If Freud Had Been a Woman . . . : MOVING BEYOND WORDS, <i> By Gloria Steinem (Simon & Schuster: $23; 296 pp.)</i>

<i> Susan Cheever is a novelist and biographer. "A Woman's Life," her biography of an ordinary woman, was published this month by William Morrow</i>

“I always trust the microcosm over the macrocosm,” writes Gloria Steinem in her book of six essays, “Moving Beyong Words.” Although on the surface this book appears to be a whole book of microcosms--a couple of essays on money, a 10-year-old profile of a female body builder, a dissertation on Freudian politics--in fact, the book is part of the intelligent, articulate, witty macrocosm that is Gloria Steinem.

In the way most people you know have devoted their lives to making money, or raising their children, Steinem has devoted her life to the principle of justice. Her work, whether it’s organizing in the boon docks or socializing at the Plaza or editing an unknown feminist or writing a best-selling auto-biography like “Revolution from Within,” is directed toward describing, defining and exhorting against the unfair nature of society in all its aspects. For Steinem, everything--from the travails of body builder Bev Francis to the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith--is grist for her high-powered political mill.

She is one of the smartest women of our generation, and one of the most persistent.


The book, whose title is a pun on the word moving (progressing and emoting), opens with a hilarious, instructive fantasy: What if Freud had been a woman? Steinem loves reversals. “What if a female chief of state had thrown up on the Japanese and fainted as President Bush did?” she asks. “What if TV jokes about dumb blondes were told about dumb blacks?” and “If men could get pregnant, would abortion be a sacrament?” The Freud essay began with a Steinem lecture from the 1970s, “What if Men Could Menstruate?” If they could, she hypothesizes, men would brag about how long and how much, and sanitary supplies would be federally funded. Updated and expanded with footnotes, the new essay is an extensive, carefully documented attack on the patriarchal practice of psychiatry. “Phyllis Freud never made the fatal error of Karla Marx,” explains Steinem, “whose interest in historical events created public measures by which her theory could be said to succeed or fail.”

The most impressive pieces in the book are the two on economics. “Economics is a boring word that clouds our brains and makes us feel like we’ve hit a brick wall,” she writes. But as she explains it, “economics” is as close to home as your own checkbook: “I began to wonder, what if I were hit by a Mack truck . . . how would my checkbook stubs reflect what I cared about?” Arguing that spending is a form of self-expression, Steinem notes that of all the charitable dollars given in this country every year, less than one percent goes to projects specifically for women and girls--even the Boy Scouts get more than the Girl Scouts. In dense, fact-laden, carefully reasoned prose, Steinem explains how economics all over the world are controlled by the Census and the manipulation of figures for the Gross National and Gross Domestic Products, the GDP/GNP. “Most recently, the question has been whether (the Census) methods undercount racial minorities, migrants, immigrants, the homeless and other groups, whose census invisibility deprives them of economic, social and political power.”

In “The Masculinization of Wealth” Steinem shows how rich women are so beaten down by society and by both the men in their family and the men who administer their family wealth that they often have less power than poor women. “There are many ways in which class doesn’t work for women--and some in which it’s actually reversed,” she explains.

This is a book filled with terrible surprises, a book that takes as its starting point the statistic that women do a third of all the paid work in the world, and two-thirds of all work, yet get only 10 percent of the world’s salaries and only one percent of its property. It’s a book that explains why even wealthy women identify with servants and prostitutes. It’s a book that spells out the way in which women’s magazines relentlessly and shamelessly promote the causes of their advertisers--whether they manufacture cigarettes or cosmetics. It’s a book that tells us that there is a whole school of therapists whose specialty is treating other therapists who have slept with their patients and are wrestling with guilt and anxiety. It’s a book that spells out, over and over, the many different direct and subtle ways in which women are reduced to powerlessness in our world.

In her final essay “Doing Sixty,” Steinem writes about herself, about a year she spent in India after graduating from college and about her own changes as she has aged. “I used to think I would be rewarded for good behavior,” she writes, in one of many passages I wish could be permanently engraved on my brain. “Therefore if I wasn’t understood, I must not be understandable; if I wasn’t successful, I must try harder; if something was wrong, it was my fault. More and more I see now that context is all. When someone judges me, anyone or anything, I ask: compared to what?”

In “Revaluing Economics” Steinem quotes Muriel Rukeyser’s poem which asks, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” Gloria Steinem is one woman who has told the truth about her life and ours.