Book In Common


This year's Book in Common for Chico State is Gloria Steinem's recent autobiography. My Life on the Road is a perfect example of the personal being political, as Steinem-- a front-runner in the Women's Rights Movement-- chronicles moments in her family and personal life that inspired her activism in the political arena. Through humorous and deeply moving anecdotes, the book proves the point that by working together regular people can drive change, even given enormous obstacles. Her stories of respectful partnering with and learning from diverse peoples offer models for a powerfully inclusive collaborative structure. At the same time, Steinem's recollections of her decades working the campaign trail in the pursuit of equal rights, and especially during the last presidential elections, offer fascinating and almost prophetic insight to our current political environment. 

All instructors are encouraged to find ways to incorporate portions of the Book in Common, ideas addressed in the book, or the book in its entirety, within their courses this academic year. Here you will find synopses, discussion questions, and activities for each chapter-- in the hopes that this might help you decide how to best include My Life on the Road. New material will be posted every week or two, until all chapters are covered. Feel free to take liberally, and/or to offer additional materials to be posted. Send to Sara E. Cooper, Faculty Liaison for the Book in Common 2016/17. 

Additional curricular materials generously contributed by faculty and Reading Group members available here.

Find ideas for research projects and extra credit here.


Introduction:

Road Signs

Synopsis:

Steinem outlines her four objectives in writing this book: share a key aspect of her life—traveling—about which she hadn’t ever written in any length; to encourage readers to get out on the road, or just to live “in an on-the-road state of mind”; to disseminate stories she has heard from the diverse people she has met in her travels; and to inspire women to seek lives of adventure and travel.

Discussion Questions:

Discussion questions and activities for each chapter can be found here! 


Chapter I:

My Father’s Footsteps

Synopsis:

Recalling her early childhood and reflecting on her mother and father as the unique individuals who modeled living for her, Steinem… From four to ten years of age, her life was dominated by a father with a pathological fear of home and staying put—their family traveled buying and reselling antiques most of the year. Leo Steinem’s spontaneity, aversion to following rules, constant brainstorming, and comfort with instability would prove valuable modeling for a young woman wanting to change the world. For the next seven years, Steinem turned into a caretaker for her mother, whose anxiety, depression and memory issues profoundly marked her daughter. Only later was she to learn that her mother too had wanted more than almost anything to be a journalist, an ambition she abandoned to follow her husband and have children.

Discussion Questions:

Discussion questions and activities for each chapter can be found here! 


Chapter II: 

Talking Circles

Synopsis: 

Steinem's two years in India in the 1950s, spent traveling and working alongside the Ghandians during a period of caste wars, gave her the basic philosophy that would underlie her organizing for the rest of her life. In a nutshell, sit down one-on one with people, listen to them closely, and find out how they live. Only then will they see and listen to you, and perhaps change their minds and lives. At the famous March on Washington, a woman in the crowd opens Steinem's eyes to the extent of how women, and especially minority women, are marginalized and kept silent even in the progressive civil rights movements. In response, Steinem staunchly takes up the banner of women's liberation and begins her career of organizing and activism. Inspired by indigenous traditions from many continents—including the First Nations on this continent—she institutes a practice of “talking circles” wherever she presents or organizes, breaking down the hierarchy separating the sage on the stage from the supposedly lesser beings in the audience. Through her early years of circuit speaking with women of color partners such as Flo Kennedy, and her experiences with the momentous 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, she solidifies her understanding of multiple oppressions and her commitment to equal rights for all women--even those whose issues and desires are different from her own.

Discussion Questions:

Discussion questions and activities for each chapter can be found here! 


Chapter III:

Why I Don't Drive

Synopsis:

Steinem begins this chapter recalling that she became accustomed to communal travel in India, which she found to be more interesting and enriching than driving solitarily in a vehicle; this is only a springboard to allow her to share a couple dozen stories from and about the taxi drivers and flight attendants whom she met in her travels. Drivers range radically, from a gentle Italian man who surprises Steinem by being kind to her and her African American lover, to a tough and strong woman who tells her about tantric sex, to a vitriolic ethnocentric Eastern European immigrant, to a young man who has started “mainlining life”—a self-identified “recovering media addict” who quit cold turkey (82). The stories drive home the point that people in this particular service profession are not only unique individuals with their own tales, but also they listen to a constant and somewhat random series of conversations between people of all walks of life. Steinem says she finds them “to be shit-free guides to the state of social issues, and are often better political predictors than most media pundits” (72). In the third section of the chapter, she emphasizes that flight attendants also have been her teachers. However, what is developed at more length and with more poignancy is her depiction of the egregious treatment of women attendants back in the day, their fierce struggle to eke out even minimal rights, and the continued injustices that they face—even now that the profession is less segregated along gender and racial lines.

Discussion Questions:

Discussion questions and activities for each chapter can be found here! 


Chapter IV:

One Big Campus

Synopsis:

Given Gloria Steinem’s forthcoming visit to our campus, we may be interested in learning that university and college trips comprise the largest part of her travel. When she began to speak to audiences of students, faculty, and staff, campuses were both hotbeds of social justice organizing and stagnant defenders of patriarchal tradition. An early speaking engagement (1971), at the annual Harvard Law Review banquet demonstrates to her a truth whose irony permeates many stories she tells in this chapter: “hostile responses…ultimately, they educate an audience” (107). Steinem believes that her job, when brought to speak at a campus, is to investigate what inequities exist at the institution and to say the things that others can’t—out of fear for their diplomas or their jobs. In keeping with Steinem’s philosophy that she herself should be talking for at most half of any public address, leaving the rest for questions and discussions, Steinem humbly suggests that her best events are those in which a question raised on one side of an auditorium is answered by someone on the other side. Her approach is to open a dialogue in which people feel both stirred to contribute and supported in doing so, allowing deep and heartfelt conversations that would never take place in “the miraculous but impersonal Internet” (123). Steinem also gives many examples of how illuminating such free-for-alls can be, proving for her the point that not everyone believes in equal pay, respectful treatment of the gender non-conforming, or the many ways in which cultural diversity enriches a community. Still, in her experience campus visits are a source of great inspiration, because they are the stage for many courageous, humane and life-affirming acts at all levels—from the personal to the globally political.


