I started this book in April and finished it by the end of summer. Every time I read about our recent history–as a country, a society, and in this case, a gender–I find myself both baffled by my lack of historical knowledge and inspired by the larger scope to frame my current experiences.
Gloria writes in a loosely structured format that feels true to the personality I came to know throughout the book. She is, at heart, a community organizer, storyteller, and fighter. Her words, sentences, and chapters inevitably reflect these characteristics in turn. You can tell that she reconstructed this memoir based on journal entries, conversations, and referencing her own writing at the time.
Sometimes, amidst this informality, Steinem will land a line with a wholly unexpected thunder. And in that moment, I recognize also a woman who has worked her whole life as a writer, fighting to use words to enact change.
In a chapter titled “When the Political is Personal” Steinem shares about her involvement in 1984 campaigning for the first woman vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro. As she discusses the inevitable sexism and duel standards involved in Ferraro’s candidacy, she points to the media bias with this simple example, “Reporters kept asking Ferraro if a woman could be ‘tough enough’ to ‘push the button,’ meaning declare war, though they didn’t ask male candidates if they could be wise enough not to. Forests of newsprint were spent on her hair, though not on Reagan’s obviously dyes and sprayed pompadour.” And reading this made me feel as though society were on en inevitable hamster wheel. The comments and coverage on VP Sarah Palin in 2008 (my year of political awakening) and the comments and coverage of Hillary Clinton throughout her entire career of decades, these were fraught with the same gendered bias. Has anything shifted in the years of campaigns from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar? I want to believe yes, but there is so much obvious sexism and vitriol directed at these women because of their gender. I’m cautious.
In this same chapter, Steinem outlines her choice in the 2008 Presidential race between Hillary Clinton and freshman Senator Barack Obama.
I knew that outside the women’s movement, I would be better liked if I chose Obama. Women are always better liked if we sacrifice ourselves for something bigger–and something bigger always means including men, even though something bigger for men doesn’t usually mean including women. In choosing Hillary, I would be seen as selfish for supporting a woman ‘like’ me. But that was a warning, too. Needing approval is a female cultural disease, and often a sign of doing the wrong thing.
This chapter was one of the most impactful for me in the book. While I loved her stories of the hundreds of conversations with taxi drivers across the U.S., and her incredible experiences learning through visiting Native American lands and communities, this chapter helped me more deeply understand the cultural movements swirling through my own life.
In describing the arc of her lightening-rod New York Times op-ed asking why the sex barrier was not taken as seriously as the racial one in politics, Gloria describes what I have seen in our modern culture of rapid-fire cross-platform media pile-ons. Because the Times had used one pull-quote (written equivalent of a sound-bit) that stated “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life…” Gloria spent weeks and months enduring attacks from those she knew as well as mobs of strangers.
What I found inspiring was her reflections on lessons learned, the third one particularly struck a chord:
A writer’s greatest reward is naming something unnamed that many people are feeling. A writer’s greatest punishment is being misunderstood. The same words can do both.
As a woman engaged in politics, a woman who takes joy in both the written and spoken word, and a woman who knows she has been both deeply affirmed through writing and also deeply misunderstood, I know that Gloria exactly articulated so much of my personal experience through her own processing of how the political is nearly always personal.
She won my heart again with these following two reflections:
Voting isn’t the most we can do, but it is the least…In truth, we don’t know which of our acts in the present will shape the future. But we have to behave as if everything we do matters. Because it might.
Overall, I know I’ll keep returning to this book for reminders and inspiration. I know that hearing her share her own story completely changed the way I understood and felt about Steinem. And I feel grateful that we still have her influence and advocacy today. Well into her 80’s Steinem keeps her fight for gender and racial equality. She fights for the marginalized and lives from her belief that everything she does matters. What a personal inspiration.