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.