Discussion Questions

Introduction

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V


Introduction:

“On the road, I learned that the media are not reality; reality is reality” (xx).

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

An “On-the-road state of mind” entails “not seeking out the familiar but staying open to whatever comes along” (xxi).

“Whether by dowry murders in India, honor killings in Egypt, or domestic violence in the United States, records show that women are most likely to be beaten or killed at home and by men they know. Statistically speaking, home is an even more dangerous place for women than the road” (xxv).

Activity idea:

Readers find an example of an individual (possibly limit to women) who took a road trip or voyage that changed his/her life. This could be through interviewing people in immediate circle (family, close friends); searching travel blogs; considering works from a specific literary canon; or researching influential people (perhaps in government, or connected to this year’s elections). Readers provide a summary of the individual’s experience, and then reflect on how it compares to their own lives or inspires them to get out of their own comfort zone. Either through writing, video, or social media, make the results available to the rest of the class.


Chapter I:

1. “The travel writer Bruce Chatwin wrote that our nomadic past lives on in our ‘need for distraction, our mania for the new.’ In many languages, even the word for human being is ‘one who goes on migrations.” Progress itself is a word rooted in a seasonal journey. Perhaps our need to escape into media is a misplaced desire for the journey” (8). To what extent do you think that this could be true? How would your life change if you lessened your exposure to the media? How would your world shift if you began to travel more regularly, with an emphasis on exploring all that you came across? Can you remember and tell about a day that you were moving from point A to point B, and you noticed something, or something happened, that radically transformed your perspective?

2. “I was always worried that [my mother] might wander into the streets, or forget that I was in school and call the police to find me… I thought I was concealing this from my new friends… [but much later discovered] that my mother was called the Crazy Lady of the neighborhood” 10). Family secrets are more common that we would like to think, and less secret than we would wish. What is your experience with “family secrets,” and how has that impacted your own life?

3. Steinem often would ask her mother why she never took her daughters to New York to pursue her heartfelt ambition to be a journalist. Her mother would respond by saying, “it didn’t matter, that she was lucky to have my sister and me. If [Steinem] pressed hard enough, she would add, ‘If I’d left, you never would have been born.’ I never had the courage to say: ‘But you would have been born instead” (12). Gender role expectations have changed since then, and young women now have the choice of whether to follow their professional goals, to focus on raising children, or a combination of the two. However, this has resulted in the infamous “double work day” that most often affects women. To what extent does societal pressure and legislation make women’s lives more challenging? What cultural, legislative, and institutional support do women (and men wishing to focus on raising children) have in order to be working parents? What are the implications of the almost mandatory two-income household on child-rearing and on personal fulfillment? What are your own dreams, plans, and fears about having a family and a career?

4. Steinem confesses to two conflicting longings: to live a free and unfettered life without rules, and to have a “home”—“not a specific place but a mythical neat house with conventional parents” (9) or “a husband and children, a destiny I both thought was inevitable and couldn’t imagine” (31). Are you, like Steinem, torn between seemingly contradictory visions of your future? Do you lean more toward wanting stability and security, or adventure and risk-taking? To what extent would you describe yourself as a “rule-follower” or a “rule-breaker”—both in terms of written laws and societal norms? Why do you have the perspective that you do? What does it say about you? What adjectives would you use to describe yourself in this arena—like “exciting” or “brave” or “responsible” or cautious”? What do you think and feel about people who are on the opposite end of the spectrum from your point of view? What adjectives would you use to describe them?

5. “It’s said that the biggest determinant of our lives is whether we see the world as welcoming or hostile. Each becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy” (23). Do you tend to see the glass as half full or half empty? Or maybe cracked and leaking out? Or overflowing with abundance? How has your optimism or pessimism influenced your decisions over your life, and especially in the last year? Do you think that this is what Steinem means by the idea that our viewpoint becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or are there other ways to interpret or explain her idea? Are you content with the results? Can you think of a time that after the fact, your optimism or pessimism about a person (or class, or event, or anything) was proven wrong? Would you ever like to become less optimistic or pessimistic? Why?

Activity idea:

Research different philosophies of life, or rules for life, to find one that reflects your own ideals. Alternatively, delineate your own philosophy, if you have one well thought out. Write or video a defense of the philosophy. How does it contribute to your own success and fulfillment? How would it affect your community, on a local or global scale, in a positive way?  


Chapter II:

1. Steinem says that her work with the Ghandians in the 1950s “was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time” (36). “If I had to name the most important discovery of my life, it would be the portable community of talking circles: groups that gather with all five senses, and allow consciousness to change” (40). How do your class experiences mirror or contradict this formula of discussion? Your family conversations? Time hanging out with friends? What do you think would be the advantages and disadvantages of using talking circles as a model? 

2. “Even after group travel in New Delhi, it would take one very long trip down the east coast of India to change my homegrown notion that private is always better than public, something American carmakers had preached as gospel” (33). As a child, how much of your own transportation was public transport versus in a private car? How about now? What are the benefits of each form of travel? Do you have a story of a learning experience that happened to you when traveling via train, bus, or other public modes of transport? What would make you willing to utilize public transport more?  