Chapter V:

When the Political is Personal

Synopsis:

In this chapter, Gloria Steinem chronicles her long life on the campaign trail—which began when she was a senior in high school and volunteered for “Students for [Adlai] Stevenson.” Despite the blatant gender and racial hierarchy evident in the campaign office, she was captivated by the “openness, excitement, and hope” she found there. Over the next many decades Steinem stays hooked into political campaigning: as a volunteer; in the press corps that accompanied candidates by air or bus; founding and campaigning with organizations such as the National Women’s Political Caucus; and finally in her sixties as a free agent, showing up where she thought she could be most useful. Among the countless candidates Steinem championed, she tells stories about writing for Shirley Chisholm in her 1972 presidential bid, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy before Bobby Kennedy joined the race, working with Bella Abzug when she first went up for Congress, and supporting Dolores Huerta and César Chavez on their famous boycotts. Steinem also discusses the personal and political tensions that sprang up when progressives were faced with two promising candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. She laments the blatant misogyny and racism she saw, and the phenomenon of the white, female “Hillary Haters,” her own struggle in deciding who to support, and the reasoning of her eventual backing of Clinton in the primaries. Finally, she spends several pages making a passionate appeal for all of us to “not only vote but fight to vote,” declaring that “the voting booth really is the one place on earth where the least powerful equal the most powerful” (176).


Chapter VI:

Surrealism in Everyday Life

Synopsis:

A compendium of what Steinem calls “irrational juxtapositions on the road” (181), the stories told in this chapter are humorous, although the laughter provoked will vary between a dry and sardonic chuckle and a good-natured belly laugh. Steinem is given a chauffeured tour through every truck stop between Boston and New York, including one where most of the jukebox tunes are thematically consonant with the driving life. Bob Dole stars in a Viagra commercial. A large man with a pickaxe approaches Steinem when her car is stopped at a construction barricade, only to enthuse over his favorite Ms. Magazine stories—as well as to tell the tragic story of his sister’s death. Rush Limbaugh goes on record opposing Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination, accusing her of trying to cover up her “bad legs” with pants. Abortion clinic doctors provide service for the very women who are protesting outside their places of employment. In another section, Steinem wryly recounts some of her more memorably laughable moments fundraising, such as when she races Loretta Switt in a horse-drawn cart in an event promoted as “M*A*S*H vs. Ms.” In the final section she reminds us to never assume what a person is capable of judging on appearances or profession. In one, an older white man in a diner gives Steinem a lesson on Ho Chi Min that sends her on a research mission. In the other, we hear of the courage and social justice activism of Father Harvey Egan, Pastor of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis. She follows that extolling the surrealism of the 2012 Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (the largest North American organization for nuns), over their social justice work and their wanting women to have a greater voice—in the church and out. The investigatory body is the same one that ran the Inquisition.  


Chapter VII:

What Once Was Can Be Again

Synopsis:

Steinem’s final chapter focuses on the impact that Native American philosophies, traditions, and individuals have had on her own life and on the Women’s Movement in general. She begins by stating that perhaps ancient indigenous tribes from our continent (and others) could provide us with the model of a “balance between females and males” that already had existed—and therefore could again (211). Through moving anecdotes, she laments this country’s great ignorance about and lack of respect for our own indigenous peoples and the great civilizations that could teach us so much (citing among other examples lack of knowledge of the Iroquois Confederacy, which had inspired the U.S. Constitution), and she tries to correct at least a little of that unawareness. Steinem talks about the mound all across the United States that were centuries of work in the making, represent some of the spiritual beliefs of the original cultures, and offer such a wealth of history. She recounts Native myths like that of Serpent Woman, celebrates Native writers such as Paula Gunn Allen, and dispels some of the lies that have been told for centuries about the peoples that held these lands when the Europeans invaded. For instance, she contrasts the general belief that any white pioneer woman would suffer “a fate worse than death if captured” with the alternative perspective that “more typical were white women who experienced the communal work and higher status of a Native culture, and chose it over their own” (219). Returning to the topic of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Steinem lauds the work of women like Comanche activist LaDonna Harris and organizations like Women of All Red Nations, who taught many about the atrocities that had been perpetrated in the past, and equally about the tribal wisdom that revered Native women’s sagacity and contributions. From these and other Native people she learned, for example, that “the paradigm of human organization had [once] been the circle, not the pyramid or hierarchy” (223) and that “a balance sheet really could be about balance”—the equilibrium of profit, environment, and community needs (233). However, her most lengthy and touching recollections are of the Native women who came to form part of the board of the Ms. Foundation, especially Wilma Mankiller. Elected as deputy chief and later as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller was an intelligent, patient and resourceful organizer who helped lead enormous change for her people. After years of working together, the two women became close friends, so much so that Steinem was invited to join Mankiller a dozen years at the Cherokee National Holiday, and eventually was allowed the honor to accompany her in her final days with pancreatic cancer.


Afterward:

Coming Home

Synopsis:

In this very brief epilogue, Gloria Steinem says that in her fifties she started looking for more balance in her life, finally building a home for herself, without ever giving up traveling. She suggests she feels at peace with her mother, her father, and herself.