71. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem
This collection of essays and articles by Gloria Steinem was just what I needed to read at this time. It reminded me of many things I already knew, but in a much needed way. I had two big takeaway points from this book:
1. Steinem is a nice, normal person who believes in equality for both women and men.
2. It is frightening to see how easy it is to forget the past and have to fight the same fight over and over again.
The first point in relevant because that is not the image I had of Steinem at all from what I have soaked up from the popular culture. I mean, I didn’t really think she hated all men and thought they should be disposed of, if only we could find a way around that pesky reproduction issue, but I thought she was a lot more strident than she is. I should have been suspicious of this image, because I had never actually read anything she wrote, nor had I seen her speak, but it was one of those things I didn’t much think about. It was background noise. I wasn’t really paying attention, but I remember the huge media coverage when she got married for the first time at 66. It was reported on radio and television news and in newspapers—you didn’t have to be paying that much attention to notice the coverage. I didn’t really understand the point of all that coverage—noticing that marriage as an institution is set up for the benefit of the male partner that treats the female partner as less than a full person is not the same as saying that men are repulsive. But I really didn’t know much about her at the time, and I was too busy with my regular life to do much investigating.
Still, while I certainly agreed with her that women’s rights were/are not what they should be, I did think that she was perhaps a bit strident, and dare I say, shrewish. I thought the conventional wisdom exaggerated her demeanor in degree but not type. I was very surprised then, to read this book and find a woman like many that I know: strong, smart, capable, ambitious, but nice, non-confrontational, wanting to make people around her happy. She just didn’t want to have to sacrifice her sense of self to make those people happy, which seems pretty reasonable to me. She discovered, however, that a very small amount of self-assertion earns you a shrewish label when you are female.
She also points out several times that a strict patriarchal society limits men as much as it limits women. It doesn’t seem as bad, since men have more privileges and rights, but it is still limiting. Men are encouraged to suppress all emotion, and choose manly activities, which is fine if a man is a stoic type who likes sports, hunting and other stereotypically “male” activities, but if he is interested in sewing, flower-arranging or ballet dance, he is swimming upstream, and likely to be smacked back into place. A truly feminist society would allow for the full range of human possibility in both females and males, with no preference to any one style. So you see? It’s not man-hating at all.
The most chilling parts of the book, though, are the sections where she details feminist movements in the past, where significant advances were hard-won, only to be suppressed afterwards with hardly a trace. I had no idea that the suffragist movement was so all-encompassing, going well beyond the right to vote. When these things are not reported in our history books and our popular culture, it is easy to believe that the things that feminists ask are working for have never been rights that women enjoyed or even wanted. When you get female anti-feminists like Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter, or Caitlin Flanagan, mainstream media has something to point to when they say that women don’t really want these rights. No one seems to point out that these women have lucrative, busy careers taking advantage of the very rights they claim not to want. If they really thought that women should stay home and take care of their families, leaving the outer world to men, I can’t help but think that they would be housewives who stayed out of the public eye.
Overall this was a fantastic book, although difficult to read at times. I had to skip most of the article on female genital mutilation for instance. I am glad that I read it, and determined to see what else I am missing out there. Also, I think I am going to start yet another blog, so that I can continue to explore these concepts. I will probably invite some friends to join me there. I’ll let you know when I get that going.