Long before Jennifer Lawrence got mad at herself for failing to negotiate pay equal to that of her male co-stars, Gloria Steinem observed that a woman has two choices: “Either she’s a feminist or a masochist.” (Republican women, Steinem likes to say, consistently fall into the “masochist” category by voting against their own self-interest.) Long before Sheryl Sandberg suggested men pick up the slack at home so women can lean in at work, Steinem pointed out, “Women aren’t going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.” In fact, there is little mainstream liberal feminists say today that wasn’t incisively articulated by Gloria Steinem decades ago. Steinem turned 81 this year—more the grandmother than the mother of feminism—but we haven’t outgrown her. We haven’t even finished growing into her.
When Steinem graduated from college in 1956, “feminism” in America mainly referred to the finite struggle of 19th and early 20th century suffragettes to secure the vote, a movement that was by then triumphant and defunct. What makes someone into a feminist in an age bereft of them? The come-to-consciousness moment might have happened in her student days—for instance, when she asked an admissions officer why her class didn’t have any black girls and he responded, “We have to be very careful about educating Negro girls because there aren’t enough educated Negro men to go around.” It might have come later when she was trying to make it as a journalist in New York: “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer?” she heard a colleague remark, as though she wasn’t there. “Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” In 1963, a 29-year-old Steinem put her “pretty girl” status to clever use, going undercover as a Playboy bunny in New York’s Playboy club. The exposé she published was hilarious and scathing: “’Please, sir,’ I said, and uttered the ritual sentence we had learned from the Bunny Father lecture: ‘You are not allowed to touch the Bunnies.’ His companions laughed and laughed. ‘Boy oh boy, guess she told you!’ said one, and tweaked my tail as I walked away.” By then, it seems safe to say, Steinem’s feminist wheels were in motion.
It is tempting to search for a leader’s ideological awakening, but the moment of recognition, even when it is distinct, is primed by the accumulated heap of moments before. In her newly published memoir, My Life on the Road, Steinem has her own way of saying this: She was made by her endless restlessness, her experiences on the road. At a glance, it sounds trite, but this isn’t the enthusiasm of your average millennial for “travel, adventure, and new experiences.” Steinem has spent her life traveling in a radical way. It started when she was young, with her father hauling his family back and forth across the country, selling antiques from their trailer. It continued through her adult life of writing, campaigning, organizing, and protesting. At one point, after two decades of traveling as a feminist organizer, she realized the longest stretch she’d spent at home was eight days. Steinem is a kind of modern nomad calling readers to the road or, at least, to an on-the-road state of mind: “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,” she writes. “It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
There is something undeniably romantic about Steinem’s itinerant way of life; she’s the female variant of Jack Kerouac, the happy alternative to Thelma and Louise’s doomed road trip—driven by a love of adventure but also a profound and ultimately successful political mission. For many people, it’s hard to imagine cobbling together such a haphazard living. The daughter of a man who was constantly in debt, Steinem loathed to borrow money. She made her way with speaking fees, writing, foundation funding, odd jobs, and savings. After college, she delayed getting a real job by moving to India on a fellowship to help village women organize against injustice, from the sale of low-caste girls to sectarian violence. When a part-time editing job in New York demanded that she spend two days a week in the office, she quit and bought an ice cream cone. Steinem became semi-addicted to this mix of insecurity and freedom, something she seems to have inherited from her father who, she writes, had an extreme case of horreur du domicile.
If Steinem’s lifestyle was unconventional, even insubordinate, it was also in some sense deeply American. She was driven by a tenacious belief in progress and self-improvement—for both individual women and society as a whole. Unlike the journeys of America’s early pioneers, her movement wasn’t directed toward a geographical end goal but a social, economic, and political one. Still, they share that peculiarly American brew of optimism, independence, and self-reliance. Steinem’s father captured it well: “If I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” he liked to say, “it could be wonderful!”
