Arts

Why you should spend time ‘On the Road’: Feminist icon’s new book charts a lifetime of sharing stories

In My Life on the Road, feminist, journalist, activist, and writer Gloria Steinem reflects on her long and varied career through the lens of travel. The book, published in 2015, is an account of her unusual childhood, a personal retelling of the late 20th century women’s movements, and a call for talking circles—“groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time”—which Steinem has come to value deeply.

The book itself is written as if each story is shared in a talking circle. A chapter on why Steinem does not drive spirals into several stories about notable cab drivers, one of the stories flashing forward to when Steinem is driven by the same person on two occasions, several years apart. These breaks from chronology don’t feel like interruptions but a natural way for the conversation between Steinem and the reader to go. As each chapter progresses, seemingly unrelated anecdotes come together to reach a common conclusion in the same way multiple perspectives might come together in a talking circle.

The memoir’s title is an accurate description of Steinem’s life. The majority of the book is focused on her professional life, but the first chapter gives the reader a glimpse into her childhood with her father, a traveling salesman who uprooted the family every fall, selling antiques along the way from rural Michigan, where they spent the summer, to either southern California or Florida. Although Steinem writes that she resented the lack of stability as a child, she also credits this migratory lifestyle for saving her from the “brainwashing” of mainstream elementary education and for allowing her feminist beliefs to take root (see “Don’t be scared of the F word,” pages 8 and 9). The reader then sees her career build and flourish with anecdotes from her experience working on speaking tours and political campaigns and at Ms., the feminist magazine she began in 1971.

The book, however, does not just chronicle Steinem’s shining moments of human connection. In the chapter “When Political is Personal,” Steinem describes the backlash she received after declaring her support for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. She writes that she was seen as taking sexism more seriously than racism and, after a particularly bad interview, felt as though she “had been hit by a Mack truck.” Steinem also writes about a fear of public speaking for many years at the beginning of her career, surprising given the amount of public speaking she has done since. She describes the blatant sexism she faced as a journalist and political campaign staffer, often having to give her suggestions and ideas to the man sitting next to her in order to have them heard. The book is not simply a victory lap for her successful career—Steinem wants to show honestly what she learned from both mistakes and triumphs, hers and others’.

In the introduction, Steinem outlines her three main reasons for writing My Life on the Road: to share parts of her life, to encourage the reader to spend time on the road (or in an “on-the-road state of mind,” which she says means being open to “whatever comes along”), and to share others’ stories that have impacted her. Steinem succeeds in all three of these categories. She makes clear that anyone can learn from anyone else’s story, meaning that readers can gain knowledge and perspective through conversations in their own lives, without traveling for decades as she has. Connecting her stories to those of others, she invites readers to bring their own life experiences into the mix as well. 

The book ultimately provides a feeling of hope: we can all make the world a better place, one shared story at a time.

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