25 August 2016
Gloria Steinem, glorious feminism goddess, now in her eighties, was in NZ in May for the Auckland Writers' Festival. I didn't get to go to her session - it was one of the first ones completely sold out, but I did read the review of the session. The review itself oozes adoration of this woman, and is an inspiring read in itself, I so wish I had been there.
Quite literally her whole life has been in the orbit of the women's rights movement, with a grandmother being a delegate to the 1908 International Council of Women, amongst other achievements. Gloria's own observations of the way her mentally ill mother was treated by the male dominated health system and working environment of the 1940s and 1950s shaped her early feminist views, paving her future path. She is, quite simply, an amazing woman.
I actually knew very little about her prior to reading this book, only that she was a feminist icon, that she had founded Ms magazine, and if you wanted an opinion on anything to do with feminism, equal pay, abortion, same sex relationships, civil rights, womens' rights and health issues, then Ms Steinem was a great starting point. This book covers all those topics and a whole heap more, but not written at all in a know-it-all fashion, in fact quite humbly and modestly, her main mission being to educate, enlighten, and to bring about social justice. You can tell she is angry about these injustices, but I also think she has become resigned to the way our society is structured, controlled and managed by, essentially men. Although she does have more than few things to say about how women have been brainwashed into not being 100% supportive of other women. She cites the negative reactions to Hilary Clinton when she and Barak Obama were both fighting for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and how women abortion picketers would turn up for an abortion, then later in the day be back out on the picket line. Ms Steinem has been actively involved in every election campaign in the US since 1972. What would she make of the current electioneering going on at the moment? Unfortunately this book was already published.
I would guess that she never really had much time to give reflection to her life during her years of her most prolific activity. Now that she is older, and maybe has had time to think back on her life, this is where this book has come from. She looks at her life as being almost like that of a nomad, of no fixed abode, always moving on and moving around, putting her immense talents where they are most needed. She takes the reader back to her childhood, to her life on the road with her parents until they separated when she was about ten. The family lived in a trailer, her father being a travelling antiques dealer. Her mother, it would seem, was an incredibly talented woman, a writer and journalist, who gave all that up when she became a mother. Mental illness eventually resulted in her parents separating, Gloria and her older sister living with their mother, and giving her her first insight into the unequal treatment of women, particularly working women, in society at the that time - 1940s/19050s.
Her path as an activist really began following a two year scholarship trip to India in the late 1960s, which opened her eyes hugely to injustice, and Ghandi's use of peaceful means to achieve results. Once back in America her quest for equality for women, Indian Americans, and African Americans truly began. This book meanders back and forth through the years from the early 1970s to the present day, full of her tales on the road dealing with issues relating to these groups. She speaks to everyone she meets, recording their conversations, their stories, and using them to illustrate her causes - taxi drivers, nurses and doctors in abortion clinics, air hostesses, teachers, mums, campaign workers, politicians. She has a special affinity for the American Indians, living on reservations for long periods of time, learning their cultural heritage, advocating for greater recognition of their traditions and ways of achieving results. Very, very enlightening.
We owe a lot to her, she battled extremely hard, under attack herself many times as she fought her cause - too pretty, too smart, too outspoken, too polarising - hardly surprising she was on the road all the time, maybe too scared to put down roots anywhere in case she was hounded down by all those people she managed to upset and annoy! The reviewer who attended the session referred to at the beginning of this review said about Gloria - 'You are the grandmother of my brain', and that pretty much sums this incredible woman up. Read it, give thanks and be humbled. Then give it to your daughters, because they carry the mantle of feminism into the future.