What was un-American, certainly for Steinem’s generation, was that a woman would live like this. The road, she points out, has been “overwhelmingly masculine turf.” For most of history, men were encouraged to set out, Odysseus-like, on adventures and identity quests; women, ever the tapestry-weaving Penelopes, to cling to hearth and home. She recalls noticing as a child that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz spends all her time trying to get home to Kansas. The women’s movement opened the road to American women, but in much of the world today, a woman traveling without a male guardian remains a radical act. The irony is that women are actually in more danger at home than on the road: “Whether by dowry murders in India, honor killings in Egypt, or domestic violence in the United States,” Steinem writes, “records show that women are most likely to be beaten or killed at home and by men they know.” The self-willed journey, routine for men, is still revolutionary for women.
Indeed, it seems unlikely that Steinem would have to come to organize and lead the women’s movement as she did if not for her insistent wandering. She found her political calling indirectly, by following stories and causes, especially other equality movements. In India, she studied Gandhi’s tactics and witnessed the power of village “talking circles” as a mode of building trust and consensus for social change.
When Steinem returned to the U.S., she discovered the wave of talking circles in black churches and communities that would give birth to the civil rights movement. While feminist leaders like Betty Friedan wanted to focus on only white, straight, educated women, Steinem saw from the start that a movement for gender equality had to embrace women of all classes, races, and orientations. During the March on Washington in 1963, Steinem found herself next to a black woman who pointed out that there was only one woman on the speakers’ platform and she hadn’t even been asked to speak. “Where is Ella Baker?” Mrs. Greene wondered. “She trained all those SNCC young people. What about Fannie Lou Hammer? She got beaten up in jail and sterilized in a Mississippi hospital when she went in for something else entirely. That’s what happens—we’re supposed to give birth to field hands when they need them, and not when they don’t.” Steinem had never before considered the racial dimensions of patriarchal control. “I felt some gear click into place in my mind,” she writes. “It was like India, where high-caste women were restricted and women at the bottom were exploited.” For Steinem, it became clear that all systems of hierarchy and oppression were interrelated; sexism and racism had to be uprooted together.
In 1969, she published her article, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” in New York magazine and the speaking requests started rolling in. So began the next phase of Steinem’s wandering—an endless sequence of feminist conferences and protests, campus meetings, fundraising, campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment, and presidential campaigns for progressive leaders. Her activism intersected with the movement to end the Vietnam War, with gay and lesbian movements, even with the Native American movement to end the obliteration of native languages and cultures. Whenever she spoke, she insisted that a black woman speak with her. But her talks always went two ways: Steinem strived to imitate the grassroots political organization she witnessed in India. Her job, as she saw it, was to “create a context in which audiences themselves could become one big talking circle and discover they were neither crazy nor alone in their experiences of unfairness.”
What does Steinem make of feminism today? Gender equality and racial justice in business and political spheres are advancing at a glacial pace. Abortion clinics are shutting down across the country. From equal pay to the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood, the Republican Party continues its assault on women’s full empowerment. “There is so much out there,” Steinem concludes, “to do and say and listen to.” Disappointingly, she doesn’t elaborate on this, leaving us to guess at where she thinks her legacy stands.
This remarkable history of political fervor and mobilization raises the question: Why didn’t Steinem ever run for political office herself? She claims never to have been tempted. The preference is emblematic of her disdain for hierarchy and her belief in bottom-up social change. Steinem took pleasure from the work of organizing and campaigning, the process, the journey, the consciousness-raising: “Campaign season,” she writes, “is the only time of public debate about what we want for the future. It can change consciousness even more than who gets elected.” In her little group of traveling activists, stopping in living rooms and community centers and school gyms, she feels a connection to earlier generations of social changers—the abolitionists and suffragists who took it upon themselves to carry the nation forward. This, too, is very American—democracy as a daily practice, a way of life. In an age of low voter turnout and an emphasis on the political spectacle rather than the schlepping, it’s hard to fathom this kind of commitment to the slow, pain-staking work of grassroots change.
Steinem’s memoir is a hymn to process, to the characters, moments, and insights of the journey. Perhaps the most powerful moment she offers is the one that made the rest possible: In 1957, 22-year-old Steinem stopped in London on her way to India. Knowing only that she had “broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate,” a sympathetic doctor referred her for an illegal abortion—on two conditions: “First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.” Steinem dedicates her book to him.
Correction: This article originally stated that Gloria Steinem was 80. In fact, Steinem turned 81 this year.