‘My Life on the Road’: A feminist leader and all her journeys

‘My Life on the Road’ by Gloria Steinem; Random House ($28)
‘My Life on the Road’ by Gloria Steinem; Random House ($28)

As a young journalist in the early 1960s, Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Playboy bunny. In the early pages of her new book, “My Life on the Road,” Steinem, now 81, claims another unlikely job description.

“I find that a traveling woman — perhaps especially a traveling feminist — becomes a celestial bartender,” she writes. Become recognizable enough “as part of a movement that gives birth to hope,” she continues, and “people say things they wouldn’t share with a therapist.”

“My Life on the Road,” Steinem’s first book in more than 20 years, is a warmly companionable look back at nearly five decades as itinerant feminist organizer and standard-bearer. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to sit down with Steinem for a casual dinner, this disarmingly intimate book gives a pretty good idea, mixing hard-won pragmatic lessons with more inspirational insights.

But anyone expecting a conventional memoir will come away disappointed. Instead of a linear account of her peripatetic life, she offers a sometimes disjointed series of chapters that focus less on herself than on the people, both ordinary and extraordinary, she has met along the way.

Again and again, Steinem comes back to the idea of the talking circle, a tradition she first learned of in India, where, as a young Smith College graduate, she had accompanied Gandhian organizers into an area racked by caste riots and saw the positive things that happen when everyone is given a voice.

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,” she writes, adding, “My becoming an itinerant feminist organizer was just a Western version of walking in villages.”

“My Life on the Road” starts strong, with a moving chapter about Steinem’s father, Leo, a big-hearted dreamer who traveled the country on various impractical schemes, sometimes sending letters on stationery emblazoned with the catchphrase “It’s Steinemite!” In her 1983 essay “Ruth’s Song (Because She Could Not Sing It),” Steinem linked her feminism to the story of her mother, a pioneering female journalist who suffered from mental illness and constricting feminine roles. But it was her father, she says here, who gave her the courage to cut her own unconventional path.

“Both my mother and my father paid a high price for lives out of balance,” she writes. “Yet at least my father had been able to choose his own journey.”

After that opening chapter, Steinem jumps somewhat haphazardly among different time periods and themes, hitting topics that include her experiences working on various political campaigns, her growing interest in Native American culture and why she doesn’t drive. (It isolates you from other people, she explains, and besides, Jack Kerouac didn’t, either.)

There are tales from the bad old days, like a taxi ride in 1964 with Saul Bellow and Gay Talese. Talese leaned across her — as if she weren’t there — to explain to Bellow: “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Steinem also revisits some semi-forgotten historical episodes, like the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, which she calls “the most important event nobody knows about.” There, at this government-funded “constitutional convention for the female half of the country,” she describes serving as a go-between among the African-American, Hispanic and other minority caucuses, who were unsatisfied with the so-called Minority Women’s Plank that had come up from state conferences.

The event, she writes, provided “a glimpse of a way of life in which the circle, not a hierarchy, was the goal.”

Steinem’s nods to the present can be more vague. She writes about her love of speaking at colleges, but has little to say about today’s roiling campus debates around sexual assault. And she says virtually nothing about the lively, fractious feminist debate thriving online, instead offering a defense of old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.

Steinem talks about how in her early days of public speaking, she always appeared jointly with a minority speaking partner, to attract more diverse audiences and combat the notion of feminism as a white, middle-class movement. But her commitment to a big-tent, inclusive vision of politics leads to some strained arguments here.

At one point, she recounts the furor over an Op-Ed she published in The New York Times in 2008, explaining why she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama. She argued that a hypothetical black woman with Obama’s résumé would not be seen as “a viable candidate,” and declared — in a line that she says was taken out of context — that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.”