Gloria Steinem's "My Life on the Road" is part memoir, part travelogue and most of all an entirely enjoyable testament to the author's skills as a journalist and leader.
History will recognize Steinem as one of the great persons of the 20th century. I write this as a man old enough to have been uncomfortable with her ideas then but sufficiently wise enough now to realize what an idiot I was.
Steinem was the gorgeous chic chick who went undercover as a bunny at a Playboy Club to expose the way women were treated. It was likely the most famous of the hundreds of articles she wrote on subjects serious (politics) and frivolous (celeb profiles) before becoming an activist for a number of causes and a co-founder of Ms. magazine.
Interestingly, Steinem had what at best could be called an unorthodox upbringing. After her parents' divorce, she became a primary caretaker for her mother, who had severe emotional problems. Her father was a free spirit who spent almost all his time on the road.
It unleashed in Steinem a longing "for a home … [not] a specific place, but a mythical neat house with conventional parents."
It wasn't until she got to college that she "belatedly discovered that even outside the movies families really did live in neat houses, take naps, have 9 to 5 jobs, pay their bills on time, and eat at a table instead of standing up next to a refrigerator."
Ultimately she fled the traditional, living in India for two years after college "to avoid my engagement to a good but wrong man." When she returned, she chose a peripatetic life as a freelancer/activist/speaker/traveler.
The bulk of the book is made up of stories of her adventures on the road. Not about places, but people she met. Steinem is recognized and approachable. Wherever she goes, folks express gratitude for her work and pour out their stories:
A lanky cowboy tells her about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child and the fact that he was "raised as a girl."
A construction worker in Arizona approaches the car she's in, says he's a fan of Ms. magazine and mentions an article that ran about feminicidos, young women raped and tortured and whose mutilated bodies were found in the Mexican desert. With tears in his eyes, he says his sister was one of them and that today is the anniversary of her death.
And a 98-year-old former Ziegfeld girl en route to New York to dance at an AIDS benefit tells her: "You're always the person you were when you were born. You just keep finding new ways to express it."
"My Life on the Road" is chockablock with tales, some happy, some sad, some inspiring but all engaging and evidence of a well-lived life of accomplishment.
Eventually, Steinem fills the room she had been using primarily as offices with "things that gave me pleasure" and creates a home. She finally has it all.
I'm a sucker for a happy ending.
Curt Schleier is a New Jersey-based book critic.