Some years ago, Gloria Steinem found herself in the Badlands of South Dakota at the same time as thousands of bikers, mostly men, attending the famous Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Unsettled by their aggressive masculinity, Steinem was stunned one morning when a leather-clad woman approached. A faithful reader of Ms. magazine, the woman pointed to a purple Harley in the parking lot as an emblem of her liberation: After years riding behind her husband, she’d finally gotten a bike of her own.
Surprising encounters like this one provide a recurring motif in Steinem’s long-awaited memoir, “My Life On the Road” (Random House: 304 pp., $28).The book chronicles Steinem’s experiences traveling, first as a journalist on assignment and later as a feminist organizer visiting campuses, conferences and clinics across the country.
“On the road, you experience the country in a different way, you see the huge diversity,” Steinem explained recently by phone. “You are liberated from the media idea that there is an American people.”
Steinem’s book makes the case for travel not as a luxury but a transformative, potentially radical act, particularly for women, so long relegated to riding behind their husbands — or staying home.
“Whatever it is you care about and are interested in, you are likely to learn more about on the road,” said Steinem, 81, who estimates she’s been away from home for more than half of the last four decades. It’s taken her nearly 20 years to finish “My Life On the Road” because of the sheer difficulty of “writing an on-the-road book when you are on the road.”
The book opens with a moving chapter about Steinem’s vagabond childhood, an experience that clearly influenced both her feminist beliefs and her wanderlust. Her father was an antiques dealer and “rootless wanderer” who brought his wife and children with him on his travels, her mother a former journalist who gave up her career for family and sank into debilitating depression.
“Both my mother and my father paid a high price for lives out of balance,” she writes. “Yet at least my father had been able to choose his own journey. He never realized his dreams, but my mother was unable to pursue hers.”
The memoir is dedicated to John Sharpe, the London doctor who provided Steinem with an illegal abortion when she was a 22-year-old on her way to India for a two-year fellowship. There, she walked from village to village convening “talking circles” to quell caste riots. Her later feminist organizing “was just a Western version of walking in villages,” she writes.
Other than this interlude, however, “My Life in the Road” is focused almost entirely on Steinem’s domestic journeys — in part because she feels the need to advocate for travel in the U.S.
“Whenever I’m going to Kenya or I’m going to London, people say, ‘Oh, how great,’” she said. “When I say I’m going to someplace in this country, they say, “Oh, that must be so tiring. You have to spend time away from home.’ I get two different responses. It seems sad to me because there’s so much to explore here.”
Steinem shies away from the personal in “My Life on the Road,” which includes just a few cameos by unnamed romantic partners. Instead, she highlights her relationships with fellow activists like Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee nation, and Flo Kennedy, the flamboyant civil rights lawyer and Steinem’s speaking partner for many years.
For Steinem, it was important to reflect the central role played by women of color in the feminist movement, long before “intersectionality” become a buzzword. “The suffrage and abolitionist movement was black men and white and black women — the exact groups that weren’t supposed to be together, for a century,” she said, “because there were so many parallels.”
And yet the intersection of race and gender has become something of a sensitive subject for Steinem, who was criticized in 2008 by many on the left for a pro-Hillary Rodham Clinton op-ed in the New York Times that appeared to argue that sexism was a more oppressive force in American life than racism. She opens up about the incident in “My Life on the Road,” noting with sadness that the “attacks came from people whose opinion I valued who were accusing me of holding a position I didn’t hold.”
Seven years later, Steinem admits that she “messed up” with some of her word choices but contends the media played up the supposed rift between Clinton supporters, like her, and Obama loyalists for the sake of drama.
“One of the most discouraging events in the media were the questions in 2008,” she said. “People would actually ask, ‘What is more important, sex or race?’ I mean, excuse me, most people in the world experience both, first of all. Secondly, they are intertwined ... you have to have sexism in order to preserve racism.’”
“My Life on the Road” arrives at a time when the Internet has replaced the picket line as the primary venue for feminist activism, a change Steinem views with ambivalence. While she calls the Internet a “special gift to women,” allowing them to find each other safely in virtual space, it can also provide a haven for anonymous misogynists or create a false sense of accomplishment, Steinem said. “Pressing send is not actually doing anything or changing anything. We may forget that.”
That’s not to suggest that Steinem is averse to the young and new. She is active on Twitter and Facebook and says she’s a fan of Amy Schumer and her viral brand of feminist humor. She’s also planning a collaboration with Vice, the youth-focused news and culture source, though she declines to reveal specifics. “I’m very excited about it,” is all she’ll say.
Naturally, Steinem still has traveling to do. She hopes to make her first trip to the Congo to visit Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who works with rape survivors and is, she said, “to sexualized violence what Mandela was to apartheid.”
In the meantime, she hopes her memoir will inspire women to follow her adventurous example — with or without a purple motorcycle.
“I wanted to make women readers feel invited,” she explained, “feel the road belongs to them.”
What: Gloria Steinem on her memoir, “My Life on the Road,” in conversation with Melissa McCarthy
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 12
Where: The Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles
Cost: $34.50 to $250