My Life on the Road
Gloria Steinem is the consummate writer, observer, and political analyst when it comes to exploring issues through the lens of gender. Her essay collections are delightful, insightful, important ruminations on women and the state of the world in which they live. Now comes her most personal book, possibly because at the age of 81, she may never write another given her still-busy life on and off the road. My Life on the Road is a gift to anyone who loves to read, learn, reflect, or travel.
Steinem wrote the book, she says in her introduction, to “share the most important, longest-running, yet least visible part of [her] life.” She also wrote it to encourage others to “spend some time on the road,” even if only in “an on-the-road state of mind,” because such travel is a rewarding, eye-opening experience. She wants others to become travelers and storytellers because there is no better way to “open up the road” for all of us.
Her own traveling life was inspired by her father who every year packed up the family to drive cross-country in search of adventure as he eked out a living selling used goods and “antiques” acquired along the way. “There were only a few months each year when my father seemed content with a house-dwelling life,” she recalls.
As a child she longed for “a mythical neat house with conventional parents, a school I could walk to, and friends who lived near by.” This longing remained with her long into adulthood as she traveled almost incessantly to organize, speak, and fundraise for causes that were deeply important to her. But late in life she realized that she could find balance and pleasure in both home and travel because “adventure lay just beyond an open door.”
Steinem shares extraordinary, instructive, and often funny anecdotes about traveling in taxis, airplanes, cars, trains, and private jets. She takes us with her onto college campuses, into boardrooms, and into the halls of women’s conferences, introducing us to people of all ages, classes, nationalities, and political persuasions. In short, her book could be called a real trip.
Along the way, we come to appreciate all that she has learned from being on the road. Early in the book, for example, she says travel satisfied both her “addiction to freedom” and her love of community as she discovers “the portable community of talking circles; groups that gather with all five senses, and allow consciousness to change.”
Later she realizes that “controversy is a teacher” and that “hostility is educational in itself.” Even when she grows weary and impatient she remains inspired by people she’s met, always finding value in what she is learning on her continuous journey. At one point when she despairs of making progress, Steinem invokes the voice of her sad, much-loved mother: “Democracy is just something you must do every day like brushing your teeth.”
Steinem is in top form when she instructs through the lessons of history and when she deconstructs what is happening politically in her own time. This is never more true than when, in a section of the book that couldn’t be more timely, she shares her insights about Hillary Clinton’s career or takes on the Catholic Church.
But perhaps her most moving moments in this memoir-cum-reflection come when she shares her experiences, and the lessons they spawned, from the substantial time she spent in Indian Country, especially with her friend and political ally, Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Again she returns to a circle as symbol when she describes joining Native American women as they talk with each other about their issues. “Ours was a nest of concentric circles, and an enterprise was measured by its value to each circle, from the individual and family to the community and environment. . . . This group was inventing a new way of measuring profit and loss.” Like Steinem, who learned a great deal from being with these women, readers may find themselves changed by the depth of her experience and the meaning that derived from it.
“Long before all these divisions opened between home and the road, between a woman’s place and a man’s world, humans followed the crops, the seasons, traveling with their families, companions, animals and tents,” Steinem concludes. “This way of traveling is still in our cellular memory. . . . I can go on the road—because I can come home. I come home—because I’m free to leave. Each way of being is more valued in the presence of the other. This balance between making camp and following the seasons is both very ancient and very new. We all need both.”
In her first book in twenty years we see Gloria Steinem being her best, most seasoned, and wisest self. Long may she travel, and return home to share her lovely and important stories.