Book Excerpt: Gloria Steinem's 'My Life on the Road'

Introduction: Road Signs

When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. For more than four decades, I’ve spent at least half my time on the road.

I’ve never tried to write about this way of life, not even when I was reporting on people and events along the way. It just seemed to have no category. I wasn’t on a Kerouac road trip, or rebelling before settling down, or even traveling for one cause. At first I was a journalist following stories, then a sometime worker in political campaigns and movements, and most consistently an itinerant feminist organizer. I became a person whose friends and hopes were as spread out as my life. It just felt natural that the one common element in that life was the road.

When friends or reporters assumed that spending so much time away from home was a hardship, I often asked them to travel with me, hoping they would get as hooked as I was. Yet in all these years, only one took me up on it—for just three days.

As decades passed, and the word still entered my life—as in “Oh, you’re still traveling”—it dawned on me that I’d been writing least about what I was doing most.

So I sat down and began to make notes about many trips, past and present, that left me amazed by what is, angered by what isn’t, and hooked on what could be. As I looked through old date books and schedules, letters and abandoned journals, suddenly I was awash in a sense memory of my father going through his tattered road maps and address books, trying to figure out how much gas money he needed to get from here to there, where to find trailer parks that would shelter his wife and two daughters, and what roadside dealers might buy the small antiques which he sold and bartered as we made our way across the country. It was so vivid that I could sense our conspiratorial whispering as we tried not to wake my mother, who was asleep in this house trailer that was our home for most of each year.

Until that moment, I would have sworn that I had rebelled against my father’s way of life. I created a home that I love and can retreat to, though he wanted no home at all. I’ve never borrowed a penny, though he was constantly in debt. I take planes and trains to group adventures, though he would spend a week driving cross-country alone rather than board a plane. Yet in the way that we rebel, only to find ourselves in the midst of the familiar, I realized there was a reason why the road felt like home. It had been exactly that for the evocative first decade of my life. I was my father’s daughter.

I never imagined starting this book with my father’s life. Then I realized I had to.

More discoveries followed. For instance, I always thought of my road life as temporary, assuming that one day I would grow up and settle down. Now I realized that for me, the road was permanent, and settling down was temporary. Traveling had created my nonroad life, not the other way around.

Take public speaking: I spent all of my twenties and early thirties avoiding it. When I once asked a speech teacher about my aversion, she explained that dancers and writers were especially difficult to teach to speak in public, since both had chosen a profession in which they didn’t have to talk—and I had been both.

Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the editors I’d been freelancing for were gigantically uninterested in the explosion of feminism across the country. I finally got angry enough and desperate enough to partner with a woman who was much braver than I, and to travel to campuses and community groups. Over time and far from home, I discovered something I might never otherwise have learned: people in the same room understand and empathize with each other in a way that isn’t possible on the page or screen.

Gradually, I became the last thing on earth I would ever have imagined: a public speaker and a gatherer of groups. And this brought an even bigger reward: public listening. It was listening that taught me there would be readers for a national feminist magazine, no matter what publishing experts said.

Up to then, I’d been a freelance writer who never wanted to work in an office or be responsible for anything other than my own rent. But because of what I learned on the road, I invited writers and editors to explore starting a feminist magazine that was devoted, in the words of the great Florynce Kennedy, “to making revolution, not just dinner.” When those women also said they had no place to publish what they cared about most, Ms. magazine was born.

From then on, I came home to a magnetic office full of journalists and editors. Ms. gave me not only an added reason to go on the road, but a chosen family to return to after every trip, my pockets full of scribbled notes about new events.

Altogether I might never have had the will or the way to do any of the things that matter most to me, had it not been for just being Out There.

Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.

As you can see, the first reason for this book is to share the most important, longest-running, yet least visible part of my life. It’s my chance to do more than come home saying to friends, “I met an amazing person who . . . ,” or “Here’s a great new idea for . . . ,” or, most of all, “We have to stop generalizing about ‘the American people,’ ” as if we were one homogeneous lump. I’m also now immune to politicians who say, “I’ve traveled the length and breadth of this great land, and I know . . .” I’ve traveled more than any of them, and I don’t know.

