Steinem, who will speak in Seattle on Nov. 8, has filled her latest book with memories of her father, and her years as a journalist and activist. Some of the book was put together at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat.
The title of Gloria Steinem’s new book, “My Life on the Road,” represents truth in labeling. It’s the story of Steinem’s years wandering the planet, an endless road trip that began with a restless father who couldn’t stay still. She remembers her far-flung assignments as a journalist, heady years as a footloose political activist and her encounters with everyday people who felt compelled to share their lives with one of the most recognizable people in America.
If you’re looking for a full-blown memoir, this isn’t it. Steinem writes of her father, a gypsy impresario/antiques trader whose business trips kept her out of school for long stretches. She says her mother was more thoroughly covered in a previous book. The details of her marriage are scarce and regrets are few. Some passages about political candidates and favorite causes (Hillary Rodham Clinton, Native-American rights) might go on a bit too long.
The best bits of “My Life on the Road” (Random House, $28) are when Steinem the writer and observant people-watcher takes over. She is in Seattle tonight (Nov. 8) for an appearance at Benaroya Hall — the event benefits the Whidbey Island writer’s retreat Hedgebrook, which Steinem credits with helping her get the book done by offering her several stays there.
The author of “My Life on the Road” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, with author Cheryl Strayed at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St.; Seattle.
Tickets in the $45-$60 range include a copy of the book. $15 tickets are also available via hedgebrook.org. The Elliott Bay Book Co. will be on hand with copies of other Gloria Steinem titles and Cheryl Strayed’s books. The evening’s proceeds benefit Hedgebrook, a Whidbey Island retreat for female writers.
She talked by phone recently about her book — she’s 81, but her velvet-over-steel voice retained its ability to keep this listener weighing every word:
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Q. I understand that Hedgebrook deserves credit for helping you get this book done.
A. Hedgebrook was the place I first set down to work on it; to my surprise, I produced a whole essay about my father that hadn’t been part of the outline of the book at all … was sitting there in one of those perfect cottages and realized that my being on the road had something to do with being on the road with a gypsy father.
I had gone there to experience it, to be a talent scout for it. I didn’t realize I also needed a writing retreat.
Q. You write about your father’s restlessness — what’s the source of his inability to stay in one place?
A. It’s hard to know what is inside of us already and what’s due to our childhoods. His parents, born in Europe, lived disrupted lives, and when they came to this country they created super-secure lives as a reaction. My sense memory of my grandmother’s apartment is of a very, very quiet, completely orderly place. Perhaps he was responding against that.
Q. Your mother was a journalist, though she worked in the field for a limited period of time. How did she pass the gift on to you?
A. There is a much longer essay about my mother in “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions”….she loved books. She knew how to open a (new) book and run the finger down the spine so you didn’t crack it. She loved (the poetry of) Edna St. Vincent Millay. Just hearing my mother recite it from time to time has made me remember it.
Q. This sentence in your book struck home for me: “In the words of so many daughters who don’t yet know that a female fate is not a personal fault, I told myself: I’m not going to be anything like my mother.”
I said those words to myself a few times. Do you think this dynamic has changed with the greater choices women have in the job/profession market? Does it go deeper than that?
A. It’s changed, but not completely. The impulse to say, ‘What happened to my mother is not going to happen to me,’ if our mothers couldn’t lead their own lives, is still very strong … … As long as we can locate the problem in her, we don’t have to admit it could happen to us.
Q. Some of your favorite places: Bookstores. Campuses. Taxicabs. What do they have in common?
A. Bookstores and campuses are places where people come together, searching for something, ready to learn. I love book tours … now that a lot of the chains (bookstores) are gone, a lot of the ones that are still around are community centers. The book is already there, I don’t feel like I have to read or talk about the book … discussions often devolve into a more open-ended discussion. It’s an unpredictable assortment of people.
A. Taxicabs are a different story … I was well into the book when I had to explain why I didn’t drive. I realized writing an on-the-road book without driving seemed odd.
When you don’t drive, the trip starts the minute you leave the door. It’s a state of mind. When you enter a taxicab or car service, you enter their (the drivers’) home in a way.
There are things that happen (too late to include in the book). I got into a taxi in New York … we passed a sort of Dracula advertisement, a bloodsucking illustration. I said, I think I understand a lot of things, but I don’t understand the perennial appeal of that story.
That taxi driver turned out to be from Transylvania. He explained that where he grew up there was a very rich and disliked family — they lived in a distant but visible place. Because they treated their employees so badly, there were all kinds of stories and myths of how people would go there and disappear.
Q. Even in the days before online communication, you believed that face-to-face contact was important when it came to persuading people. That seems even more difficult today. How do you think the art of political persuasion has changed with the Internet and social media?
A. The Web is a blessing in every way that we understand, in voices that would not get a hearing by the media. There are two big worries.
Technology can itself be divisive, because of who can and can’t afford it, and who is and isn’t literate. Since the illiterates of the world are overwhelmingly female, it makes a difference.
… The second is, it is distant. I asked my friendly neurologist about the famous oxytocin, the “tend and befriend” hormone. If a man or a woman holds a baby, you are flooded with oxytocin, or if you see a fellow human in trouble, there is a natural tendency to help. I asked her if it is produced in the same way online, or by reading, or the screen … she said no, you need to be present. I do think that’s one reason people can be cruel to each other (online).
Q. What do young women in their 20s and 30s talk to you about?
A. Individuals tend to be more specific about whatever they are experiencing … ether it’s feeling endangered on campus, or they are just beginning to feel like they are going to graduate in debt and make a million dollars less (than men) in their lifetime. It’s not exactly personal, it’s more tactical.
We (older women) didn’t end up in debt. State legislatures are cutting money for education and using it to build prisons … Washington state is an exception (the Washington Legislature just cut tuition at its state colleges and universities).
Q. You place quite a premium on listening, yet for many years your chief job was an advocate, to persuade people to support your cause. That involves people listening to you, right? How are the two related?
A. I realized much later than I should have … that if you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. As a general rule of how to make change or how to achieve, if you are in a situation where you have more power than others, you need to listen as much as you talk. If you have less power, you have to talk as much as you listen. It took me years to understand that.