Monday 26 September 2016

On the road with icon of feminism

Fiona Sturges

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

Pragmatic optimism: Steinem became a leading figure in the feminist movement, campaigning for civil and reproductive rights
Pragmatic optimism: Steinem became a leading figure in the feminist movement, campaigning for civil and reproductive rights
My LIfe on the Road

Gloria Steinem's memoir is dedicated to Dr John Sharpe of London, who, 10 years before the UK's 1967 Abortion Act, referred a 22-year-old American woman who had recently broken off an engagement for an abortion. He asked her to promise him two things: that she would not reveal his name and that she would do what she wanted with her life.

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"Dear Dr Sharpe," says Steinem, "I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I've done the best I could with my life."

She's not wrong. Steinem rose to become a leading figure in the feminist movement, campaigning for civil and reproductive rights, gender equality, and launching the ground-breaking magazine for women, Ms.

Hers has been a life driven by restlessness, curiosity and a desire to be heard but also to listen, a habit developed during a visit to India where she came across the concept of talking circles in which everyone has a voice.

Since her childhood as the daughter of an itinerant salesman, Steinem has lived out of boxes and suitcases and, as an adult, has spent more time in hotels and hopping on and off trains and planes than she has in her New York home.

My Life on the Road examines this nomadic existence, from her wanderings with her father to her countless sojourns around the US on political campaign trails, college campus tours, or generally organising, writing, listening and inspiring.

Steinem sees herself as a "celestial bartender", talking to people from all walks of life who "say things they wouldn't share with a therapist".Drawn from memory, many of their tales are replicated here. They are the stories of trans men and women, victims of domestic violence and child abuse, immigrants looking to better themselves, and Native Americans striving to preserve their culture.

In between, there are heartfelt love letters to train travel, university students, airline stewardesses and taxi drivers, all of which show that ordinary people can be instruments of information and change but also reveal the intrinsic warmth of Steinem's world view.

"Altogether I've seen enough change to have faith that more will come," she says. It's a statement that will offer hope to today's feminists, even if she skates a little too lightly over the challenges presented by the digital age.

This is a book bursting with wisdom, joy, empathy and a pragmatic optimism about the struggles that have kept its author travelling for more than 60 years. As well as offering a template for the future, it's a heartening record of how far we've already come.

My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem

Oneworld, tpbk, 304 pages, €19.99

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