My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

BIG NEWS! Except not really big. And not really new. As I announced on Instagram about a month ago I have decided to join Emma Watson‘s feminist book club called «Our Shared Shelf» on Goodreads. My reason number one for joining is that it‘s Emma friggin‘ Watson, and basically if Hermione Granger opened a book club I‘d join without hesitation. But I also figured that I don‘t really know anything about feminism. I can see why women would need it in, say, Saudi-Arabia, but I have never really thought about why feminism might also be important to me personally. So reading a book about it every month might really be an eye opener.

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Last month‘s book was called My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. It was a bit hard to get by which is why I finished reading it a little later than originally planned. There is a huge discussion board on Goodreads, but I‘m usually so busy that I can‘t really take the time to actively participate in the discussions; however, I decided to read through some of the arguments and put them on my blog. If anyone still wants to discuss certain aspects or opinions, please feel free to do so in the comment section. 🙂

First of all, the blurb:

«Gloria Steinem had an itinerant childhood. Every fall, her father would pack the family into the car and they would drive across the country, in search of their next adventure. The seeds were planted: Steinem would spend much of her life on the road, as a journalist, organizer, activist, and speaker. In vivid stories that span an entire career, Steinem writes about her time on the campaign trail, from Bobby Kennedy to Hillary Clinton; her early exposure to social activism in India; organizing ground-up movements in America; the taxi drivers who were “vectors   of modern myths” and the airline stewardesses who embraced feminism; and the infinite contrasts, the “surrealism in everyday life” that Steinem encountered as she travelled back and forth across the country. With the unique perspective of one of the greatest feminist icons of the 20th and 21st centuries, here is an inspiring, profound, enlightening memoir of one woman’s life-long journey.»

To me, one of the first and most important aspects of feminism that Gloria Steinem mentions is that of a functional community that listens to the needs of others. Or as she puts it:

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This doesn‘t just count for women but really for people in general. Women are just one group that is or was being oppressed, depending on region and culture. So feminism is about injustice being heard. And not just that – she states right in the beginning that helping somebody, be it women, men or children, you have to go about understanding them and their situation, every aspect of it:

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This can not be stressed enough. Steinem later tells the story of how she once tried to save a turtle by putting it back in the sea. Her teacher then explained to her that this turtle had just spent weeks crawling up the beach to lay its eggs – now it would have to start over. Her conclusion:

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To me that means that we can‘t, for example, just tell women in the Middle East to stop obeying their husbands. I, at least, am in no way entitled to do that. I know very little of their culture and I can not possibly fathom the outcome of such protest. Wouldn‘t everyone agree that Malala is a feminist? Yet, she wears a headscarf, just like millions of women do, and our western society tries to tell them that this is sexist and limits them in their freedom. How many women have we asked? Sure, they should be able to decide for themselves, and many aren‘t allowed to make such decisions – but unless someone from their own culture takes her headscarf off as an act of female liberation, many women will not even want that «freedom.» And I certainly have no say in it. Scrolling through Goodreads I found a few interesting comments on the topic and I take the liberty to quote them here (since Goodreads is a public sphere already):

«As a domestic violence survivor a friend of a friend used to try to help me by being mean to my abuser after we broke up. Nothing could have bothered me more than that because I felt that I had sacrificed years of my life to make him happy and someone making him miserable now was not a comfort to me, but even when I told her that she kept doing it. I loved this story because it reminded me of that and it gave me a way to remember that I have to make sure I’m doing the right thing for others.»

«I’m Mexican, which means my darker skin gives me away whenever I go on vacations to the US, and something that gets to me every time is the condescending looks people give me. People constantly talk to me slowly, as if I was stupid, when they don’t know that I’ve studied English ever since I was two years old. And when I reply with good English they look surprised, it’s insulting. As Latins we are constantly misrepresented as illiterate, lazy or even stupid. And even when I know I am privileged, it bothers me that people think they can put an entire nation down just because of the stereotypes they are bombarded with.»

That actually leads to another thread that I never even considered a part of the feminist movement: race. This certainly has a lot to do with the fact that I live in Switzerland where racism, although prominently existant, is not to be compared with racism in the United States. I never realised the obvious fact that black women in a white world would struggle twice as hard as their male counterparts – once because of the colour of their skin and the discrimination they had or have to face because of that, and twice because of their feminity that would discriminate them in both black and white cultures. I always think that stating somebody‘s skin colour is in itself a racist act – why should I care whether that girl next door has brown or white or purple skin?! But Steinem made me realise that in certain contexts it‘s an essential piece of information. Not because it necessarily says something about the person, but it says a lot about the society around them.

The author naturally also takes into account Native American societies. What I didn‘t know either was that gender roles aren‘t simply a given. They have changed throughout history and gender equality was a given in certain cultures. Steinem quotes Paula Gunn Allen:

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There is an incredible amount of topics Golria Steinem touches and discusses in her work and it‘s simply not possible to spread them out in a single blog post. I believe that the most essential thing I have learned so far is that feminism equals the fight for human rights. This doesn‘t come as a surprise, but feminism as a word has become more of an insult than the definition of an activist movement. It does not consider simple aspects of human rights such as a woman‘s control over her own body or the male rape victims or domestic violence. One very interesting opinion of Gloria Steinem‘s is the following:

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It‘s such an interesting thought that human rights would start with the fair treatment of women. I‘m not sure I entirely agree, and this quote will definitely have to be put in context. But it is certainly a thought I‘ll keep taking into account and that I might come back to on this blog as well.

My Life on the Road is a very moving and interesting read; I think I agree on almost everything Gloria Steinem has to say. She is definitely not a man hating, non-shaving women‘s libber that so many of my gender fear to be or seen as (and if you are, then good on you! There‘s nothing wrong with that either. Except, don‘t hate men. Don‘t hate, ‘k?)

I definitely recommend this book, even, and especially, if you don‘t consider yourself a feminist!

Lots of love from the roots of my heart!
xxx

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