July 06, 2016

Gloria Steinem: not the Queen of the Auckland Writers Festival

Photo Annie Leibovitz

She could have been the Queen of the Festival. She was the first guest whose session sold out. She had the royal touch, mothers lining up to get copies of her book signed for their baby daughters, in a modern version of the laying on of the hands. She was the only guest to have an interviewer summoned from across the seas (Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley) (not sure why, actually). She had the raiment - that leather jacket!

But here was the thing. She didn’t want to be Queen. She was not here to represent or embody anything. She was here to share some stories about her life, from the many in her book My life on the road. But no nostalgia! ”There’s something about being part of a movement and being on the road that forces you to live in the present -- which is where we should live.”

Nick Barley led her through the salient points in the book. They talked about her parents, her father who treated her as an adult even when she was little “and I’m very grateful to him”, and her mother, who had been a pioneering journalist but had given up her career in those days when no one thought you could have it all, not before having been diagnosed with “anxiety neuroses”. Steinem's stories of them were, for me and I think for many readers, the most touching in the book. They split up when she was only 11.

She never again felt she really had a home. As soon as she was out of school she took off for India. She told herself she was attracted for the theosophy aspect (her mother was a theosophist), “but really… I was escaping”.

In the Indian villages she discovered "talking circles". People would come out of their houses in the evening and sit together around a kerosene lamp to talk about the terrible experiences they shared, trying to sort out the truth and break the cycle.

We got the first taste of her wicked sense of humour. She recalled that many years later the women's movement developed their own form of talking circles -- consciousness raising groups.

"I’m sure a lot of women here remember those, now we call them book clubs.”

Back in the US, her time in India having helped her skive the suburban ideal she had firsthand reasons to distrust, Steinem began working in journalism. And here of course we came to her notorious turn as a Playboy bunny, somewhat misleadingly described in the Festival programme blurb as “She was famously a Playboy bunny, but one who wrote a magazine article entitled “A Bunny’s Tale”, revealing the exploitative working conditions bunnies endured”. She was a journalist, and Show magazine assigned her to write a story about the Playboy Clubs, with the idea she would go undercover as a bunny for a couple of weeks. She wasn't enthusiastic about it, but it was “the kind of assignment I would get”-- which tells you something about the times.

She had thought that it might at least be somewhat glamorous, but she was being set straight on that before even being fitted for her bunny suit. At the job interview she told the woman she was a secretary, and the reply came back: “Honey, if you can type you don’t want to work here”.

The article, which you can and should read online in the New York University Digital Library, made her famous but, she tells us, "It was a bad career move". Being an ex-bunny became the thing she was most known for, despite it being her least favoured characterisation. "At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. People say "What does she know? She was a bunny".

But there was some satisfaction. The gynaecological exam for aspiring bunnies which she blew the whistle on was discontinued soon after her article came out. And in her 1983 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she pointed out "My exposé of working in a Playboy Club has outlived all the Playboy Clubs, both here and abroad."

Nick Barley asks a question about Ms magazine which I miss because I’m so stupefied by having heard him call it “Miss Magazine” and asking myself if this could be just an accent thing (I'm still not sure), and then asks her about the historic 1977 conference in Houston on women’s issues, 20,000 women in attendance, their delegates busy drawing up an action plan to submit to the US Congress (the conference was actually sponsored by the US Government).

It’s depressing of course to think how few of their planks have been achieved, and how many of those achieved are nonetheless still threatened (however, as I write this, the US Supreme Court has just blown away attempts by the state of Texas to deny women the reproductive rights the US government has ruled are theirs), but Gloria Steinem hadn’t written a book, and come here to talk to us, just to be our institutional memory, or Cassandra, or whatever.

She talked about the women at the conference, about the Native American women she had gotten to know there, how she had learned so many fascinating things about early Native American history from them. Because, and this is pure Gloria, “We don’t study history from when it started, we study it from when monarchy, patriotism and patriarchy and the other bullshit started”.

About patriarchy, Gloria... Gloria had no hesitation. “It’s about controlling reproduction -- that’s what it’s all about”.

The perfect lead-in for Nick Barley to call our attention to the dedication in My life on the road.

“Such a great dedication. Tell us about it.”

“Shall I read it? I don’t want to say everyone’s read my book!” (a good Steinem laugh) and she does.

 This book is dedicated to: 
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India. 
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life". 
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

"You will do what you want to do with your life," muses Barley. "Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve sacrificed your life on behalf of others?”

“I don’t feel like that at all!” and another good laugh.

Gloria Steinem wasn't going in for any of that "I sacrificed myself for you" blackmail. She wasn't going in for recognition, or packaging, or ownership. (She doesn't even own a car, I learned from reading the book.)

"Women say to me with some alarm, 'My daughter doesn't know who you are!' But does she know who she is? Because that's the whole point."

She pumped for all of us filling the ASB theatre to use the occasion as an opportunity to spread the word about what we are doing and thinking. “Use the mike!” she said when Q&A time came around. And some people did, websites were promoted, organisations cited. But a lot of people had questions, and none were turned away.

Q "Where do you want us to be in fifty years?"
A “I want it to be wherever you want it to be. I'm not here to tell you where to go -- you know things I don’t know. “

Q Should we should talk to people who are “against feminism”?
A Well of course. “If I am fucking up I don’t want someone to hate me, I want them to tell me!”

A woman wanted to talk about the rights of sex workers. Steinem was honest; she has a problem with legalising “sex work”, though she does not want to criminalise it. “What happened to mutuality?” Is it about cooperation or submission? She doesn't see it as just another exploitative job, as is the risk if we term it "sex work". In her life, she says, she's only known one woman whose choice to sell her body was truly free of coercion.

Advice to a 14 year old feminist, who wanted to know where to start in her school where "nobody even knows what feminism is": Find an instance of injustice (how do the budgets for boys and girls sports teams compare) and organise people to challenge it.

"Change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”.

I saw a hopeful, funny person, the humour more pithy than came across in her book...

"Who are your anti-abortionists?" No hands went up.
"Maybe they don’t read books!"

... and the hope more matter-of-course.

I’m not sure it was clear to me from the book how enjoyable a member of your, um, book group she would be, but the evening left no doubt about it.

 She sent us out telling us to talk to other people after exiting. I took it as a sort of beau geste, but as it happened, my daughter and I, standing in the signing line with her copy of A life on the road (the Christmas present I didn't choose for her, thinking, What will that long ago stuff mean to her?, only to see her choose it on her own), found ourselves next to funny smart Michele A’Court, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and it all happened just as it should.

When we arrived in front of Ms Steinem, I heard my daughter say that she didn't care about having her name in the book, she preferred a message, "whatever you would like to say to me".


Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 22:30


  1. Lovely review of an amazing evening. Thanks for the memories!

  2. So glad you enjoyed the post... and the evening! A positive charge to lock away and refer back to when skating the thin ice!

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