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Gloria Steinem Shares What She Learned 'On The Road'


We have a story about Gloria Steinem, one of the leaders of the feminist movement and, at age 81, someone who has lived a life on the road. Travel, she says, gives her hope and keeps her relevant. Her new book, called, fittingly, "My Life On The Road," tells what she's learned from decades of traveling to promote equality for women. Gloria Steinem spoke with NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: After spending most of her life writing, speaking and organizing for women's rights, it's surprising that the most vivid character in Gloria Steinem is a man, specifically her father. It surprised her too.

GLORIA STEINEM: It didn't occur to me that I should start with my father because I thought I had rebelled against the life he led, in which he never had a home. And we were almost constantly in the car and a house trailer.

JAFFE: Her father was a larger-than-life figure who always had his eye on the next big chance. In reality, he sold antiques, mostly from town to town. Steinem didn't live in one place, really, until she was in high school. In childhood, she'd longed for a home, but in writing the book, she began to think differently of her father's vagabond ways.

STEINEM: I understood that he had given me a gift, too, which is the ability to live with insecurity and to be open to the next moment's adventure, which he definitely was.

JAFFE: And which she has been for her entire adult life. In the 1950s, still in her 20s, she spent a couple of years in India. The highlight was the week she found herself traveling village to village with people organizing against violence between different castes. Later, this became her model for organizing the women's movement. Traveling itself, says Steinem, can be a kind of liberation for women.

STEINEM: The road has been viewed as a male turf. If you think of the classic "Odyssey," of, you know, classical literature or Jack Kerouac or almost any road story, it's really about a man on the road. There's an assumption that the road is too dangerous for women.

JAFFE: Steinem never assumed that. The decades that she spent on the road have made gender issues a regular part of the national conversation, so much so that it's hard to remember that when she began her journey, the notion of women's equality was, at best, an undecided question.

STEINEM: The very idea that women might be equal to men was viewed as an insult to men.

JAFFE: You can hear the hostility in this 1972 episode of NBC's "Meet the Press." Steinem appeared just after launching Ms. Magazine, the nation's first feminist mass-market monthly. She's questioned by moderator Lawrence Spivak.


LAWRENCE SPIVAK: Said, and I quote, "women are not taken seriously. We are undervalued, ridiculed or ignored by society which consciously and unconsciously assumes that the white male is the standard and the norm."

Now, what's your explanation for this serious state of affairs in view of the fact that men - males are at least virtually controlled and dominated by women from birth to puberty and often beyond that? Why haven't you done a better job if you're as smart as you say you are?

STEINEM: Well, that's your statement, not mine, that men are virtually controlled by women from birth onward. I mean, if you take...

JAFFE: Steinem holds her ground, and she looks just as you remember her - long hair parted down the center, body hugging sweater tucked into jeans. Now, at 81, that's still her look, but she has made some changes to her life as she's aged. She's learned that she has a need not just for travel but for a place to come home to. Still, her November schedule called for 18 public appearances in 13 different cities. Travel has not become more difficult with age, she says, and she has no plans to slow down.

STEINEM: I don't want to die saying but, you know? There's so much I want to do, so I want more time.

JAFFE: And when you get older, she says, you realized time is all there is. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."