3. “As Kamaladevi [Chattopadhyay] explained kindly, Devaki and I had the Great Man theory of history, and hadn’t known that the tactics we were drawn to were our own” (38). What are examples of the Great Man theory that you have seen—times when an idea already existed, but nobody paid attention to it until somebody “important” proclaimed it as truth? How do we lose out when we operate in this manner? How would life be different if we listened to everyone with respect and thoughtful attention?

4. Steinem laments that if women had been speakers at the March on Washington and other important events, “We might have known sooner that the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself—or will use military violence against another country—is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence” (43). How is violence against females perpetrated in the world today? In the United States? In Chico? How do you think it correlates to other forms of violence?

5. “To the religious right wing and much of the mainstream, we [feminists] were defying God, family, and the patriarchy they decreed. To the left wing and some in the mainstream, bringing up bias against females was a distraction from struggles over class, race, and other issues that were taken more seriously, because they also affected men” (49). To what extent is this perception still true today? What other social justice movements have been plagued by divisions from within? Why? How much of this is about fear? What do you think is the best way to achieve social justice—to present a unified front and fight for only the issues that all groups find equally important, or to also focus on issues and needs that are specific to some groups?

6. “If somebody called me a lesbian—in those days all single feminists were assumed to be lesbians—I learned just to say, ‘Thank you.’ It disclosed nothing, confused the accuser, conveyed solidarity with women who were lesbians, and made the audience laugh” (51). What was significant about Steinem’s position on lesbians?  On women of color? How does learning about her perspective and activism change your idea of what “second wave feminism” was about?

7. Steinem calls the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, at which 2000 elected delegates discussed and voted on resolutions in front of 18,000 observers from the U.S. and 56 other countries, “the most important event nobody knows about.” What were the major challenges in making this conference, brainstorm of Congresswoman Bella Abzug, come to fruition? What were the key platforms under discussion, and what were the outcomes? What were the specific women of color issues that were raised by the African American Caucus, the Asian and Pacific American Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the American Indian and Alaskan Native Caucus? Why is this conference so little known?

Activity idea:

Try out a group discussion in the form of a talking circle. Depending on how large your class is, and how much time you want to dedicate to the process, you may wish to break up the students into smaller groups. A good set of instructions for running a talking circle in the classroom can be found at: http://firstnationspedagogy.ca/circletalks.html.


Chapter III:

1. “Later my friend and I will agree that the worst punishment of that racist shout in the street was making us mistrust this man when we first got into his taxi” (71). Discrimination is both systemic and specific; in other words, in addition to living in a society in which hierarchy and judgment are ubiquitous, we also experience interactions that insidiously bolster our fears of other. In what ways have you seen systemic and specific discrimination? What were “the worst punishments” of your experiences? How can we counteract specific instances of discrimination? Systemic discrimination?


2. “Cabbies…tend to be shit-free guides to the state of social issues, and are often better political predictors than most media pundits” (72). One of the most surprising aspects of this chapter is the way that Steinem listens to, respects, and revalorizes a segment of the population that is consistently undervalued—a subsection of the service industry. Usually visible only as background, as objects, here taxi drivers are seen as individual, unique, and possessors of a great deal of privileged, indispensable information. What makes us commonly ignore and discount certain categories of human beings? What are the dangers of this behavior? How can we begin to turn this around?


3. “Stewardesses were a revolution waiting to happen” (91). What were the conditions for flight attendants in the 1960s and 1970s? How did they organize to change the system? To what extent have they been successful?

4. One driver surprises Steinem by saying: “I…don’t watch television…I don’t look at the Internet or read newspapers or books or play video games. I haven’t done any of those things in almost a year. I don’t want anything to interpret the world for me. I’m mainlining life” (81). This is one young man’s response to the external media that can filter information and experience before it gets to us, preloading with biases anything that manages to slip through. What are some of the ways that you have noticed media limiting or slanting information? What would happen if you went cold turkey on all media for a determined length of time?

5. In an internal dialogue, Steinem grapples with whether or not to challenge the misogyny and racism of one taxi driver: "Okay, I’m not going to change him between here and Newark, but if I don't call him on his bullshit, I'm saying it's okay. On the other hand, if I get really angry, I'll cry, and that's embarrassing." Has this happened to you? Talk about a time you were faced with the same conflict.

6. Steinem describes an encounter that came full circle with a trans woman taxi driver, who at one time had been extremely inappropriate with her and her other customers, and after transition interacted more professionally. Steinem says "you can change gender, but what about character?" (84) How did this make you feel? What do you think about that statement?

7. One flight attendant described her experience and stated "even my face is not my own." Have you ever felt like this? Talk about circumstances in which you feel like you do not have control over your face/ body/ attitude.

Activity:

Students all are instructed to initiate a substantive interaction with a member of the service industry (e.g. cabbie, retail store worker, waiter/waitress, maintenance worker, etc.). They should go into the activity looking for how to value the individual as unique and knowledgeable; in other words, treating the person as a potential friend or colleague. Students report back through a small group discussion (with each group reporting one person’s experience to the class), a reflection blog entry explaining how the activity made them feel, or a paper analyzing their usual interactions in contrast with this new required type of interaction.


