spouse, partner, adult child, or other companion who will take us aside and suggest we rethink what we’re doing or saying. “Mom, I’m getting a little worried. Can we check your meds? What do you think?”
But Steinem doesn’t have that sort of support system. The women that were closest to her for a long, long time are already dead.
So I republish this blog post asking you to think, not about the single magic moment, for which she later apologized, but instead, for all the amazing accomplishments and selfless deeds she has done on behalf of women, and for her willingness in a time when most of white America kept to itself, to learn at the feet of women of color.
Because this is her legacy; her real one.
Feminist heroes are everywhere, but if I had to name half a dozen women that were at the core of the feminist movement that followed closely on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and the movement to end the US war in Vietnam, Steinem’s name would be among them. In fact, hers might be the first name out of my mouth. It was she who coined the salutation “Ms”, and who founded Ms. Magazine. When I saw she had written a memoir, I knew I had to have it, and when Net Galley and Random House gave me the DRC, I was delighted. But this is one of the few books that if I’d had to, I’d have been willing to pay full jacket price in order to read. Heroes are thin on the ground these days, and we treasure those that still walk among us.
My reading records reflect over 300 biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs I’ve read, and I didn’t even start listing them until about 3 years ago, so who knows how many? The one thing I know to expect, when someone really famous sits down to tell us about her life, is that the ego will be there. It might be veiled, especially if the person is famous for writing as opposed to something else, or it might be big and bold. Once in awhile it’s been so bald-faced that I came away wishing I hadn’t read the book so I could go on liking the author. So for one of the most famous of living feminists, I was braced and ready.
And this icon’s ego isn’t there. I don’t mean she hides it well; I just don’t find it. And it appears as if large amounts of time spent among Native sisters in struggle—Wilma Mankiller foremost among them—taught her so much about focusing on the circle, rather than a table that has someone at its head, a big-boss type, that she let go of whatever ego she might have been thinking about building. For example, when she works as an organizer, she dreads public speaking, but looks forward to the place at which one part of the auditorium begins to answer the questions from another part, and she knows a circle has formed, one in which she becomes just another person present. I was blown away!
Steinem began her career in journalism, and she is one of the finest writers whose work I have read. For a brief time in years gone by, I dismissed her because of her sometimes-attachment to Democratic party candidates, but the sum of her contributions has been so much more that I missed the forest for the trees during that time of my life. Now I want to read everything she ever wrote.
Travel is a great metaphor, but it’s also a material fact for Steinem. She grew up with a father who was a traveling salesman, and unlike most such men, he took his family with him. For most of her childhood, there was no home, merely a series of stop-overs. This rootless existence would leave some children traumatized. Kids thrive on routine, and not all would be able to translate constant travel into a sense of the usual. But Steinem mostly remembers it as a positive attribute, and credits her parents for their capacity to question social norms during a time most Americans were madly conforming. The fact that she continued to live out of a suitcase once she was grown and on her own is the greatest testament of all to her upbringing, and to her response to it.
There are oh, so many stories, some of which made me laugh out loud, and others that made me think. You can go winnow those out for yourself. And of course, my favorites may not be yours.
But the one thing I can promise you is a really great read, one with depth, yet not difficult to access. It’s friendly and feels as if we are having coffee with an old, dear friend, right at the table with one another. A circular table.
You have to read this book. It will be for sale October 27.