As a very young woman in the late 1950s, fresh out of college and looking for an excuse to break an engagement to "a good but wrong man," Gloria Steinem decided to spend two years living in India. Partway through her time there, she joined one of Gandhi's disciples in an on-the-ground organizing effort to end a series of caste riots in Ramnad, a city in the southeast. For a week, she and her group traveled through the nearby villages, often on foot, attending nighttime meetings where people gathered to tell their stories.
"It was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time," the octogenarian writes in her new memoir, My Life on the Road. "I could see that, because the Gandhians listened, they were listened to." (She learned later that Gandhi had learned this method from village women.)
A decade later, Steinem found herself traveling throughout the United States with her friend Dorothy Pitman Hughes lecturing on the then-new concept of women's liberation. Steinem was terrified of public speaking. But she discovered that her and Hughes's job was less about telling their audiences about this radical new movement than about creating, as she had in India, a way for the women themselves to speak up and tell their own stories about the ways they were discriminated against and discuss what they expected from an equal society.
Steinem's life since then, at least as described in My Life on the Road, has consisted largely of traveling and listening, with patches of speaking and writing. For a memoir, it's light on autobiographical detail. The most personal section is the first chapter, when she describes her itinerant childhood with her father, a traveling entrepreneur, and the conflicting feelings of joy at being on the road and yearning for a real home that have resonated throughout her life.
Steinem devotes most of the book to stories about people she's met during her career as an organizer and activist—not famous people, either, but cabdrivers and flight attendants and college students. Either she kept very good notes or she has amazing powers of recall—or maybe she remembers these conversations so well because of what she learned from them. She doesn't go unrecognized—many people want to talk to her because she's Gloria Steinem—but the greatest thrill for her is not being famous but getting to hear what lots of different people, not just policy makers and celebrities, really think.
Most of all, she shows that listening, traditionally seen as less important than speaking, and, therefore, a duty usually assigned to women, can also be an act of power. If you want to know why so many people—including me—still adore Steinem, this is why. v