What Our Shared Shelf thought of ‘My Life on the Road’

my life on the road our shared shelf

Throughout January, Emma Watson and 100,000 other feminists read Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road all together—and I was one of them. Steinem’s memoir was the first book club pick for Emma Watson’s group Our Shared Shelf, and according to the in-depth discussions that took place on the Goodreads forum, this book resonated with readers from across the world. The debates surrounding this book are so varied and fascinating that I couldn’t even begin to address them all, but having spent hours lost in the forums, I’ve collected a few highlights.

First, there’s that dedication. I wrote about Steinem’s dedication to her abortion doctor for Bustle back in October, and it still brings tears to my eyes whenever I try to choke out the last line.

One Our Shared Shelf member described it perfectly:

“If anyone was wondering if she had anything new, empowering, or radical to say, they need look no further than the dedication, which was alone worth the price of the book.” – Sara

A particular area of discussion was Steinem’s intersectionality. I loved that women from all kinds of backgrounds were included in her narrative; this was no White Feminism. There’s no doubt that Steinem understands the intersection of race, class and gender—but it did slightly bug me at times when Steinem seemed unable to acknowledge her own privileges.

“Although I enjoyed reading “My Life on the Road,” I wasn’t particularly crazy about it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Steinem’s mission, but I would rather read equality literature by people who have faced multiple facets of oppression. Steinem has had endless opportunities to pursue the avenues that most interest her. But then again, maybe that’s what fighting for equality is all about–using a position of notable status in order to lift others who are not able to do so themselves.” – Janelle

A particularly dodgy moment for me was when Steinem talked about a powerful learning moment, in which she had been fully hit with the impact of the sexist/racist double whammy faced by women of colour—and managed to make it about her as a white woman. “White people should have sued for being culturally deprived in a white ghetto,” she said, half-jokingly, and it didn’t seem at all like the right response.

“My main criticism so far is that she tends to make some claims about universality here and there that I think are somewhat unsubstantiated. About how we’re meant to travel because of our ancient ancestors, and the “ontogeny of breath”… I found those moments to be a bit contrived and definitely romanticized. While she acknowledges her privilege (mostly indirectly) in one or two places, the aforementioned moments really rub me the wrong way because it leaves a large portion of the world’s population out of what she claims is some kind of universal human characteristic or experience. I’m going to keep an eye out for more instances of this as I go along!” – Katelyn

Overall, however, it was clear that Gloria Steinem understands and respects the importance of women of colour being included in feminism, and telling their own stories within that. It was also very interesting to read about women of colour as pioneers of feminism, very much leading the way for white women. When you juxtapose that with the dominance of White Feminism today, the excuses made by White Feminists (“at least we’re making progress for women first, and then we’ll come back for you”) seem particularly feeble. We did not invent this movement. We have co-opted it, taken credit for it, and weakened it.

“I definitely felt that she tried to make the connectedness of equality movements a big theme. She made it very clear that you can’t fight against gender inequality without also thinking about racial inequality, socio-economic inequality, homophobia, etc. However, I felt like there was a clear oversight when it came to including trans women.” – Monica

I wasn’t sure what to make of the discussion of Gloria Steinem’s treatment of trans people, as I know she has had comments taken out of context in the past. From what I can understand, her feminism is trans inclusive, but that she has raised some questions about why we feel the need to reconcile our gender identity with our physical bodies—which in the past has been something I’ve wondered about as well.

Overall, the reaction to the book was extremely positive, and it even inspired a few blog posts, like this from Wander Worlds and this from Lifestyle by Joules.

“Wow. I’ve just finished the book and I can honestly say I’ve never read a book which has inspired me and made me question so much. It’s been utterly thought provoking.” – Emma

One of the main things I took away from My Life on the Road was the importance of talking to people—and talking to people outside your usual circle. Gloria Steinem learned incredible things from speaking to taxi drivers, air hostesses, women with whom she shared a train carriage… all the people I usually tune out with my nose in a book, or my eyes glued to my iPhone screen. The travel that Steinem so loves is not just about the road; it’s about travelling through cultures and histories and worlds. We can travel through reading, and we can travel through the Internet—but is there anything quite like travelling through a conversation with a stranger?

My favourite quotes

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” – Ursula LeGuin

“If I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, it could be wonderful!”

“When humans are ranked instead of linked, everyone loses.”

And one that particularly struck home, because it is so familiar today, over 40 years after the period Steinem is describing:

“[Women are told] feminism is too radical or not radical enough, antimale or male-imitative, impossible because men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or unnecessary because we’re now in a postfeminist, postracist age.”

Looking back, it is obvious that the 1960s and ’70s were not a postfeminist, postracist age. I am constantly told that my outrage is not needed today, and yet I firmly believe that our grandchildren will look back on these years and scoff that anyone ever thought it could be a “postfeminist, postracist age.”

But this doesn’t have to be depressing. If My Life on the Road taught me anything, it’s that change can happen—and that it will.