When you get a chance to interview an American icon, you make it happen no matter what. So when the opportunity arose to talk with Gloria Steinem about her book “My Life on the Road” in advance of her appearance in Boise, well, vacation be darned.
The original Ms. is incredibly busy and difficult to schedule . Her only available time coincided with my recent road trip to California. At the appointed time, I pulled off the highway into a rest stop outside of Fernley, Nevada, to talk by phone to one of the most influential women of the 20th century.
I gushed. She laughed. We talked about the Finnish exchange students who were filling up their water jugs at the rest stop.
“I still love travel, although it’s not so easy to leave home these days,” she says. “Maybe I’ll break a leg and be forced to stay in one place.”
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You can see Steinem speak as part of The Cabin’s “Readings & Conversations” at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17, with fellow Smith College graduate and Boise physician Mary Beth Staben at the Morrison Center. The gala dinner is sold out, but you can still get tickets to the talk. There are seats available in the Morrison Center’s mezzanine.
This is Steinem’s third appearance in Idaho. In 2005, she spoke at Boise State University, and in 2009, she gave a talk at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
An accomplished feminist organizer, public speaker, journalist and author — with a litany of books, essays and films to her credit — this is her first “road” book, she says.
“It’s different than a memoir. It’s not really a biography; it’s its own animal,” Steinem says. “It’s a road book, so it’s not told from the usual perspective, so there’s not a linear story.”
Yet it offers insight to her life, her character and her amazing journey from freelance writer wannabe and undercover Playboy Bunny to post-feminist legend and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
It’s a collage of experiences through her 50-plus years traversing the world in pursuit of stories to write, social conflicts to resolve and fights for equality to spearhead. More recently she’s been making appearances to encourage others to make a difference and to keep her issues — equal pay, reproductive rights and gender equity — in the public’s consciousness.
“I’ve spent half my life on the road,” she says. “I started practicing meditation and believe I’m helped by the ability to be in the moment. The road is my practice in a way. It forces me to live in the present. You really have no choice.”
In the book, Steinem shares her observations of the world through some of the most culturally tumultuous history of the 20th century as well as her memories of her nomadic childhood with her itinerant father. She also writes about her time in India working with Gandhian organizers and her efforts to organize the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, which she calls “the most important event nobody knows about.” And she discusses the founding of the famous MS. magazine and her current desire to create balance in her life.
“I wish I could say I kept a journal, but I never did,” she says. “I’ve found that if you take notes, they’re usually the wrong ones. I relied on my memory to select what’s important. I talked with people who were there and did a lot of internet research. I should have dedicated part of the book to Google.”
“My Life on the Road” chronicles Steinem’s view from the back of New York City taxi cabs, from the window seat of a women’s train through India, from airplanes where people open up to her — whether they know who she is or not — and she becomes a kind of “celestial bartender” listening to the stories of strangers. Hearing and absorbing those stories helped shape her perspective.
“Being on the road helps you in understanding this country,” Steinem says. “When we learn about America online, it’s generalized. Then you’re traveling, and the people you meet are not the “American people” that we read about. We’re an increasingly diverse people, some who’ve been here 1,000 years and those who came yesterday. And we’re all bonded by hopefulness. I think that’s our defining characteristic as Americans. We are a people of hope.”
At 82, Steinem still travels regularly to make appearances on college campuses across the country to inspire the next generation of women.
“I want them to know what’s happened in the past and that you’re not just going to be handed equality,” she says. “They will have to fight for it like we did. You know there are more women graduating college now, and carrying the same debt as their male counterparts. Yet, men will earn a $1 million more over a lifetime to pay theirs back. So pay equity is an issue that still needs resolution.”
And Steinem is still very much invested in the current political climate that could put the first woman in history in the Oval Office.
“It’s about changing the paradigm of the current hierarchy,” Steinem says. “The people who are invested in that hierarchy are scared because it’s disintegrating. The white race is diminishing, and we’re becoming more culturally diverse. We now have gender equality in marriage. We’re understanding race in a different way. It’s all waves in the same ocean.
“The same group that would disapprove of contraception and abortion also disapproves of immigrants and gay sex. The solution is to get out and vote.”
‘Readings & Conversations’ with Gloria Steinem
8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17, at the Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. $22.50 tickets are available in the mezzanine. Ticketmaster.com.
‘Readings & Conversations’ 2016-17 season
▪ Irish-born writer Colum McCann and 2009 National Book Award recipient for fiction for “Let the Great World Spin,” will speak Wednesday, Nov. 16
▪ U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera will speak Thursday, Feb. 2.
▪ Sisters Karen E. Bender, 2015 National Book Award for Fiction finalist, and Amiee Bender, New York Times Notable Book writer, will have an on-stage conversation about their lives, writing and more on Thursday, March 9.
▪ Bestselling short story writer, novelist and National Book Award finalist Lauren Groff will end the series Thursday, April 13.