Book review: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Just finished reading My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem at 70-something. A beautiful testament to her life – from her difficult childhood with a loving but somewhat looney, itinerant father and her lost-soul mother, to her many, many years traveling around the world writing for major outlets and organizing people in pursuit of women’s equality and reproductive freedom.

Beautiful stories of people she met, some of whom she developed very close relationships with, from the amazing Native woman who brought self-reliance and independence back to so many Native tribes that had lost their way, to the cab drivers and poor people and famous people and powerful people – including the then-pope – whose lives intersected with hers in some way, she gives the facts and reflects on their meanings in simple, fluid prose.

Another woman who fights for women's equality

Another woman who fights for women’s equality

My favorite parts are the ones where she speaks gently of her longing for a home when she was little and speaks tenderly about so many of the people she’s met and/or worked with. She has a clear eye and an open heart, and her book lets you know her in a way you never could from reading many of the often-harsh news stories about her battle for feminism and her long struggles to help make Ms. Magazine a force for good.

The book is a reflection on how a single courageous soul can create profound change by listening to people.

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Differences an excuse for bias

As a writer, I believe in the power of words to convey much more than literal meaning. And I tend to pay attention to the words people use to describe events, occurrences and other people. As a woman–and one who grew up during the women’s liberation decades–I also tend to notice subtle biases in how people talk about men and women.

So it was with interest I read an article this morning describing a researcher’s investigations into how men and women give directions differently. . This quote from Luc Tremblay, an assistant professor of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, who has led studies on the matter, demonstrates the quiet ways judgment can be rendered–and encouraged–by the way we choose our words.

“‘Women are more dependent on a surrounding frame,’ [he says]. If landmarks change, women are more apt to notice and question their sense of orientation. ‘Men are capable of relying on another source of information alone.'”

Notice the choice of “dependent” to describe women’s direction-giving abilities and the use of “capable of relying on” to describe men.

The rest of the article sounds more scientific–talking about inner ear canals and all that. But the set-up has been made: women are dependent, men are capable. Don’t you think most people will tend to filter the rest of the article through that lens?

I’m not playing scientist here (I do that enough in my bioscience blog). But what I do want to know is, has Luc ever asked a fellow guy how to get somewhere and had him totally make something up because he has only the vaguest idea–and doesn’t want you to know that he doesn’t know? Happens to me all the time.

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