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Gloria Steinem’s new autobiography reminds us of her work as a tireless grassroots campaigner. Here pictured with Barack Obama receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Reuters/Larry Downing

Setting the record straight: Gloria Steinem reflects on her legacy in My Life On The Road

Gloria Steinem’s first book in more than a decade hit bookstores a couple of weeks ago. My Life on the Road proffers autobiographical snippets from what the famed feminist activist, journalist and author claims is the “most important, longest-running, yet least visible part of my life” – her nomadic existence on the road.

Steinem maintains that her intentions in relaying these experiences are manifold. Clearly, she wants to acquaint the public with this lesser-known facet of her itinerant life, but she also declares that she wants to “encourage you to spend some time on the road, too”; for us all “to share stories”; and “to open up the road – literally” given that “so far its been overwhelmingly masculine turf”.

But this book is also about setting the record straight. Steinem – who played a pivotal role in popularising second-wave feminism in 1970s America – is now a stately 81. This non-linear autobiography, then, is also an attempt to shore up her legacy in the so-called post-feminist age.

Steinem never overtly admits this, of course. But My Life on the Road consistently labours to combat and correct controversial aspects of the Steinem legend. The first concerns the implications of her unusually good looks, which many allege she exploited for her own ends.

As she notes in the book, an “accusation” developed in the 1970s that “I was listened to only because of how I looked,” and that the “idea that whatever I had accomplished was all about looks would remain a biased and hurtful accusation even into my old age”.

Gloria Steinem.

Steinem’s attractive appearance has always been a key component of her public persona. She first rose to national prominence in 1963, when, as a freelance journalist, she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny and wrote a damning expose of her experiences for Show magazine. As she became increasingly politicised and shifted from journalism to feminist activism, the media remained preoccupied with her appearance (an article on Steinem in the June 1971 issue of American Vogue, for example, emphasised that she had the “looks … of a film star” and gloated that she is “the most attractive activist in Women’s Lib”).

This book is an effective antidote to the two-dimensional pretty-girl stereotype. It not only reminds us of the breadth and depth of Steinem’s experience as a tireless grassroots campaigner – a commitment that has generated much of her “life on the road” – but is also a refresher of her sharp intellect and perceptive wit.

Gloria Steinem.

But if My Life on the Road successfully neutralises attempts at bimboesque pigeon-holing, it also seeks to heal another long-standing rift. When radical feminism gained political and cultural momentum in United States in the early 1970s, activists refused to elect their own leaders. As a consequence, the media stepped into the void by repeatedly interviewing and profiling more media-savvy activists – namely, Steinem and Germaine Greer.

Many feminists were uneasy with this development, and criticised Steinem and Greer for presumptuously assuming influential roles as feminist figureheads.

As Steinem tells it, though, her image as pushy and publicity-hungry couldn’t be further from the truth. She repeatedly emphasises her aversion to the public spotlight throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s. “I was terrified of public speaking,” Steinem confesses, a phobia that initially led her to decline a prestigious invitation to deliver an address at the 1971 Harvard Law Review banquet.

Though she was eventually talked into delivering the lecture, a student in the audience characterised Steinem’s delivery as:

rhetorically unimpressive; she seemed nervous, and spoke quietly and without sharp effect or physical punctuation.

Gloria Steinem.

Moreover, the endurance of this shyness, according to Steinem, generated some serious sour grapes. In one of the more tantalising anecdotes, Steinem recollects how a faction of the National Women’s Political Caucus decided to elect a spokeswoman in 1972 to liaise with the press. Despite making her aversion to the role clear, Steinem was elected in absentia.

The result infuriated Betty Friedan (who had openly campaigned for the job), and Friedan remained hostile towards Steinem for years afterwards, refusing to shake Steinem’s mother’s hand when they met.

Steinem’s portrayal of herself as an earnest, involuntary feminist superstar is partially convincing. But her characterisation of her feminism as thoroughly inclusive is more unsettling.

Throughout the book, Steinem reiterates her belief in the insidiousness of double discrimination, whereby some women were (and are) doubly damned by their gender and their race. In a bid to combat this prejudice, Steinem points out that she always delivered her campus talks as a team, with a black feminist speaking partner; that she played a pivotal role in facilitating the Minority Women’s Plank at the National Women’s Conference in 1977; and that she forged close personal and political bonds with many female Native American activists.

Steinem also maintains that she was sympathetic to lesbian feminists, and believed that they had a rightful place within the Movement.

Author Gloria Steinem protests against the opening of the first United States branch of De Beers jewellery store in New York in 2005. Protesters claim De Beers is responsible for the eviction of Kalahari Bushmen from their lands in Botswana. Reuters

This thematic preoccupation with inclusivity is clearly a defensive response to lingering criticisms that Steinem helped make the Movement a white, middle-class and elitist affair. Indeed, one of the most painful fissures occurred in the mid-1970s when, frustrated by the Movement’s failure to acknowledge their different grievances, many African-American feminists, Hispanic feminists and lesbian feminists began to secede from the movement and form their own organisations, a fracturing that divided and diminished the feminist power base.

But as Steinem tells it, this split wasn’t on her account. Her portrayal of her feminism as warm and all-encompassing is seductive, until one factors in Ms. magazine, the pioneering popular feminist magazine she co-founded in 1971 (and which is strangely almost entirely absent in My Life on the Road).

As other radical feminists bemoaned, Ms. was largely staffed by white middle-class women who had known each other – and Steinem – since their college days at Vassar, Smith and Wellesley, an inbuilt bias evident in the magazine’s content.

Gloria Steinem, founder of the feminist magazine Ms. poses with Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, and Byron Dobell, a former editor at the magazines Life, New York and Esquire, at the National Magazine Awards ceremony in New York in 1998. Reuters

Nonetheless, going “on the road” with Steinem is a rewarding experience. It reminds us of how far women have come – see, for instance, her perceptive analysis of Hillary Clinton’s two bids for the Presidency – and the very real role Steinem has played in facilitating those advances.

But in life they say it’s about the journey, not the destination. And like all journeys, this one was far from smooth.

My Life On The Road is published by Penguin Random House. Details here.

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