Today I attended a YWCA fundraiser in Seattle, and Gloria Steinem was the speaker. I had been looking forward to this, because when I was a young woman, Steinem was one of my heroines. With her help, and the help of other feminist thinkers, I found the courage to move past the patriarchal patterns of my childhood and build a free and rewarding life on feminist principles. I've always been grateful to her for her leadership. And she didn't disappoint me today! At 78 years old, she still rocks a room. (And she's as striking a woman as ever. We should all age so well.)
The reason I felt moved to blog about her speech was the subtle way in which she developed a metaphor for her message. Her theme was both clever and illustrative: What if the YWCA ran the world? Her answers to the question ranged from funny to profound, but while she was exploring the possibilities, she managed to outline principles for a world in which racism and sexism can be obliterated by drawing a comparison with the way children are raised. Her thesis--and very well-supported it was--was that domestic violence could be called "original violence", because it has its roots in the way children are treated when they're small. She explored examples from the people who saved Jews from the Nazis in Germany to the suffragettes and civil rights workers of the United States, all people who exemplified the empathy which is innate in all human beings, and which has to be schooled out of them if they are to be violent, or abusive. She didn't lecture. She chatted. She told stories. And not until the talk was ended was the picture complete. We could see the family as a metaphor for the culture--for the world.
As I walked out of the convention center, I was thinking that this is what a novelist does. We build on our themes with scenes, like constructing an edifice, one brick at a time. We don't always go directly to the point. We don't always move chronologically. We don't tell readers what to think. We let them wait to find out. If we do our job well, our readers stick with us to the end because they like the characters, because the scenes are fun to watch, because there are questions, and they care about the answers. A novel can be a metaphor, too.
So she's still my heroine. After all this time, she had something to teach me.