“Don’t listen to me,” Gloria Steinem told the two 15-year-old girls. “Listen to yourselves.” A packed-to-the-rafters Benaroya Hall erupted in applause, as it did dozens of times on Sunday night. But there was something about those girls. They were all of us. We have all been fifteen and remember well that panicked thought: who am I? Who will I be? Who do I deserve to be? That the two of them stood together at the microphone, because standing alone would have been too scary, made it all the more poignant. How far in advance did they plan which one of them would ask the question—what advice do you have for teenaged girls?—and which one of them would stand with her for support?
Gloria Steinem was in Seattle to promote her new memoir, My Life on the Road. In an evening presented by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers where she wrote much of her book over several summers, Steinem was interviewed by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, the best-selling memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed was funny and lively and made it clear from the beginning that she was as awed by Steinem as the rest of us. But it was Gloria’s night. I hope she doesn’t mind if I call her Gloria. I don’t believe she will. As she quipped at one point during the evening, “We women aren’t generally so attached to our last names, are we?”
When Gloria and Cheryl walked on stage, I felt as if my spine had just been plugged into a sizzling charger. My eyes started to glisten. My throat tightened. My heart did a little step-dance. I apologize for how trite this all may sound, but I am trying hard to describe how I really, truly felt at that moment, because I don’t feel that way very often. Thanks to my broadcast journalist past, I’m not instantly impressed by famous people. But Gloria is different. Gloria is personal. She changed my life. She changed my mother’s life, my friends’ lives, my daughter’s life. She changed the life of every woman, whether they know it or not. Does this sound over-the-top? I would argue that it is not. Not at all. Gloria Steinem is 81 years old (last year, when she turned 80, I discovered that she and my mother share the same birthday and I wrote a tribute to the two of them), and her life work has been to change the way we perceive women. In my lifetime, the change has been profound and global. For example, the small businesswomen I’ve met in places like Peru, India, Thailand: Gloria helped me to see them differently; to fully appreciate their strength and resilience. Or take Sahar, the Seattle-based nonprofit that is building schools for girls in Afghanistan: thanks to Gloria, the world understands how essential such work is.
“Women get more radical with age,” Gloria said in response to a question about why there weren’t more very young feminist spokeswomen. Yes we do, because we get impatient. All our lives, we are told: be patient. The world is changing. Hang on! But then when you look up one day and realize your daughter is facing way too many of the same hurdles you faced—and then some, if she lives in the wrong state and might wish to do something as radical as visit a Planned Parenthood clinic—you think: enough patience already. I’m done.
When I was a newly minted college graduate in 1978, the personnel director at a major publisher told me that “all our young women start as secretaries and our young men start as sales reps.” And so my first job title, post-college, was secretary. That is why Gloria Steinem moves me in a way perhaps no other public figure ever will. She understood then, and she understands now: equal treatment for all—regardless of gender, race, age or any other consideration—is not political. It is a basic human right.
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