Carmen Callil

Where would America be without Gloria Steinem?, asks Carmen Callil

Steinem deserves universal recognition, but Life on the Road, her often stirring memoir, focuses too narrowly on the USA

Where would America be without Gloria Steinem?, asks Carmen Callil
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My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem

One World, pp. 304, £

This is a book written by a most admirable woman, which is nevertheless — with some rare and excellent exceptions — most tiresome to read. Gloria Steinem has done heroic work as a founding force of American feminism and as an organiser, in America, for a myriad of causes. She is an icon of 1960s feminism, when persons such as she explained to women — mostly western women, but you have to start somewhere —that some sort of equality could be fought for and, if won, could change the world for all men and women. She spent some early years after university in India and a Gandhian philosophy permeates her good works.

Now turned 80, she looks back at more than 40 years on the road, travelling from pillar to post, encouraging, teaching, fighting for the good, celebrating her America — to her a land of hope, if not glory.

The good things first. She opens the book with an account of her parents, most particularly her father, and what a lucky Gloria she was. There was no money in her family, or, in the British sense, class, but her father was a wanderer and chancer, who ran a dance pavilion when he was not trekking around the USA in a trailer. He gave his daughter his ebullience and wanderlust, and more, a sort of charming generosity that has reached out to the lesser mortals of this world whom she has served so well.

The percentage of founding feminists whose mothers were shattered by depression, who in Steinem’s words ‘never had a journey of their own’, must be very high. Steinem’s mother was just such a one. There are some other nuggets, such as a hilarious account of a beastly weekend spent with a much-fancied rich boyfriend and his millionaire cohorts. Unfortunately for us, we know all too much about what she battles against: segregation and the savage white racism still so prevalent in the US, a savagery echoed in its strange ‘Christian’ fundamentalist groups and isms, ferocious people who would murder Jesus Christ on the spot if he rose again to confront them.

But we hear little on European shores about the lives of American Indians today, so her account of her friendship with Wilma Mankiller, who came to be principal Chief of the Cherokee nation, is both interesting and moving. She also provides many bits and pieces of obscure information, such as that ‘nushu’ is Chinese women’s secret writing language of 1,000 years ago, or that due to infanticide, honour killings and sex trafficking, there are now fewer females than males in the world for the first time in history.

These are the good things, and the heart is warmed to think of all those she has helped in her long life. There is not a minority whose cause she has not espoused, a person in need she has passed by in the street. She has been phenomenally active too in most US elections, canvassing, writing, always in favour of the Democratic candidates. Gloria is a creature of American times that encompassed campaigns for Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She is a great, sympathetic listener.

However, I now know more than any reader would care to know of what Gloria Steinem has learned from American taxi drivers, American truckies, American waitresses, American flight hostesses, American university campuses, American students, American movements, American elections, American politics and American food. What is surprising, to a British reader, is that such generosity to causes and minorities can be buried to such an extent in the depths of a blinkered grasp of life through American eyes. Perhaps she had no idea her book would be read outside the land of her birth. She is much travelled, but her sense of a world that is not American is almost non-existent. Phi Beta Kappa we know from American movies, but what is Nehi Grape Soda? The Howard Stern Show? ‘A driver with a Swedish name predicted that Sharon Sayles Benton would be the first African American woman to be elected mayor of Minneapolis’ is simply not interesting to know, and the book is studded with initials for societies that will mean nothing to a British reader. In that sense, for thinkers such as Steinem, we Europeans are a forgotten minority.

But none of this is her fault. Why would any publisher want to waste good trees on publishing the book in this country? What is good about it — the campaigning thoughts of a fine American — would be just as happily presented to a baffled world in the edition published in America, available at the press of a button online. I know some lovely things about her father and mother and my knowledge of the inner workings of the USA has now been substantially increased — which I could well do without. On the other hand, what would the USA be without Gloria Steinem?

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Carmen Callil, founded the Virago Press in 1973.