Road Warrior: After fifty years, Gloria Steinem is still at the forefront of the feminist cause.

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Illustration Credit: Photograph by Inez and Vinoodh for The New Yorker

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“I’m an entrepreneur of social change,” Steinem says. “I talk. I write. I tell stories. I want to do justice to the women I meet.”

One day in the fall of 1997, Gloria Steinem was unpacking a carry-on bag that in the course of a few weeks had seen the inside of more airplane overhead bins than most travellers’ do in a year, and, as she tells the story, that was when she knew it was time to write a book about her life on the road, rallying women to the fight for equal rights. Steinem was sixty-three then. She had been travelling for more than thirty years, speaking, advising, fund-raising, organizing, testifying, demonstrating, educating, campaigning, and, in the process, introducing millions of girls and women to the feminist cause—and during that time she had also founded and presided over the magazine Ms., written books, published and edited collections, and, through the Ms. Foundation, which she and three friends of the magazine established, nurtured the talent of generations of younger feminists. But she had never stopped travelling, and she wasn’t about to now, with a road book planned. “I’ve spent more time on the road than not,” she told me this past summer. “It’s been the most important part of my life—and a big antidote to the idea that there is ‘one’ American people.”

Steinem finished the book in February this year, or, as she puts it, “seventeen deadlines late,” and in March she celebrated her eighty-first birthday, with a small dinner cooked by a group of friends. “A relief!” she told me. “My eightieth birthday had gone on for a year. People were starting to think that the movement began with me and, worse, was going to end with me.” It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Steinem’s decennials, marked by her enduringly beautiful face, have been a source of fascination (and huge spikes in feminist fund-raising) since she turned forty and a clueless reporter remarked, by way of a compliment, “Oh, you don’t look forty”—to which she replied, “This is what forty looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” Every ten years since then, that face, with its iconic curtain of long, straight hair falling from a center part, begins to appear on magazine covers, television screens, dorm posters, and even T-shirts: this is what fifty looks like, what sixty looks like, this is seventy. Her eightieth-birthday marathon kicked off with a benefit in Philadelphia, and, while she spent her actual birthday on an elephant in Botswana, she spent the rest of the year “using myself” to promote the cause and the work of other feminists—and to finally finish her book. “I was out of excuses,” she told me. “Embarrassing!”

Toward the end of May, Steinem, her galleys corrected and delivered, boarded a plane to Beijing, where thirty-one peace activists—among them two Nobel laureates—from thirteen countries were gathering to fly to North Korea on a peace mission. Their intention, as Steinem explained it, was to cross the DMZ into South Korea, “standing in” for the Korean women on both sides of a longitudinal line they had been forbidden to cross since the war there ended, in 1953. “We were hoping to walk the entire DMZ, because we were all in white, wearing peace scarves,” she said. “But they put us on a bus instead. While we were still in Beijing, a friend called and asked what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m being a parody of myself.’ True. But I learned an enormous amount—most of all, that those years of isolation and hostility didn’t work. North Korea is the most controlling place I’ve ever been. The day we crossed the DMZ was the longest day of my life. In every way.”

Twelve days later, Steinem was in Vermont, giving the commencement address at Bennington College, and on her way home she e-mailed to say that she was ready for conversation. “I’ve got a slow few weeks—plenty of time to talk,” she said when I joined her that afternoon, in the garden of the Upper East Side brownstone where she has lived since the late sixties, when she was a rent-controlled tenant, and now owns the first two floors. “Well, slow for me,” she added, given that in a few days she would be flying to Alaska to speak to an audience of three thousand at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus.

She had leaped at the invitation. Alaska was the one state she had never visited, and college campuses, she said, had always been “the single largest slice of my travelling pie”—laboratories of social activism and, in the end, social change. Typically, her schedule was packed. Among other things, she would be paying a visit to the city’s “victim-services shelter,” the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, where more than half the residents were Native Alaskan women from isolated settlements, many with their children. She would also be lunching with ten well-heeled white women, who had bid to join her for an “intimate” Fabulous Feminist Fundraiser. And she would be arguing the case for choice at a big Fairbanks co-operative that was under attack from a conservative borough assemblyman for condoning murder by stocking an issue of Ms. with an article about abortion.

