I’ve always been a feminist. Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s I hoarded books instead of Barbies. I read biographies of Juliette Low and Helen Keller instead of Judy Blume novels. The Easy-Bake oven mystified me, and as I ran for president of the class in fifth grade (and sixth, and seventh…), I naturally nurtured fantasies of national office, more interested in what I’d wear to my inauguration than my wedding. [Full disclosure: I went to an all-girls school from 5th-8th grade, so being elected class president was, in fact, an option. And yes, I won.]
Growing up, I was more interested in what I’d wear to my inauguration than my wedding.
My old-line, conservative Republican family watched me with a bemusement that morphed into consternation as I forged an identity and a politics completely at odds with the world from which I emerged, where women didn’t work and ambition was a bad word. To this day, my mother still clucks about how much the children must miss me while I’m at work. Since they are 19 and 22 now, it’s probably not an issue, but I am pretty sure I was a better mother when they were little because I was at work. We still like (as well as love) one another because I wasn’t resentful about everything I’d given up. Or at least that’s what I tell myself; the alternate history is for their future spouses and therapists—Lord knows I’d hate for them to be boring.
The Alex Keaton Syndrome?
In any case, I’ve always imagined that my own children would go in the opposite direction of anything I did. Haunted by visions of Michael J. Fox’s character Alex Keaton, the briefcase-toting, conservative capitalist offspring of ex-hippie parents on the 1980’s sit-com Family Ties, I was fairly sure my son and daughter would embrace a different worldview from ours. Given my own experience, those were the rules of the generational game. My kids have always teased me about my “womanliness”—shorthand for my commitment to all things feminist—and while I knew they secretly agreed in principal, they had much more fun mocking me than joining me on the barricades.
I’ve always imagined that my own children would go in the opposite direction of anything I did.
So it was with a mixture of hope and trepidation that I “off-handedly” (read, after days of deliberation) asked my daughter if she wanted to join me on the day I escorted Gloria Steinem around campus as she visited the university where I teach. GLORIA STEINEM, people! (My boss peremptorily turned down my proposal for an all-girl sleep-over, which I know she would have loved. Levitation, truth-or-dare, s’mores—Glo would have been all over it. But noooo—he didn’t even run it by her agent.) To my delight, sweet-child-o-mine said she thought it would be fun. Be still, my heart—I could barely contain myself.
Stilettos in 97-Degree Heat
Before she arrived from the airport, we were both nervous. I was worried that this feminist icon for the ages would not be all that nice; at 82, she had every right to be tired of admirers and in no mood for small talk as we whisked her on an exhausting round of engagements, from a public television taping to an undergraduate honors class, a reception, and a public lecture to a full house of 800. All in 97-degree heat. And in stilettos. (GS, not me. I’m all flats, all the time.) I wanted Claire to love this fierce embodiment of the ideals of the 60s and 70s and to embrace the vision of female solidarity that she represented throughout the decades. Claire, at 19, was just worried it was going to be boring. And potentially embarrassing. (I can get a tad enthusiastic.)
I wanted Claire to love this fierce embodiment of the ideals of the 60s and 70s and to embrace the vision of female solidarity that she represented throughout the decades.
But Gloria Steinem was lovely. Beyond lovely—divine. Lithe and elegant, she was every bit as beautiful in 2016 as she had been in 1976, but far more important to us, she was warm. And human. And interested. As we sat in the Green Room waiting for the make-up people, she asked questions and she listened—truly listened—to what people were thinking about, reading, listening to, and, above all, she was concerned about us as human beings. And as we saw her move from interview to seminar to reception to lecture, we saw Ms. Steinem not only listen to her every interlocutor, but also to incorporate ideas, comments, fears, and hopes that had arisen in each of her previous exchanges into her remarks. Far from giving a canned performance, she was engaged in the present moment and with the people before her, eager to learn and respond.
“We Can Never Sell This Car”
At the end of the very long day, she gave both of us a hug that was anything but perfunctory, and as we drove home, Claire looked at me with stars in her eyes and said “I’m sitting in the seat Gloria Steinem sat in! We can never sell this car!” A few short weeks later, Claire called me on November 9 from college and asked me if we could just cry together. She had a bottle of champagne in her fridge, unopened, to toast the first woman president. We sat on the phone together in shock and sorrow, exchanging few words beyond our tears.
As we drove home, Claire looked at me with stars in her eyes and said, “I’m sitting in the seat Gloria Steinem sat in!”
The next time I saw Gloria, I was at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and the tears were over. I was there with a group of women who were as devastated as Claire and I were by the election, but all of us were exhilarated by the collective energy and good will generated by hundreds of thousands of people—women, men, young, old, gay, straight, able-bodied and not—advocating for love, tolerance, justice, and equality. And, although Claire couldn’t make it to the March (she’s in college in California), the daughters of two of my dear friends were there with us. Lily and Lucy, both sophomores in college as well, made the whole crazy weekend all the more moving.
A Model of Engagement
As our motley crew of women in their 50s and women in their 20s banded together to resist, celebrate, listen, laugh, and seek a way forward (with the help of a little medicinal Mescal), we found hope and inspiration in the bonds between the next generation and our own, recognizing we are much more the same than different. Truth be told, we were way too far away to see or hear Gloria Steinem on stage at the march, but she was there with us anyway, a model of engagement, commitment, and solidarity that knows no age and no limits.
At a time when political discourse in our country has become increasingly polarized, Gloria Steinem’s words resonate now more than ever.
At a time when political discourse in our country has become increasingly polarized and respect for opposing points of view increasingly scarce, Gloria Steinem’s words resonate now more than ever: “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” As the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in the title of her book about a more inclusive definition of feminism: “We Should All Be Feminists.”