Chapter IV:

1. Steinem comments that “For decades, places of higher education obscured the rates of sexual assault, in order to protect a campus reputation and encourage parents to send their daughters. Now I see a few campuses that are honest about and have policies to deal with sexual assault—which happens to an average of one in five women on campus, and a few men, too” (99). How is this reality relevant to you personally? How is Title IX supported on this campus? How do the policies affect student behavior and attitudes?

2. A feminist through and through, Steinem laments that “No wonder studies show that women’s intellectual self-esteem tends to go down as years of education go up. We have been studying our own absence. I say this as a reminder that campuses not only help create social justice movements, they need them” (98). What absences have you seen or intuited in your classes here? In the catalog/schedule offerings in general?

3. The author declares, “Serious politics are happening right here on campus” (101). How is that true at Chico State? How does student civic engagement and activism affect one’s education? What are the positives and negatives of political struggle taking place on campuses?

4. In discussing her on-campus talks, Steinem mentions that “sometimes, hostility shows up, and that is educational in itself” (103). She gives as example the rant of Professor Vernon Countryman at her talk in 1971, which later an audience member would describe thusly: “I remember being shocked that a Harvard Law professor could publicly appear so incoherent and out of control… The banquet ended with the quietly held yet widespread sense that Countryman had underlined Steinem’s theme of male boorishness and disrespect for women in a way that her words alone could not do” (107). To what extent does ignorance or unjustified bias show itself as flawed, even ridiculous, and not need to be addressed directly? To what extent should we confront such behavior, or just let it speak for itself?

Activity:

Research one or various groups practicing in activism and political struggle at Chico State. Present on when the group(s) were established, what is their mission statement, how large is their membership, what are the extent of their activities, and how successful they seem to be in fulfilling their goals.  


Chapter V:

1. When a high school-aged Steinem was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson, and all the female volunteers were hidden away lest they taint the candidate’s reputation, they accepted this status quo. She says, “We didn’t believe we could ever be insiders. I didn’t know that political change could make me feel safer in the street, or allow me an identity of my own instead of marrying it, or send my Toledo classmates to college instead of to factories, or get my current classmates out of their white ghetto” (131). Do you believe that you could become an insider and incite political change? Why or why not? What political change would you want to see?

2. Steinem observes that political “campaigns are based on the fact that every vote counts, and therefore every person counts” (131), later telling a parable that she illustrates with a chronology of what-if’s (“for want of a nail the horseshoe was lost…” 174-76). What do you think about the scenario of what-if’s Steinem outlines? What have you seen in the 2016 election campaigns that supports or discounts the idea that every person’s vote counts?

3. Steinem explains: “In each of these stages of campaigning, I’ve been inspired, angry, hopeless, hopeful, sleepless, surprised, betrayed, exhausted, educated, energized, despairing, and impatient—but never sorry… Nor was I tempted to be a candidate myself. That would have meant taking on conflict as a daily diet. I’ve noticed that great political leaders are energized by conflict. I’m energized by listening to people’s stories and trying to figure out shared solutions. That’s the work of an organizer” (136-37). Have you ever experienced such a gamut of emotions while engaging in one activity, even over time? Do you believe in someone or something strongly enough that you would go on the campaign trail for it/her/him? Found and run an organization or movement in support? What sort of interaction or challenge energizes you?

4. The author reflects on the idea that “[Eugene]McCarthy/[Barack] Obama came to symbolize hope because they were new and unknown, while [Bobby] Kennedy/[Hillary] Clinton seemed like pragmatists just because they had been near power. In fact, all four were both” (142). What are some of the many influences that contribute to our perspective of any candidate? Of anyone in the public eye? What do you want from a political leader? Do we have unreasonable expectations of our leaders?

5. Steinem was one of the organizers who in 1971 founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, in part to fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The NWPC was created to “have a structure that included state, city, and local caucuses; to be multipartisan; and to adopt a statement of purpose that opposed sexism, racism, institutional violence, and poverty through the election and appointment of pro-equality women to political office” (150). What would be some of the advantages and disadvantages of a group having such a structure and purpose? What were some of the group’s struggles and successes that Steinem discusses? What kind of organizational structure would be most effective to effect positive change in today’s political climate?

6. Steinem laments that “Ironically, the 2008 primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which gave us the chance for both [a woman president and a black president], was the best contest in terms of candidates and the worst in terms of conflict” (157). Describe the nature and causes of the conflicts in that primary race. How did the conflict affect Steinem personally? How have the 2017 elections fared in terms of conflict? To what extent does this influence how you think about politics, the news, and elections?

Activity:

Divide the class into groups, each of which will research one of the campaigns Gloria Steinem worked on outside of class. Decide which elements you want the students to include, so that the reports are all parallel. In class, have each group input their information into a Google Doc, perhaps in the form of an annotated timeline. Have the class use this as a study tool for a test, for skeleton notes that you will fill out through lecture, or alternatively, as the basis for a discussion about U.S. political history—what changes and what doesn’t?