An evening with Gloria Steinem
Waterstones, Manchester (23.02.16)
The saying “once in a lifetime” tends to be exaggerated and overused, but this week I attended a genuine once in a lifetime event. Thanks to the Manchester Literature Festival, I got to listen to legendary activist and writer Gloria Steinem speak at the Deansgate Waterstones store. Gloria recently released her memoir My Life on the Road, in which she talks about her childhood, her travels and her career. Last night she provided further insights into her book and shared many words of wisdom with the audience. I couldn’t possibly include everything in one blog post because it’d quickly turn into an essay, so here are some of the highlights of the evening.
Gloria discussed many of the topics she writes about in her book, starting with her father’s migratory lifestyle and the huge impact it had on her (she said her friends had to stage an intervention to stop her from living out of boxes and suitcases). She has spent decades of her life travelling, and it’s taken her most of this time to find a balance between home and the road. In her opinion, there’s a part of humans that misses the nomadic lifestyle our ancestors once led.
She touched upon the relationship she had with her mother, which was affected by her mother’s illness. Caring for her mother was a significant point in her youth, and she revealed that one of the reasons she didn’t want children of her own is because she found it terrifying to have that level of responsibility for another human being. At the time, she didn’t appreciate that her mother was a pioneer for women, having been a writer herself. Like many women, Gloria’s mother had to give up on her career early. She said, “We look at female fate and think it’s a personal fault,” referring to the expectation of women to devote their lives to marriage and motherhood as opposed to education and professional development.
“The women’s movement isn’t separate from everything else; it’s connected to everything else”
In her early career, Gloria was undermined by condescending male peers (something most women can relate to) and she explained how she couldn’t always write about the things she wanted to, as topics such as politics were typically assigned to male writers. It took a lot of time to be taken seriously as a journalist and for a while she was the token ‘girl writer.’ Rachel Cooke, the host of the event, asked Gloria if she felt she had to be grateful for even getting writing jobs at all. She said women are afflicted with “terminal gratitude” and a lot of people in the audience nodded in agreement. As much as I’d like to think most workplaces have improved since the 1960s and 70s, it seems that a lot of women still feel the need to be grateful and politely accept the bare minimum instead of being assertive.
Bringing the conversation to a current topic, Rachel asked Gloria about abortion in the USA and whether we’re going forwards or backwards in terms of reproductive freedom. Gloria has campaigned long and hard for reproductive freedom in America and had an abortion when she was younger – My Life on the Road is dedicated to the doctor who performed it. In reply, she spoke at length about how the illegality of abortion is another way for women’s bodies to be controlled and regulated, as well as exploring the many forms of violence against women (including domestic violence, sexualised violence in warzones and trafficking).
When asked “Will Hillary Clinton be the next president?” Gloria heartily replied, “Hillary Clinton has to be the next president!” which gained a few cheers from the audience. She talked about the hostility surrounding Hillary in the USA, attributing it to the idea that female authority figures remind many people of childhood. She argued that because female authority outside of the home is becoming more prevalent, there will be less backlash against women in powerful positions in the future. She added – “Besides, it’s not about one woman getting a job; it’s about improving life for all women.” Amen to that.
There were several interesting questions and responses from the audience after the conversation ended, from the ageism that particularly affects women and the job feminism has to do to incorporate the needs of non-binary and transgender people.
One audience member asked for advice on activism, and Gloria encouraged people to follow their instincts about fixing what they feel needs fixing. She gave some wonderful advice about this, saying “Change grows from the bottom up”, and although it may be hard to change things at times, not doing it is much harder.
Of course, the age-old question “Can women have it all?” came up when an audience member was unsure how to advise her teenage daughter about the future. “We should have it all”, Gloria said, but she insisted this won’t happen until childcare is divided fairly between men and women. She stressed the importance of setting a good example for young women, stating that “People do what they see more than what they’re told” – therefore it’s important to stop criticising ourselves in front of young women as they’ll learn this behaviour too.
Another member of the audience raised the issue of creating unity between women on a global level, speaking about women throughout the world being compared to each another in a negative way. This ended the evening on a positive note; women certainly have a shared responsibility to create this unity by sharing stories, common experiences and learning from each other to move forwards.
Gloria is an intriguing, witty and funny character and I feel lucky to have seen such an influential person speak in the flesh. I liked that she encouraged everyone there to make friends and emphasised how free she’s felt since she turned 50. I now regret buying the electronic version of My Life on the Road as it would have been great to meet her and get a signed book. For those who haven’t read the book, I seriously recommend that you do!
Please feel free to share responses to/opinions about any of the issues mentioned here – I’d love to hear some thoughts.