My Life on the Road

Several times in her most recent memoir, My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem admits her affinity for cultures that organize themselves circularly, rather than linearly. Beginning with her time living in India, reemphasized by her abiding friendship with Wilma Mankiller (first female chief elected by the Cherokee Nation), and continuing to the present, Steinem describes the meaningfulness of a circular paradigm to her way of thinking, a paradigm that links rather than ranks. She writes that she found herself “in a welcoming world. Like putting one’s foot down for a steep stair and discovering level ground.”

She doesn’t acknowledge the fact that she has organized My Life on the Road in just such a way, but that design seemed obvious to me. Steinem draws concentric circles in each chapter, as if she were casting pebbles in a mirror pond and then sharing the multiple stories each ring recalls. Her chapters are thematic, although she opens with her childhood and then moves on to revisit the two years she spent in India soon after graduating from college. After that, however, My Life on the Road meanders from topic to topic, each theme reinforced by a series of vignettes drawn from the decades of her life on the road.

“Why I Don’t Drive” tells of cab drivers met in big cities and stewardesses encountered in the air. “One Big Campus” remembers the colleges visited throughout her years as an organizer and political figure. “When the Political Is Personal” is filled with political anecdotes, some charming and others unfortunately revealing. “Surrealism in Everyday Life” pictures a “That Was the Week that Was” sort of craziness, nonsensically wise and true.Then Steinem returns to overt circularity, emphasizing what she has learned through the years from cultures not her own, especially embracing Native American activism and faith.

This overview does not do justice to the depth and breadth of My Life on the Road. To read this memoir is to travel alongside Steinem through countless days and nights of organizing for social justice, of meeting fascinating men and women, of embarking on one journey and unexpectedly veering off on another. Of course it’s fun to learn Steinem’s assessment of public figures, but it is equally rewarding to hear the stories of ordinary people, their voices brought to life by Steinem’s insistence on their potency.

In sum, Steinem’s life on the road is not about getting from point A to point B. Rather, it is all about circling around and around an issue, whether it’s political, social, practical, or philosophical. From the Viet Nam war to the Iraq invasion, from the politicizing of women’s equality to our rights to control our own bodies, from the tedium of community organizing to the magic of the moments when human lives intersect, each vignette and each concentric ring add depth and resonance to Steinem’s recollections.

For anyone who wants to revisit the themes important from the 1960s to the present, My Life on the Road is not to be missed. Writing with words and stories that are optimistic, positive, often heart-warming and never despairing, Gloria Steinem succeeds in narrating the circles of her life on the road in ways that are always entertaining, always thought-provoking, always moving, always centering. As she enters her eighties, Steinem’s life indeed has come full circle.  – Ann Ronald

Also available by Gloria Steinem: Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions; Marilyn: Norma Jean; Revolution from Within; Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles; Breaking the Boundaries of Gender; Wonder Woman, Featuring over Five Decades of Great Covers; Doing Sixty and Seventy.

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