Gloria Steinem. She’s my living lesson plan. It’s a gift, in fact, to pause and pay tribute to the woman who did more for me than almost any other woman. This essay is my thank you.
Her early years were, at the very least, outside the norm. I suspect they weren’t easy, either. She lived in a small travel trailer with her family so that her father could sell antiques on the road. Her mother, Ruth, had a breakdown of some kind, after which she was beset by anxiety, depression, delusions, occasional violent behavior and agoraphobia. Ruth’s husband left. Steinem and her mother lived together in Toledo, though Ruth sold the house so that her two daughters could move on, go to college, build a life.
My own mother was depressed, violent and agoraphobic, too. Steinem’s essay, “Ruth’s Song,” which I read long after I became aware of Steinem via Ms., stunned me. Steinem, by the mid-‘80s when I read the essay, presented as a very powerful, very confident woman. I compared our disadvantages and saw that hardship and deprivation weren’t necessarily the kisses of death my own mother assured me they were.
Other things allowed me to feel connected to Steinem, as well. She is a journalist. So am I. She likes to have a good time. I do that. She made risky choices, such as posing as a Playboy bunny to do an article on what the infamous bunnies had to endure. Such choices were not always within the bounds of safe and normal behavior, and they resulted in some trouble. I go there, too. My recently published book, “Free Fall,” is, among other things, an attempt to bring to life an immensely erotic experience.
Like tens of thousands of other women, I savored every issue of Ms. magazine. The biggest and best “click” of all was when Ms. came out for the first time. How wonderful to have this kind of support and all this like thinking at my fingertips. How wonderful to simply know that others out there, like me, existed. The fight for equality was my fight, too.
At the University of New Hampshire in the mid-‘70s I had joined with an outspoken, some would say radical, group of single mothers, all non-traditional college students on welfare, to help me get through college with a young daughter in tow. We boycotted classes taught by professors who used sexist textbooks they’d written. We rallied at the State House when Gov. Meldrim Thompson threatened to reduce our welfare grants by 25 percent. My own monthly grant was $129 and my rent was $127. We started a day care, produced a TV show, and provided counseling and referral services. Our group, Disadvantaged Women for Higher Education, was a forceful, positive presence back then, ushering into the mainstream, just like Ms., a new level of expectations for the quality of women’s lives.
What really gets me about Steinem is something less tangible than a magazine or an Equal Rights Amendment hearing. It’s the sound of her voice. The minute she begins speaking, it feels as if the voice of reason has arrived. I saw this again with her recent appearance on the Bill Maher talk show on HBO. Her voice is fairly low and she has a way of cutting through and holding her own, regardless of the vocal or ego-driven competition. Rarely can a woman carve out a space as efficiently and graciously as can she. The men on either side of her and Maher, too, listened.
Of course she has a lot to say that most people don’t. She’s well informed and prepared. She brings new ideas, supported by facts. All of this is given entrée to a world stage by way of a voice that is deep, committed and best of all — gloriously confident. The sound of Gloria Steinem’s voice empowers me. It’s that simple. When she says that women deserve equal pay, for example, it’s not a question. It’s a statement of fact. It’s a lesson on trading shame for confidence. It’s an invitation to declare one’s reality with quiet confidence and, of course, courage.
When I was preparing to give readings from “Free Fall,” I listened to Steinem’s voice and attempted to capture that confidence and assertive energy.
Don’t get me wrong. Steinem does not walk on water. About 18 months ago, I attended a panel discussion that Steinem participated in. She was a panelist with several other feminists including Isabella Rossellini, More magazine editor Lesley Jane Seymour, and author/ editor Suzanne Braun Levine. The women discussed regrets at one point in the conversation and Steinem said, “I still have trouble saying no.”
After all that assertiveness training I took? After all that pressure to be firm and direct? After all my failures and all the guilt that tails after?
On the other hand, she let me off the hook. I was 59 at the time. Every day from that day forward I had a “live” version of Steinem’s voice to replace all those televised appearances and I had permission to falter. Having trouble saying no is still vastly different from not trying to say no. Now I see that “no” is hard even for those with the voice to pull it off.
Thank you, Gloria Steinem.