Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan: On Gloria’s new book and the value of life on the road
Women’s Media Center cofounder Gloria Steinem’s long-awaited new book, “My Life on the Road,” is available this month. Written over the course of 20 years, it includes Gloria’s reflections and insights from her years traveling throughout the United States, speaking, organizing, and leading movements for social change. Steinem recently appeared on “Women’s Media Center Live With Robin Morgan” to talk with her WMC cofounder Robin Morgan about the book and the deep value of life on the road. Following is an edited excerpt of the interview, which is available by podcast at wmclive.com and iTunes.
Robin: It’s a time for great celebration because My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem, is finally out. Tell us about it.
Gloria: About twenty years ago I realized that I was writing least about what I was doing most, which was traveling and organizing on the road. So I began this book—I would work on it one month in the summer and then not for the other eleven months. My hope for it is that it conveys some of the seduction of the road. I noticed that when I say I’m going to another country, people say, “Oh, how interesting,” and when I say I’m traveling here, they say, “Oh, it must be so tiring.”
So I think there is a great lack that should be filled by, I don’t know, rules that every elected politician needs to spend at least two years [on the road] before they run, and have booster shots of a few weeks every few years …
Robin: What different politicians that would make!
Gloria: I think the road is my form of meditation. It forces you to live in the present—you really have no choice. And it is so unexpected; the country is so much more diverse and interesting and exciting and full of energy than the generalizations on television or on the Web about “the American People,” as if we were one lump. And especially now, because it is profoundly shifting in many ways—we are about to become a majority country of people of color, not European Americans.
Gloria: The right wing is in full revolt against that, but actually this diversity is glorious and interesting. And politically we are in huge flux because we haven’t paid enough attention to local government and state legislatures … I would say to every high school graduate, “Spend six weeks on the road; it will be the best education you’ll ever get.”
Robin: And if you think of yourself in any way, large or small, as an activist, I find, and I know you do too, that it reminds you what you’re fighting for, because sometimes our noses are so close to a particular project or a particular issue, or whatever we’re put in a position of fighting against. When you go on the road there’s a connection that feeds me back, and for what one gives out the rest of the time, it…
Gloria: …it’s invaluable, because there’s always the danger of dealing in generalities otherwise, and of course organizing is about the particular, about the opportunities on the ground where you are, and about the fact that people who are experiencing something are more expert in it than the experts.
Robin: Yes, and this footloose-ness, and fancy-free, a little, comes from your childhood, too, doesn’t it?
Gloria: Yes, and it’s amazing how long it took me to figure that out. I grew up, pre-ten or -twelve, most of the time in a house trailer going back and forth to Florida and California because my father had a little summer resort in Michigan, and otherwise he made a living by buying and selling antiques along the road. So I was traveling and not going to school, and I wanted to be like other kids, so I wished that I was going to school and living in a house with a white picket fence. I kept thinking that I was going to rebel against that, and it took me until pretty late in life to discover that, yes, I needed to make a home. And I do have a home, a nest here in New York which I value very much. But, you know, it turns out to be in our genes, I think—we were always a migratory species as human beings—it isn’t a choice between home and the road, it’s both.
Robin: I remember what a big deal it was when you decided to nest at all, because one would come over and there would be boxes still of stuff unpacked and suitcases unpacked, for years.
Gloria: Yes, all true, all true!
Robin: So it was a good balance correction when you began to take pride in nesting. But soon you were off again,. Tell a little bit about some specifics that are in the book—it’s like ”Travels with the Contemporary Feminist Movement in the United States”—people will learn things they never thought of before. There’s the whole wonderful section about Indian Country
Gloria: Next to feminism itself, and the lightbulb dawning on us that “we were not crazy, the system is crazy”—which keeps happening over and over and over again in our lives and gives us our lives—next to that, the single biggest discovery in my life has been discovering that I have been walking around my own country without knowing not only the history but the cultures that are very much struggling to stay alive and are coming back. I’m sorry to say we don’t learn human history when humans began, we learn beginning when Columbus arrived…
Robin: Yeah, the “conquest.”
Gloria: Yeah, the “conquest,” about which my women friends in Indian Country make jokes, you know, “What did Columbus call primitive? Equal women.”
The cultures here were profoundly different. The Iroquois Confederacy and the six huge Native nations that were part of that confederacy are what our constitution is based on, and are the origin of our democracy. Rousseau, all of them, fell upon the discovery of the collective kinds of cultures here that were modeled on the idea that the circle was the paradigm, not a hierarchy.
Robin: Yes, and would that the Framers of the Constitution had not only been influenced by the Iroquois in terms of democracy but had followed their lead in terms of equality.
Gloria: Yes, including women, and not allowing slavery. Benjamin Franklin, who was a kind of ambassador to the Native cultures of that era, knew enough to invite two advisers to Philadelphia to advise on the confederate structure, and the first thing they said when they arrived was, “Where are the women?”
Robin: Right. Well the women are decidedly in this book. And also you are. On the one hand it’s a feminist “Fodor”—a great travel book—and it’s an organizing book, about the issues. But also, the “you-est” you, as your friends know, is the one who’s organizing and on the road, and this reveals things about you that, because you’re terminally modest, most folks don’t know. It’s moving to those of us who have known you for a long time and love you a lot that this book finally got done and done so brilliantly. And it’s a sin that you’re not writing more; that’s all I have to say!
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