Book review: now in her 80s, Gloria Steinem is still fighting her good fight
The American feminist’s latest book reveals she has never recanted, changed sides, expressed regret or given up
My Life on the Road
by Gloria Steinem
In her latest book, writer, lecturer, itinerant feminist organiser and transformational leader Gloria Steinem offers snapshots of dozens of women she has met crisscrossing America.
Aged 81, she no longer has the large aviator glasses, middle parting and streaked blond mane that as “a girl reporter” in the misogynistic ’70s attracted the title “pin-up girl of the intelligentsia”, but there is something even more striking in its place; a sense in this book that the jigsaw pieces are no longer uncomfortably out of place.
Steinem quotes Mary Lamberton Becker: “We grow neither better nor worse as we get older, but more like ourselves.”
A very large part of what has moulded Steinem is her childhood, whose impact she refused to acknowledge, she has said many times, until she hit a metaphorical brick wall in her 50s. Then the woman whom an enthusiastic Ladies’ Home Journal once described as “an unqualified beauty with the follow-me-on-to-the barricades charisma that makes a myth” ran out of steam.
Steinem embarked on meditation, yoga and envisioning her “future and optional self” to mend her lack of self-esteem. “Each of us,” she wrote, “has an inner child of the past living with us.”
For anyone coming to Steinem anew, it’s worth reading her earlier books to see how much more comfortable she now appears to be in her own skin. She has written often of her time in a rat-infested condemned farm, caring, from the age of 10 to 17, for her mentally ill mother Ruth, a former reporter, who was addicted to a sedative.
Steinem has also written about her father but never before in such illuminating depth as in this book. Steinem’s portrait of Leo turns a brighter light on her feminism and her nomadic way of life. He was a man always on the make, a sometime antiques dealer who kept his family on the move in a trailer and sent the three-year-old Gloria to deal with debt collectors at the door. He essentially deserted Steinem and her mother (apart from occasional $50 bills in the post), but Steinem has written: “He loved and honoured me as a unique person. And that let me know that he and I – men and women – are not opposites at all.”
Steinem’s causes have remained unchanged – reproductive control, violence against women, civil rights and social justice come at the top of the list, “helping people to help themselves”. Her battlefield is global. Unlike some, she has never recanted, changed sides, expressed regret or given up.