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Gloria in Transit

A Visit from Ms. Steinem Prompts a New Look

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When I was 13 and most of my friends were swooning over Seventeen, my mom ordered me a subscription to Ms. I read it too. Every word. Every month. Stranded in the limbo of adolescence, I was equally drawn to the Stories for Free Children (which I was tempted to cut out and string together with yarn, as the margin note suggested) and to the how-tos, like one called "Apres Lay," which included a recipe for postcoital angel hair with sour cream, a dish I've yet to put to its intended use. It was a thrilling world.

By college I was over Ms. and onto the sort of obfuscationist feminism that was fashionable on campus. Senior year, when Gloria Steinem's book of essays came out, I read it on a nostalgia kick. The classic "I Was a Playboy Bunny" impressed me for its journalistic daring (wear what for a story?) and shocked me as well. In the postscript Steinem noted that her feet were permanently enlarged due to the high-heeled undercover work. A true sacrifice. I was intrigued by an essay in which she related an ongoing phone conversation she'd been having with some heavy breather. I'd just put in my obligatory weekend of assertiveness training--practicing my snappy comebacks--and there was Gloria, indulging in politically incorrect phone sex. What nerve!

So when Steinem was in town last week, I thought I'd look her up. I'd actually crossed paths with her from time to time over the years, once at a political rally where she wore the most adorable little pink mini, once at a bookstore in Aspen. This time, she was holding court with a small group of local heavy hitters, ignoring Reza's terrible hummus and describing her latest vision for a better world. She's been dreaming up an elementary school where young girls (and, she conceded, a few young boys) would be taught to value their inner selves. She wanted to name it the Green Stone School, after a polemical children's story by Alice Walker. She'd also thought about calling it the Free to Be School. I rolled my eyes. (Like all the kids in our Palo Alto neighborhood, we'd pranced around to Free to Be You and Me a few hundred times, Marlo Thomas sunnily encouraging us to shake off stifling sex roles.)

"Mo-om," I felt like whining. "That's so passe!"

Afterward there was a book signing at Women & Children First. Steinem, awaited by an SRO crowd and a band of wildly enthusiastic drummers, introduced an unorthodox format for the evening. Turning the tables on the standard Q and A, she encouraged everyone to use the event as an organizing meeting. "There's no announcement I won't read," she teased in her composed way. "I've got a plane out of town early in the morning." She egged us on in such "troublemaking."

Troublemaking? Get hep, Gloria. Girls these days aren't deluded enough to imagine all's fair. But we've never considered ourselves outsiders, provocateurs, troublemakers. Lending a conspiratorial air to what was basically a commercial enterprise--Steinem selling a new book--struck me as downright quaint.

I picked up the paperback and was shocked to discover it's a repackaged version of the same essays I read in 1983. She defended the recycle--pleased that her writing has remained relevant, disappointed that the issues have too. To me it looked like same old song, same old haircut. That's the trouble with kids. Give 'em a new and improved world and they'll want something even better.

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