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MANY young feminists do not know who Gloria Steinem is, which is strange given that she has been at the forefront of women’s rights for nearly half a century. Writer, activist and organiser, Ms Steinem has been a founding member of a number of well-known institutions—the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ms Foundation and Women Against Pornography, to name just a few. She has written extensively on inequality, from musings on “If Men Could Menstruate” to abortions and the wage gap. Barack Obama acknowledged the importance of her work by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
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Ms Steinem’s memoir, “My Life on the Road”, is her first book in over 20 years. Itinerancy was a characteristic of her early years, and her book focuses on the virtues of travel. Every autumn her father would pack the family into the car and drive across America, funding the trip by bartering and selling antiques on the way. The adventures were disruptive; at first the young Ms Steinem did not go to school, learning to read from road signs and advertising billboards instead. She ate in diners so often that it became her ambition to own one. She concedes that she began to long for a “mythical neat house with conventional parents, a school I could walk to, and friends who lived nearby”.
But there is a purpose to choosing the road as her theme, and she teases out many links between her formative experiences and her later activism. She wonders aloud whether she would “have dared to challenge rules later in life if [her] father had obeyed them”. She writes powerfully about the “gendering” of travel, and how women are warned against doing it alone. The failed adventures of women both real (Amelia Earhart) and fictional (“Thelma and Louise”) are often held up as proof of its dangers, yet statistically the home is where women are most likely to be beaten or killed; a familiar fact, if still alarming.
What is clear is that Ms Steinem’s love of the road equipped her for decades of organising and rallying. Her book is a homage to the people she has encountered and the stories that they have told her. Taxi drivers and students share pages with well-known figures such as Bobby Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan.
What unites these tales is discrimination: in the workplace, in the media, in education, at home. Just as striking is what is left out. There is no mention of her important work with Linda Boreman (known as Linda Lovelace) to draw attention to the dangers of working in pornography, nor is Ms magazine (which Ms Steinem co-founded) given much attention. The book offers ideas on ways that progress may be achieved—by changing classrooms into “co-operative rather than competitive” places, for example—without suggesting how these might be implemented.
Flaws aside, Ms Steinem’s memoir is a history of the fight for gender equality as perceived through the lens of her own experience, and will be enjoyed by any reader interested in women’s rights. It is clear that much progress has been made, but given that abortion—a topic explored by Ms Steinem from the book’s dedication page onwards—is still at the centre of heated Supreme Court debates, “My Life on the Road” also serves as a reminder of the battles feminists have not yet won.