My Life on the Road: A Memoir
“making the personal political and the political truly personal.”
For most of us, travel is occasional and instrumental, a means to an end—to get to that Caribbean beach resort, Grandma’s for Christmas, Disneyland with the family. Sometimes, though, travel is the whole point—a road trip for a restless itch, a cruise to suspend everyday realities, or simply being in an ever-changing here and now.
In My Life on the Road, iconic feminist activist and author Gloria Steinem shares her memories of travel as a way of life, having spent at least half of her 81 years on the move, interviewing, organizing, reporting, talking, observing and, above all, listening in a lifelong quest to level the playing field of gender inequality.
“What seems to be one thing from a distance is very different close up. I tell you this story because it’s the kind of lesson that can be learned only on the road.”
This kind of travel is truly transformative through the first-hand sharing of lived experiences and building connections across very different communities and cultures.
“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. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
And Steinem has, indeed, been fully present over a long career as a peripatetic catalyst for social change, from her early contributions to the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, right up to her present-day support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.
In On The Road, her first book in more than 20 years, she sucks out the marrow from journeys over the decades and re-presents them in a potpourri of anecdotes about how these shaped her in a product that is more memoir-cum-field journal than traditional chronological autobiography.
Steinem writes with candor, compassion, warmth, and humor in a straightforward style that will engage a wide range of readers—even those unfamiliar with her achievements, as well as current feminists inclined to be critical of their white middle-class predecessors.
Yet Steinem’s life has been a far cry from the conventional middle-class rootedness in hearth and home. She recalls, “I came by my road habits honestly. There were only a few months each year that my father seemed content with a house-dwelling life.”
Until she was 10 years old, she lived a nomadic existence in the wake of her peddler father as he scoured the country for antiques. She longed for a home. “It wasn’t a specific place but a mythical neat house with conventional parents, a school I could walk to, and friends who lived nearby.”
Only after her troubled mother separated from her father did she settle in one place for a brief period before college. But by that time the road was in her blood, and she has followed in her father’s migratory footsteps until recently when a growing need for life balance made her realize that “caring for home is caring for one’s self.” These days, it is no longer an “either/or choice between constancy and change, home and the road—between being a hazar, a dweller in houses, and an arab, a dweller in tents.” Her father, a solitary traveler, died alone, never having learned this lesson.
Steinem’s emerging self owes much to the style of travel and social engagement she adopted as a young woman on a two-year fellowship in India. Here she discovered the insights gained from travelling on buses, trains and on foot wearing a sari, sharing food and conversation with local women.
Accompanying Gandhian organizers to villages, she had her first experience of talking circles “the ancient and modern magic of groups in which everyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”
This populist approach to consciousness raising and solidarity building became the foundation of the feminist movement and the dominant motif of both Steinem’s activism and the key relationships in her life. “My becoming an itinerant feminist organizer was just a Western version of walking in villages.”
Many of these defining relations have been with Native American women activists who taught Steinem about the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of balance. She also learned much from her female African American activist/writer friends and frequently traveled to organizing events with a minority speaking partner in order to attract diverse audiences and combat the notion of feminism as a white middle-class movement.
“Feminism had to include all women—lesbians, women on welfare, the intertwining of sex and race for women of color; everyone . . .”
And Steinem has listened to and learned from a diverse cross-section of ordinary Americans—such as taxi drivers, waitresses, coffee shop patrons, bikers, priests, truck drivers, fellow airplane passengers and flight attendants. She invites them to share their stories.
“Perhaps because women are seen as good listeners, I find that a travelling woman—perhaps especially a travelling feminist—becomes a kind of celestial bartender. People say things they wouldn’t share with a therapist.”
These snippets from everyday lives are interspliced with observations about milestone events, as well as anecdotes about the rich and famous, the movers and shakers. Like a feminist Forest Gump, albeit with formidable intelligence, Steinem seems to have been present at many of the important political moments of the past few decades.
She listens to the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. That same year, she watches out of a White House window as speechwriter Ted Sorensen runs final copy to John F. Kennedy as he boards a helicopter for that fateful trip to Dallas. In 1968, she’s in California with Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in solidarity with the farmworkers’ strike. She organizes the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. She’s in Florida in 2000 when voters demand a recount after the presidential election.
These opportunities did not just fall into her lap. She had to fight for them. Her good looks, in particular, worked against her. She tells of sharing a cab in 1964 with famous writers Saul Bellow and Gay Talese. Talese leaned across her and said 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.”
My Life on the Road is full of such vignettes. Steinem shows generosity of spirit in her interactions even with her sharpest critics, which included the more conservative and strident feminists of her day. Her insights are incisive and inspirational. There is not one dull or self-indulgent passage in the book.
On the negative side, some readers will find the format disorganized and be confused by the constant flipping between the various roles in her hybrid career. On one page she is interviewing wearing her journalist hat, on the next she is center stage as a political organizer, and on the following page she’s a participant-observer up to her armpits in everyday life.
Even her career is glimpsed rather than detailed. There is no mention of her infamous journalistic excursion undercover as a playboy bunny and her seminal MS magazine receives only cursory treatment.
Particulars about her personal life are also scant. She does not mention her three-year marriage in her 60s which ended with the death of her husband. And references to lovers are anonymous and only in passing.
Nonetheless, the reader comes away with an indelible impression of a honest, empathetic, and caring person whose organizing genius helped to empower two generations of women by making the personal political and the political truly personal.