While many words come to mind when thinking of Gloria Steinem – feminist icon, journalist, activist, leader, organiser, writer, undercover playboy-bunny – above all Gloria Steinem defines herself as a traveller; a traveller who has used the spoken and written word to tell the kind of stories that once nobody wanted to hear: stories about women trapped in un-equal and often brutalising systems of oppression, women who (like her own mother Ruth) were unable to “sing their own song”, women who were told that all they should aspire to was to get married and raise children, women of all different colours and creeds from around the world who may never call themselves feminist, but nevertheless fight hard for their right to be who they want to be.
“Feminism is about the substance, not the word,” Steinem explains to the audience of her sold-out appearance at the 2016 Auckland Writer’s Festival. Eschewing labels in favour of commonalities, Steinem at age 81 is as inspiring – or possibly more so – as in the emerging heyday of American equal rights activism in the 1970s. In New Zealand to promote her new autobiography My Life on the Road, Steinem is articulate and to the point, as she speaks of seeing herself foremost as a traveller, who has been lucky enough to be able to “follow where the road takes you.”
Speaking about the influence of her father, a “larger-than-life” figure who taught her to be an ardent traveller, she considers life to be about movement, something she describes as an innate need: “We are migratory species, who follow the seasons,” she explains, delving into the details of her autobiography, which charts her journey from childhood, to living with a mentally fragile mother, to her training as a journalist. Steinem’s autobiography embeds the metaphoric and literal spirit of travelling, and tells not just her own story, but the stories of the numerous women she met along the way.
Steinem speaks of one of her early journeys to India, which introduced her to the philosophy of Gandhi, and the practice of “talking circles” – a place where people gathered to speak what was on their mind. “All movements start with people telling their stories – we cannot do without sharing our stories. This is something that never changes. The women’s movement started with consciousness raising groups, now we call them bookclubs,” she quips, something that clearly resonates with the laughing audience.
Steinem’s journalistic career has included early stints with the New Yorker, her still-legendary expose of dire working conditions for waitresses, or “Playboy bunnies” at the Playboy Club, and the 1971 co-founding of MS – the legendary feminist magazine dedicated to publishing what matters to women, rather than what matters to advertisers. “If we’d all known how difficult it would have been to run the magazine, we might not have done it,” Steinem reflects, recounting the extremely stressful times of the early days. “There were moments when I used to fantasize that the building would burn down, then I’d be free and it wouldn’t be my fault that the magazine failed.”
But rather than failing, MS resiliently went on, capturing stories by women and about women in a way that reflects Steinem’s credo of “anything goes”, meaning that in order to initiate real change in the world we have to stop arguing about semantics. “Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing,” she states, encouraging the young women in the festival audience – the next generation of would-be activists – to look at the similarities rather than the differences: “A movement is a shared vision, no matter how diverse we are – and this can keep us going forever.”
Steinem’s energy and motivation certainly seem like they will keep her going forever – after her talk she faces a line of people winding through the theatre foyer and almost out the door with a sincere smile, listening and taking her time with everyone who approaches the book- signing table. For Steinem, life on the road is more than the title of an autobiography, it is a way of sustaining and persevering: “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”