At the start of the year, Emma Watson launched an online feminist book club as part of her work for UN Women. Every month, she's encouraging people around the world to join her in reading a feminist piece of fiction or non-fiction and discussing it on Goodreads. January's book was feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem's 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road
As it's currently February 10th, I'm obviously a little behind. And now is an odd time to be discussing Gloria Steinem, thanks to the furor over her recent comments about the Democrat primary elections. But I always meant to write about my own reactions to these books (some of which I may have read before, many of which I assume will be new to me), and My Life on the Road was a fantastic place to start.
In My Life on the Road, Steinem presents herself as an organizer, bringing others together throughout her life to talk and initiate change, whether it's on a college campus level or a US government level. The book's main point is the important of "talking circles" -- discussions where everyone is encouraged to contribute, and where the people most affected by issues can have their voices heard and suggest their own solutions. It's a book about the need for communication and community -- and what could be more relevant to a new online feminist bookclub, hoping to bring people around the globe together to discuss feminist issues?
The feminism of the 1960s and 70s isn't exactly renowned for its intersectionality. The "white feminist" moniker arose from this tendency for white women, who suffer from less discrimination than women of color, to throw others under the metaphorical bus in order to promote their own rights. At best, it's a feminism that's ignorant about the ways that intersecting prejudices can affect women in different ways. At worst, it's a feminism that only cares about rights that personally affect the person speaking. It is, perhaps, "lazy" feminism -- one that fights against the mildest form of discrimination possible and wants to find a one-size-fits-all solution to all problems.
My Life on the Road discusses intersectionality a lot. Steinem's main point, demonstrated again and again in the book, is that you should always listen to what people have to say about their own experiences, and that the ones facing a problem are the ones who can provide the best solution. She frequently discusses the ways that different prejudices can intersect and compound, and as a feminist whose speaking and writing partners have included Alice Walker, Flo Kennedy and the first modern-day female Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller, she's certainly not had chance to take a "feminism for white women only" stance.
But as this is a memoir, it's inescapable that these are the thoughts and experiences of a white woman. She discusses intersectionality extensively, but she does so from the perspective of a white woman learning about her relative privilege, and although in one way it's helpful to see a leading feminist discuss this growth, I think it's also potentially alienating.
In one paragraph, for example, she comments that "when humans are ranked instead of linked, everybody loses," and discusses how she and other white women are losing out because of racism. While it's true that society does lose out because of racism, this focus on white people and how racism might affect them really seemed to mark the book as one for white readers to me. It probably is necessary to address discussions of intersectionality to white people specifically, but I did find it slightly jarring in a book that otherwise seemed to make an effort to be about feminism for everybody.
Either way, that growth is part of Steinem's narrative. When talking about the March on Washington, for instance, she comments that she never noticed the absence of women speakers until an older woman beside her pointed it out, and that the way that racism intersects with feminism, for example the racist reasons people might wish to control women's bodies, had never occurred to her, again until the same older black woman told her.
The book's main message, then, is that we should listen to people. We can only understand prejudice by hearing the words of those who have faced it, and we can only fight it by letting people speak for themselves about the solutions they need.
Other discussions of Steinem's growth were more universally inspiring. I particularly appreciated her honest discussion of the discrimination she's faced as a female writer, and her stories not just about how she handled it, but also how she didn't handle it. There's something empowering about reading how she faced these problems, how she could sit in a cab with people saying she's this year's "pretty girl pretending to be a writer," and not react at all, do nothing, because she didn't know what to do. How she could then beat herself up for not pointing out their rudeness or arguing back. I think many people have been paralyzed in the face of discrimination or dismissal, and sometimes that apparent failure to defend oneself feels even more painful and even more of a betrayal than the discrimination itself. We want to imagine ourselves as people who would have acted, and it's good to read that, hey, even Gloria Steinem herself didn't know how to react some of the time.
I was similarly inspired by how she spoke about her great fear of public speaking, and how she gradually (but only gradually) worked past it. I think it can be easy to classify all these great speakers as people who came to it naturally, who always felt comfortable speaking in front of groups, and this firm proof of the opposite can only encourage those of us who feel terrified of opening our mouths to speak in public. Of course, Steinem seems like someone who easily talks to others in informal settings, and can draw stories out of anybody, and even the idea of that is terrifying to someone like me. But she is inspiring to try.
Another of my favorite elements of this book was Steinem's discussion of erased history. As she quotes from Paula Gunn Allen, "the root of oppression is the loss of memory." It's depriving people of the knowledge that things have ever been different, or that people like them have ever achieved things worth discussing. We're frequently told that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but the argument here is more than those who forget their history struggle to recreate it. If we have a narrative of constant improvement, where women's rights were initially non-existent and have got better and better over the centuries, we have no reference for other, better ways of doing things. If we have no stories about the great things that past women have achieved, it's easier to believe the lies that we are not capable of achieving those things. As Steinem says, "no wonder studies show that women's intellectual self-esteem tends to go down as years of education go up. We have been studying our own absence."
A couple of elements also resonated with me as a blogger. Early in the memoir, she mentions how Flo Kennedy reacted to Steinem's young self's instinct to try and prove the existence of discrimination with statistics: "If you're lying in the ditch with a truck on your ankle, you don't send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!" I frequently try to cite statistics when discussing issues on this blog, but it really made me think more about that. Are people who don't believe in discrimination really going to be swayed by statistics? Do statistics really capture the heart of what's going on? No. Experience matters.
Altogether, it felt like the perfect book to begin a year of reading and discussion. Not only is Steinem's book immensely readable and full of enjoyable anecdotes, but it also seems immensely fitting to learn about the importance of Talking Circles to the growth of second wave feminism while starting a huge international talking circle of our own.
(NB: I have reached my limit of discussions of the Democrat primary race, and it's only early February. There are lots of discussions to be had about the elections, and about what Gloria Steinem said on Bill Maher, but please let's not have them here unless it is directly related to this book. Thanks!)