“The best part was the shelter, listening to those amazing women,” Steinem told me when she got home. “For them—women in trouble, in need, terrified, beaten, suicidal women, women with kids at risk—the question is where do you go when you’ve got no way to go, no roads, no cars, no way out. The violence rate in Alaska is high, and at first the shelter was secret. Now there’s always a state trooper on guard.”

I asked Steinem what she thought she could do for those women, and she said, “I’m a media worker, in the parlance of the nineteen-thirties. It’s what I do. I’m an entrepreneur of social change. I raise money. I talk. I write. I tell stories. I want to do justice to the women I meet, to tell their stories. There was one young woman who asked me, ‘How do you stand up for yourself when you have no right to stand up for yourself?’ No one had ever told her that she had that right. The first time she tried, her husband had said no, she had no rights. I want to reach women like her.”

Steinem is not a theorist, or even much interested in theory. “Feminist theory came from feminist activism—it wasn’t the other way around,” she said. “I accept that important theorists like Judith Butler may arrive at enlightening conclusions, but theory can be exclusionary, and that’s not my path. My path is to open the door to this house, to get out of the world I know, and to experience new worlds, new voices. It’s making connections, and using myself to listen, because you can’t empower women without listening to their stories. It’s why I was going to call my book ‘America—As If Everyone Matters.’ I liked that title—the irony in it—but I changed my mind after three black women founded the group Black Lives Matter. I didn’t want to detract from that powerful name or to suggest in any way that my ‘irony’ was a comment on it. Somebody at the publisher’s suggested ‘Memoir.’ I thought, That’s such an élite word. Wrong! Finally, we settled on ‘My Life on the Road.’ ” (Steinem, who doesn’t drive, says, “Well, not quite ‘on,’ more like ‘above.’ ”) It comes out this month.

Steinem has a mantra that she says she lives by. She calls it “Ask the Turtle,” because it involves a turtle she rescued—or thought she had—on a geology-class field trip to the Connecticut River Valley in the spring of her freshman year at Smith. “I found a mud turtle on the riverbank, up by the asphalt road,” she told me. “A big snapping turtle, more than a foot long, but I picked it up—carefully—and lugged it down to the river and slipped it in. The professor saw me just as the turtle disappeared in the water. He said that the turtle had been making its way to dry land for a reason—in order to lay its eggs—and that now it was going to take that turtle months more to lay them. It was a lesson I learned to apply to people a few years later, in India—though I didn’t realize it then—when I was going from village to village with Gandhian women organizers, listening to them ask, ‘Tell us your stories. You’ve lived them, you’re the experts.’ ”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jane Kramer has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1964 and has written the Letter from Europe since 1981.

Before joining the magazine, Kramer was a staff writer for the Village Voice; her first book, “Off Washington Square,” is a collection of her articles from that paper. Her first long pieces for The New Yorker became the books “Allen Ginsberg in America” (1969) and “Honor to the Bride” (1970), which was based on her experiences in Morocco in the late nineteen-sixties.

Since 1970, most of Kramer’s work for the magazine has covered aspects of European culture, politics, and social history. Many of these articles have been collected in three books: “Unsettling Europe” (1980); “Europeans” (1988), which won the Prix Européen de l’Essai “Charles Veillon” and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction; and “The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany” (1996).

A notable exception to Kramer’s European reporting was her Profile, from 1977, of the pseudonymous Texan Henry Blanton. It was later published as a book, “The Last Cowboy” (1977), which won the American Book Award for nonfiction. Parts of her book “Lone Patriot” (2002), on the right-wing American militia leader John Pitner, also first appeared in the magazine. Her article on multiculturalism and political correctness, “Whose Art Is It?,” won the 1993 National Magazine Award for feature writing and was published as a book, in 1994.

Her most recent book, “The Reporter’s Kitchen,” (2017) is a collection of her food writing for The New Yorker.

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