Gloria Steinem. She has been my living lesson plan.
Steinem’s early years weren’t easy. She lived in a small travel trailer with her family. They moved around so that her father could sell antiques on the road. There were lots of untethered salesmen in those days. Traveling salesmen fed their families as they whetted America’s appetite for things — early pollinators of the economy.
My own father and his brothers sold record numbers of natural bristle hairbrushes door to door. My significant other told me his father and mother sold pots and pans at house parties by using the pans to prepare a home-cooked meal. This was at a time when they could barely afford food for their two boys and, post war, a scarcity of metal made filling orders difficult. Business was personal back then. It had to be. No television hocked wares. Still, most salesmen did not usually bring their families with them.
Steinem’s mother, Ruth, had a psychological breakdown, after which she was beset by anxiety, depression, delusions, occasional violent behavior and agoraphobia. It was because of this breakdown that Steinem’s father walked away from his family. Steinem, 10 at the time, stepped in as her mother’s caretaker. That was in 1944. They lived in Toledo. To pay for college, Ruth sold the house. Steinem, already a feminist, chose the all-women’s academically demanding Smith College.
My mother was also depressed, violent and agoraphobic, though in my case my mother forbade college. I’d already been given early admission. She wanted me home to care for her. I moved from Santa Barbara to the Florida Gulf Coast and stayed hidden till I turned 18.
I read Steinem’s famous essay about her mother — “Ruth’s Song” — long after I knew of Gloria Steinem, the beautiful and brilliant co-founder of Ms. magazine. The essay stunned me. Steinem was the most powerful, most confident, most articulate and self-composed woman I’d ever known of. As I read “Ruth’s Song,” I compared her disadvantages with mine and saw that hardship and deprivation weren’t necessarily the kisses of death my own mother assured me they were. It’s like I was given another chance.
Things other than a crazy mother allowed me to feel connected to Steinem, too. 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. She took flack for that. My recently published book, “Free Fall,” is, among other things, an attempt to bring to life an immensely erotic experience.
I was one of those women who savored every early 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. Their struggles were my struggles, too.
At the University of New Hampshire in the mid-’70s I 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 an infant daughter in tow. I was their paid spokeswoman and I was a proud member. We boycotted classes taught by professors who used the (unbelievably) sexist textbooks they’d written. We rallied at the State House when Gov. Meldrim Thomson 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 documentary of sorts, 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.
And yet, what I most love about Steinem, what connects me on the deepest of all levels is something absolutely elemental. I love the sound of her voice. The minute she begins speaking, it feels as if the voice of reason has arrived. When Steinem enters a conversation, a “ta da” moment is about to explode. We are about to be enlightened.
I saw this phenomenon again recently. She was a panelist on Bill Maher’s talk show on HBO. Her voice is fairly low and she has a way of cutting through and holding her own, regardless of the testosterone-fueled babble or the ego-driven competition. But even there, one of the most competitive seats on television, she carved out her space quickly, efficiently and graciously. The men on either side of her and Maher, too, shifted to a more conversational mode and engaged.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s substance behind that voice of reason. She’s well informed and prepared. She always brings new ideas to the table. She intrigues and educates. Everything is seated in reams of fact. Best of all…her brilliant statements and observations are given entrée to a world stage by way of a voice that is deep, commanding and, most importantly — 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 for me on trading shame and cowering need for confident assumption of what’s right.
Question: Can the sound of someone’s voice empower?
Answer: When I was preparing to give readings from “Free Fall,” I listened to Steinem’s voice and worked to capture that confident, assertive energy. Yes, it empowers.
Don’t get me wrong. Steinem does not walk on water.
About 18 months ago, I attended a 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 made myself endure? After all that pressure to confront? After all my failures and all the guilt that trails after?
On the other hand, she let me off the hook. I was 59 at the time I saw that panel. 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 saying no. Yes, saying “no” is hard, even for those with the voice to pull it off.
In talking with a young female law student, I mentioned I’d seen Gloria Steinem. “Who’s that?” she asked. More recently at a dinner party, I mentioned that I was writing a book about a woman who was both a Muslim and a feminist. A young woman at the table asked, “What’s a feminist?”
Here I explain neither feminism nor Gloria Steinem. Those efforts take years and books. Here I try my best to simply say thank you, Gloria Steinem. I’m one of the lucky ones who found a connection in your example. It has helped.