I had dinner with Gloria Steinem a couple of weeks ago, arranged by my friend Stephanie Kallos at Hedgebrook, a writing retreat on Whidbey Island near Seattle where Gloria was in residence.
We all have people in our lives to whom we owe great thanks — a parent, teacher, a mentor where we work, or maybe a friend who saw us through tough times. But there is also the person whose scope of good deeds is much larger. Mostly, these are historic figures, like Florence Nightingale or George Washington. Rarely do we have the good fortune to be alive with them — to experience the “before” and “after” of their presence. Even more rarely are we in a position to thank them in person.
Ms Magazine appeared on newsstands in 1972 when I was in my twenties. I was living in Oakland, California, pregnant with my first daughter and trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life. Gloria Steinem, fresh from her first-person exposé of life as a Playboy bunny, was launching a magazine that promised to tell truth to power about discrimination against women. Ms was public in ways that hadn’t been seen since the suffragists had stood in front of Woodrow Wilson’s White House with their hand-sewn, upright banners planted in the snow that read, “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” Steinem’s timing was perfect; I studied every word of every issue.
Flash forward to 2009. Gloria Steinem is physically a much tinier woman than I expected, but her kindness is unbounded and her knowledge wide-ranging. Our dinner conversation at Hedgebrook’s picnic table (over plates of local vegetables and chicken sausage, fresh berries, ice cream and peanut butter cookies) ranged from ourselves and our books to our families, politics, history and religion: always talking about women. Every comment provoked a new trail of thought, as when she described a language invented by Chinese women in the third century, when women were not allowed to read or write. Called Nushu, its characters represent sounds (as opposed to standard Chinese ideographs) and it was secretly taught from woman to woman for their use in writing diaries, poetry, and letters.
We moved on to Louisa May Alcott and living on communes, and then jumped to Victoria Woodhull and women in politics. She said her grandmother was known in her family for raising four boys and keeping Kosher. Only later did she learn the other story — her grandmother was active in socialist and anarchist causes supporting labor and social justice. That got us reminiscing about our own political days in the 1960s and 70s, trading stories informed by time and warmed by the comfort of mutual understanding.
Back to religion, we talked about women’s prominence in séances and channeling during the ferment of religious activity in upstate New York in the early 19th century.
“You know what I figured out about those days?” she asked. “Almost all the channelers were women and almost all the spirits whose words they channeled were men. In those days, it was one of the only acceptable ways for women to publicly express themselves on political and public issues.” Like Nushu, women developed a safe way to speak in a hostile environment.
As our dinner dishes were cleared, we talked about how women’s circumstances have changed and not changed in our lifetimes, and how young women today have little idea of the effort their mothers and grandmothers expended to create today’s opportunities. “Yes,” she said, “It’s good for young women to have a sense of history, but rather than admire that past work, they should focus on fixing what’s still wrong now.”
True, but even so, it mattered a lot to me to be able to thank her for all she’s done.
[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email.]