Originally released in the 1980s and then revised in the 90s, there are wisps of this book that are still interesting today, but some of it does not survive becoming clunky and dusty in the early 21st century. My favorite parts were her journalistic reporting—I Was a Playboy Bunny, College Reunion, Campaigning—and also her section on five women: Marilyn Monroe (who helped get Ella Fitzgerald booked at a club in LA that refused to hire her because of race), Jackie Kennedy (who dared to live her own life and work in publishing post-Onassis death), Alice Walker (written on the cusp of her stardom from Color Purple), Linda Lovelace (porn star in Deep Throat who apparently was a captive slave of her “husband” who produced the movie), and Patricia Nixon (prim interview revealing not much except a tiny flare of indignation against people who haven’t worked hard). Equally fascinating was the idea that women grow more rebellious with age whereas men are the opposite—rebellious in youth and become more conservative—this comes up in her essay Why Young Women are More Conservative. “Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.”
I Was a Playboy Bunny gave a diary account of that famous infiltration into the NYC club. I was horrified to hear about the state of her feet, swollen permanently to a half size larger, after only a few days of tottering around on 4 inch heels for 16 hours a day fetching drinks and avoiding pinches. Campaigning talked in a similar diary-like way about when she first met the unprepossessing George McGovern as they shared a ride up to a weekend in Vermont in 1965 all the way through the 1972 campaigning for him after McCarthy left her cold.
The epigraph is from the bible: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (I Samuel 15:23).
Jackie Kennedy worked as an editor on Remember the Ladies, a book of 18th century women’s history, and Steinem says she “pored over an eighteen-century sex manual with information about a root that women chewed to induce abortion.”
When I sat in the audience in November and listened to Gloria Steinem in conversation with Chinaka Hodge, I was surprised by how little I knew about Steinem, something that was remedied by the conversation and this book. She has worked tirelessly as a speaker and organizer, traveling for most of the year to speak on countless college campuses. She’s terrified of public speaking and was a reluctant voice, although dealing with tough audiences helped her gain confidence. Her wanderlust was inherited from her father who would pack up the family into the car and head to Florida or California for the winters, selling antique furniture along the way to pay for the journey. Her parents split up, and she lives with her somewhat unstable mother in various spots, finally able to break away for a year to go to high school in DC where her sister has set up a solid base. From there, college, then two years in India. She returned to be a freelance writer in NYC, bumping into the hurdles that women writers faced. On assignment to write about Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, she shares a taxi with journalist Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. As she’s passing along valuable information about how to get Bobby to answer questions, Talese leaned across her as if she wasn’t talking or even present, and says to Bellow, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Etc., etc.
She comes to grips with some of her blindspots when returning to India in the 1970s in an effort to collect Gandhian tactics into a pamphlet for women’s movements. As part of this research, she interviews Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a woman leader (rare) during the struggle for independence who led Gandhi’s national women’s organization. As Steinem and her friend explain their idea of teaching Gandhi tactics to women’s movements, the woman waits patiently until they’re done and says, “Well of course, my dears. We taught him everything he knew.” Gandhi witnessed the massive women’s movement against suttee, the practice of immolating widows on their husbands’ funeral fires. He also saw the suffrage movement in action in England when he was studying to be a barrister. Steinem says, we “had the Great Man theory of history, and hadn’t known that the tactics we were drawn to were our own.” She then quotes Vita Sackville-West: “I worshipped dead men for their strength, Forgetting I was strong.”
My interest was also piqued by her deep discussion of Native American democracy and life. I’ve added a few books to the queue to dive more deeply into this. The Iroquois Confederacy was used by Benjamin Franklin as the model for the Constitution, knowing its success in unifying huge areas of the U.S. and Canada by bringing together Native nations but also allowing autonomy. Franklin invited two Iroquois men to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention as advisors. They are said to have asked, “Where are the women?”
Random bit- this is the second book in a few days that I’ve encountered this fact: Washington DC can be so hot that the British Embassy gave its workers extra pay for working in a tropical climate. (The other book I saw this in was Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which I couldn’t get into thus shoved to the return pile.)
Great correction of the statement that prostitution is the oldest profession– correct version is that prostitution is the world’s oldest oppression.