Gloria Steinem on My Life on the Road, Feminism, and Fighting Power Structures

Gloria Steinem at her New York City home.EXPAND
Gloria Steinem at her New York City home.
Annie Leibovitz

Gloria Steinem is having a full-circle moment.

In 1963, she shared her penchant for travel in The Beach Book, complete with an iridescent inside flap that reflected the sun's rays. More than five decades later, she's traveling the country to promote her latest book, titled Gloria Steinem: My Life on the Road, released in paperback just last month.  

Her itinerary includes a Saturday, September 17, appearance at the Orpheum Theatre.

Although she’s best known for decades of feminist activism dedicated to women’s reproductive rights and a significant journalism career that included founding Ms. magazine, Steinem has taken to the road to tout something she calls talking circles. They’re gatherings of community members who listen to, and learn from, one another. And they’re a central focus of My Life on the Road.

Despite decades of public speaking, it’s really listening that makes Steinem tick. “I don’t learn while I’m speaking,” says the 82-year-old author, whose book traces her work as an itinerant organizer from its roots in childhood travels through modern-day manifestations that sometimes take the form of book tours, often with lively audience participation.

Changing Hands Bookstore presents Steinem’s Phoenix appearance, in partnership with Downtown Phoenix, Inc. and the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. She’ll be in conversation with artist Adriene Jenik, who serves as head of ASU’s School of Art and whose work often reflects her own feminist sensibilities.

Feminism, which Steinem defines as "belief in the full humanity of both males and females," is a recurring theme in her writings, which include six earlier books that reveal a passion for storytelling. 

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) features essays addressing topics such as genital mutilation and sexual harassment. Revolution from Within (1992) tackles self-esteem using stories from diverse women ranging from political leaders to performers. Doing Sixty & Seventy (2006) explores sexism and ageism.

In terms of My Life on the Road, what’s missing are forays into personal history readers typically expect from memoirs – including details of her 2000 marriage to David Bale, who died of brain cancer in 2003. Except for an early chapter exploring her delightfully atypical childhood, and a shocking dedication near the end of the book that finally reveals one of the driving forces in Steinem’s life, there’s little here that explores the woman behind the work.

Steinem pictured with her speaking partner Florynce Kennedy on campus in the 1970s.
Steinem pictured with her speaking partner Florynce Kennedy on campus in the 1970s.
Courtesy of Gloria Steinem/Ray Bald

So although she’s still championing women’s rights, Steinem's latest book is more than a feminist manifesto. It’s a humanist treatise that hybridizes her own experiences with stories shared by others she’s encountered on the literal and metaphorical road.

Through anecdotal accounts of encounters with people from all walks of life, in settings from meeting halls to taxi cabs, Steinem's book traces her own journey through eight decades.

“I’m excited by being able to communicate with people as people,” Steinem says. “The important thing is to honor who we are as unique individuals and do away with labels.”

For community organizers, My Life on the Road is a compelling how-to guide. For contemporary feminists, it’s an insider’s view of milestone moments, both personal and political. For generations not familiar with 20th-century struggles for equal rights, it's an important lesson in recent American history. 

Steinem sprinkles folksy wisdom throughout, sharing thoughts like these: Childhood patterns are repeated because they are what we know; laughter is the only free emotion; when new people guide us, we see new country; and don’t write when you’re angry and under deadline.

But politics and religion, especially the conservatism Steinem clearly despises, also get ample attention, as does Steinem's world view. “Our first cultures, for 95 percent of human history, were circular,” Steinem says. “People were linked, not ranked.”

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It’s an insight fueled by years spent organizing and working for social justice alongside Native Americans, and her embrace of the Iroquois Confederacy, located in the Northeastern region of North America, as the world’s oldest living democracy.

Despite progress made since feminism’s heyday during the 1960s and '70s, when Steinem co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, Steinem says there’s still work to be done. Women have yet to achieve equal pay for equal work, and women’s bodies are still regulated and exploited, Steinem says.

“In general, we now have major support for women and men as equal human beings, but there’s also backlash against it,” Steinem says.

“The greatest challenge is violence against females," she says. Such violence includes honor killings, sexual trafficking, and domestic violence. And these acts are having a global impact. For the first time in recorded history, Steinem says, there are fewer women than men.

Steinem pictured with Alice Walker near the Badlands, 1994.EXPAND
Steinem pictured with Alice Walker near the Badlands, 1994.
Gloria Steinem's personal collection

Yet there’s a bigger picture, too. Because sexism doesn’t occur in isolation.

Through traveling for two years in India during her early 20s, and participating in America’s own civil-rights struggles, Steinem came to recognize sexism, racism, and caste distinctions as reflections of hierarchical ideologies and power structures. Both experiences get plenty of ink in My Life on the Road.

Even so, it's clear that Steinem still has countless stories left to tell. 

“There are at least two books I hope to write before I depart,” Steinem says.

In one, she’ll explore the egalitarian, circular structures that were here before, including those of Africa, India, and Native Americans. In the other, she’ll attempt to explain why it’s taken so long to make fundamental change, and why equality for women is so crucial to every other endeavor on earth.

But that's a whole other journey. 

Changing Hands Bookstore presents Gloria Steinem: My Life on the Road at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 17, at the Orpheum Theatre. Admission packages start at $24 for one general admission ticket and one pre-signed paperback copy of My Life on the Road. Get details and tickets at www.changinghands.com

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