Friday, February 12, 2016

On the Road with Gloria Steinem

I just finished reading Gloria Steinem's memoir, My Life on the Road. It brings me full circle to my days teaching women's history at the University of Toledo. It was the first women studies course at UT and among the first in NW Ohio at the time. There weren't many resources available in the mid-1970s, and not much scholarship. Nor had I had any women's history courses at Wisconsin (they didn't have them), or any women professors for that matter. I was one of a handful of female graduate students in history, kind of a rare bird, when I arrived in Madison in 1962.

So even though I was out of my comfort zone, I enjoyed the challenge of putting the women's history course together from scratch. I learned as I went, class by class, along with my students, who were patient and kind, always curious and fantastic, everyone of them.

I admired Steinem's work as a journalist, feminist, and founder of MS magazine. My students liked talking about the efforts of the emerging modern women's movement in the context of our history.  It was really a rebirth.  In what way? What was the same, what was different?

We would have had some great discussions of My Life on the Road, because
Steinem's book focuses on her role as a writer and an organizer "in the great tradition of abolitionists and suffagists who traveled by horse-drawn carriage and train to meetings in parlors, townhall, churches, school houses, granges, and barns." (p.136)

Steinem knows her women's history.  We explored that very tradition thoughtfully and thoroughly in class, with the help of our main text, Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle. It is still one of the best histories ever, by the way, and I wish every college student and every U.S. citizen would read it.

Steinem's memoir picks up the unfinished story of the women's movement of the 1960s, like the threads of a multicolored quilt.  In a wide-ranging narrative that intertwines her own story with her commitment to equality, Steinem highlights the importance of the modern movement for a generation that has forgotten its history.  The rebirth of feminism, like the early 19th-century women's rights movement from which it sprang, had many layers, many points of view, many disagreements over tactics and strategies, some failures, many triumphs. Steinem's experiences and views give us new insights into the nature and significance of the ongoing struggle for women's rights and against patriarchal privilege.

I wasn't aware, for example, that Steinem's life on the road encompassed so many multicultural adventures, beginning with time in India as a recent college graduate; extensive work with working women and women of color; and incredible efforts, especially the 1977 Houston Women's Convention, to push issues of gender, class, ethnicity and race across the land. These, I learned, were her top priorities and are her greatest accomplishments.

Steinem's My Life On the Road adds to some classic women's history books. 
My women's history course at UT ended in 1985, when I moved to Washington, DC.  At that time Steinem was leading the pioneering MS Magazine.  She campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first introduced in Congress by the intrepid Alice Paul in 1923, and for equal pay for equal work, first introduced by working women in the early 20th century. She also continued the efforts begun in Houston for a more inclusive women's rights movement.

At the time that meant challenging Betty Friedan's emphasis on white suburban women. I admit to feeling uncomfortable at Friedan's attacking style. Friedan was such a heroine to me and my generation of women on the cusp of the 1950s and '60s. The Feminine Mystique (1963) is still a classic, especially in the philosophical tradition that framed the arguments for women's rights.  And the founding of NOW (the National Organization for Women) ranks right up there with Susan B. Anthony's and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's founding of the National Women's Suffrage Association in 1869.  But Friedan found it hard to support efforts to open wide the tent of women's rights. Maybe this is why, when I would meet her in Washington on various occasions or at the home of mutual friends, she was withdrawn and unfriendly. Too many battle scars, perhaps. I longed to have a conversation with her, but she was unapproachable.  It never happened.

Steinem talks about the conflict in the women's movement with some admirable restraint as well as pride for her role in forcing the issue.  Her work on behalf of the American Indian and Alaskan Native Caucus at the Houston conference, incredibly moving as she tells it, had a profound impact on her.  "For me it was a glimpse of a way of life in which the circle, not a hierarchy, was the goal." It was natural, she writes, that the caucus should call on "Mother Earth and the Great Spirit" to honor women's efforts to fight for equality and justice for all people.

The divisions in the modern movement that Steinem describes reminded me of those in the women's suffrage movement 100 years earlier, right after the Civil War. Then the great schism occured over the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting former slaves the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the first to lash out at the wording, which included the word "male."   If passed, they immediately saw, the amendment would give former male slaves the vote but keep black women disenfranchised along with all women. It would, moreover, require a FEDERAL amendment to get the word male out of the Constitution.  Visions of the enormous effort it would require, and the decades it would take, pushed Stanton and Anthony, who had done plenty of grassroots campaigning for women's legal rights, to the wall. Their timing was off, most women abolitionists like Lucy Stone and Lucretia Mott, supported the amendment, but their fears and gloomy forecasts were right.

The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote didn't pass until 1920, a furious struggle to the very last Congressional vote and the very last state to ratify it. Carrie Catt, the brilliant strategist and leader of the National American Women's Suffrage Association who led the final battle, summed it up:
"To get the world 'male' out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-years of pauseless campaign....During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit sufferage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses." (quoted in Flexner, p. 165)
Anyone who has done this kind of political work will know what an enormous effort it was. Steinem is one of them.  She took up the mantle where the early suffragists, exhausted from their labors,  left off, fighting step by step, inch by inch, as they did, to complete the broad women's agenda formulated by the courageous women of Seneca Falls in 1848.

As Steinem reflects on her life at the end of the book, she recalls the native American women who served on the board of the MS foundation and continued to inform and inspire her life work.   "Feminism is memory," Rayna Green, Cherokee folklorist and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, believed. "The root of oppression is the loss of memory."  It's a lesson we need to hear today, and a lesson for the future.

Life on the Road is more than personal history. It is women's history. It is American history. 
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