Books

Hermione’s Feminist Book Club: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Today was a good day. After a lot of nerves, I got really good feedback on my first poetry workshop critique – I’ll post the poem, “A Young Lady on the Brink of Exorcism”, soon! My favorite professor also expressed interest in helping me develop my creative thesis proposal, and on top of that, I ran into one of my other professors outside of class, and she mentioned that she really liked my paper. It was absolutely agonizing to write, so wow, was that a relief.

Also, Pottermore’s sorting quiz is back up! I’M OFFICIALLY A RAVENCLAW. So yeah, today. Good day.

Elsewhere in Harry Potter dreams come true, you may have heard that Emma Watson is hosting a feminist book club. And wow, I am stoked. Besides the fact that “Hermione Granger is hosting a feminist book club” sounds uncannily like a fanfiction I would have written when I was 11, I’ve been hoping to actually read more feminist texts, and this sounds like a really cool opportunity.

The first book is MY LIFE ON THE ROAD, Gloria Steinem’s memoir, and incidentally, it’s the first leisure read of 2016!

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I’ve read a book by Steinem before, but that was MARILYN, her biography of Marilyn Monroe (which was a great read, by the way, but obviously not a seminal work for one of our most influential feminist activists). So I was pretty excited. Fortunately, the book didn’t disappoint–it was a very educational, but also enjoyable read!

As you all know, Gloria Steinem is famous as one of the most prominent faces of second-wave feminism. Less celebrated but equally integral to her life is travel. She’s spent much of her career traveling across the country and out of it, organizing and demonstrating, writing and speaking. Her recently published memoir is focused on her travels, but especially as it relates to her activism and own personal life.

The book is cleanly organized around seven chapters. My Father’s Footsteps gives an account of Steinem’s early life and family history, with a well-traveled childhood on account of a traveling salesman father. Talking Circles follows a student Gloria on an eye-opening trip to India, where she learns about ‘talking circles’–communal ways of discussing and solving problems, especially popular for women. This is an idea that will stay with Steinem for the rest of her life, inspiring a whole new way of thinking about grassroots political organization and educating one another; the ‘talking circle’ will become an integral cornerstone of the feminist movement. Why I Don’t Drive compiles anecdotes from years of public transportation, including stories from taxi drivers and flight attendants’ strikes. One Big Campus is devoted to Steinem’s visits to colleges, while When the Political is Personal recounts her political campaigning. Surrealism in Everyday Life, named after a sketch on a political satire program Steinem was involved in early in her career, comprises assorted bizarre or “surreal” moments over the course of Steinem’s long career. The final chapter is What Once Was Can Be Again, and is inspired by what she’s learned from Native American cultures and the former preponderance of ‘talking circles.’

Though the book is ostensibly about Steinem’s travels and balancing the longing for home with a thirst for adventure, the theme of ‘talking circles’ is also a predominant one. Perhaps the most consistent theme throughout Steinem’s recollections of her activism is a rejection of hierarchical modes of thinking in favor of this communal model.Just as with any experienced world traveler, there are plenty of intriguing anecdotes, from a brief glimpse into late-night trucker culture to sitting on the airplane next to an 90-something former Ziegfeld Girl returning to the stage for HIV charity shows. But we also get plenty of insight into Steinem’s political career. Prominent feminists like Bella Abzug, Florynce Kennedy, and Wilma Mankiller all make appearances, as do seminal events like the National Women’s Political Caucus and the 2008 Presidential Election.

There were moments where I disagreed with Steinem. I’m not informed enough to have a firm opinion on the issue of prostitution, and I can see the arguments for and against it, but repeatedly using the term “prostituted women” as opposed to “sex workers” or even “prostitutes” comes across as very dated. She also seems to be wearing rose-tinted glasses on the subject of Ho Chi Minh and modern-day Vietnam; yes, its economy is one of the fastest-growing in Asia, but it also has a one-party government.

Still, it’s an engaging, eye-opening book. Steinem writes with tremendous clarity and unsurprisingly, she has a lot of stories to tell. It’s a worthy introductory text to her life and achievements and modern feminism as a movement.

I’d like to close with a particular story that stood out to me as especially memorable. Steinem recounts having been on a nature walk in college for a geology class. She spotted a turtle along the highway, and fearing it would get run over by a car, she picked it up, walked it over to the river, and pushed it back into the water. After it swam away, her professor took her aside and told her the turtle had probably spent weeks trying to get to the mud along the side of the road so she could have a place to spawn her eggs, and now in just a few minutes, Steinem had undone all of her hard work.

And with that, Steinem tells, she learned her first rule of grassroots activism: Always ask the turtle.

That’s my recap of MY LIFE ON THE ROAD! Even though this blog is mostly about writing, I think I’d really like to enjoy reviewing books and sharing book love as well. I’ll be documenting my experiences with HERMIONE’S FEMINIST BOOK CLUB (the official name is Our Shared Shelf, but for the purposes of this blog I’ll be calling it Hermione’s Feminist Book Club because childhood dreams) throughout the year. And I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stacey Lee, an UCD alum (and fellow Chinese-American!) writer, for Her Campus. I hope to review her book, UNDER A PAINTED SKY, soon.

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