What we’re told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t.

Altogether, if I’d been looking at nothing but the media all these years, I would be a much more discouraged person—especially given the notion that only conflict is news, and that objectivity means being evenhandedly negative.

On the road, I learned that the media are not reality; reality is reality. For instance, Americans are supposed to cherish freedom, yet we imprison a bigger percentage of our people than any other country in the world. I talk to students who are graduating in crippling debt, yet don’t connect this to state legislatures that are building prisons we don’t need instead of schools we do need, and then spending an average of fifty thousand dollars a year per prisoner and way less per student. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of people who start a high-tech company or a hot dog stand, but our income and wealth gaps are the biggest in the developed world. I meet people in Indian Country who can trace their origins back a hundred thousand years, and survivors of sex and labor trafficking who arrived yesterday. Also, this country is transforming before our eyes. In thirty years or so, the majority will no longer be European Americans; the first generation of mostly babies of color has already been born. This new diversity will give us a better understanding of the world and enrich our cultural choices, yet there are people whose sense of identity depends on the old hierarchy. It may just be their fear and guilt talking: What if I am treated as I have treated others? But with all the power and money that is behind it, this backlash could imprison us in a hierarchy all over again.

As Robin Morgan wrote so wisely, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” That’s what makes going on the road so important. It definitely specifies.

My second purpose is to encourage you to spend some time on the road, too. By that, I mean traveling—or even living for a few days where you are—in an on-the-road state of mind, not seeking out the familiar but staying open to whatever comes along. It can begin the moment you leave your door.

Like a jazz musician improvising, or a surfer looking for a wave, or a bird riding a current of air, you’ll be rewarded by moments when everything comes together. Listen to the story of strangers meeting in a snowstorm that Judy Collins sings about in “The Blizzard,” or read Alice Walker’s essay “My Father’s Country Is the Poor.” Each starts in a personal place, takes an unpredictable path, and reaches a destination that is both surprising and inevitable—like the road itself.

An addiction to the road can exist anywhere. The Sufi poet Rumi’s caravan wandered through a dozen Muslim lands; the Roma people left India for Europe and never settled down; and Australia’s aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders go on walkabout to renew ancient songlines. I am writing this on-the-road-in-America book because it’s the place I live and travel most, and most need to understand, especially given its outsize influence on the world. Also I’m not sure we can understand another country if we don’t understand our own. In my twenties, I had the good luck to live for a year in Europe, and then for two years in India—yet in some ways, I was escaping more than being fully present. Secure Europe was a momentary way of leaving an insecure childhood behind. Faraway India helped to introduce me to the way most people live in the world, something way beyond anything I knew. I’m still thankful to that huge and struggling country for being impossible to ignore; otherwise I might have come home as the same person I was when I left.

My purpose here is to tempt you to explore this country. American travel seems to need an advocate. If I’m going to Australia or Zambia, people tell me how exciting it is, yet if I’m traveling anywhere in these United States, they sympathize and say how tiring it must be. In fact, there are many unique satisfactions here. One is that Americans seem to outstrip every nation for hope. Perhaps because so many of us came in flight from something worse, or rose from poverty here, or absorbed the fact and fiction of the “land of opportunity,” or just because optimism itself is contagious—whatever the reason, hopefulness is what I miss the most when I’m not here. It’s the thing that makes me glad to come home. After all, hope is a form of planning.

However, I’m not suggesting that you travel as much as I have. Like Sky Masterson, the wandering gambler in Damon Runyon stories, I’ve been in more hotel rooms than the Gideon Bible—and he didn’t wash his hair with hotel soap, eat from vending machines, or sit up late organizing with the hotel maids. After my first two decades traveling as an organizer, I realized that the longest stretch I’d spent at home was eight days.

As you can see, I’d fallen in love with the road.

My third hope is to share stories. For millennia, we have passed down knowledge through story and song. If you tell me a statistic, I’ll make up a story to explain why it’s true.