Before reading Gloria Steinem’s memoir Life on the Road, I knew relatively little about the renowned feminist journalist and activist, other than that she infamously went undercover as a Playboy Bunny in the 1960s. I was intrigued to read her personal account, thinking that I would get the chance to delve into the heart and soul of a trailblazing icon.
Unfortunately for me, Steinem’s memoir is not actually about her. Rather it is a dizzying account of other people, events, and causes that she encountered throughout her travels in both the U.S. and India. From Civil Rights movements to the National Women’s Conference of 1971 to the Vietnam War to her support of Hillary Clinton in her campaign for the 2008 presidency, Steinem never stops moving.
Not even, it seems, to pause and reflect.
So while the book fascinates in its depiction of a woman perpetually involved in historical milestones, its structure is scattered and overstuffed with characters and causes. Steinem couldn’t help but come off to me as a woman who belonged to many causes yet none at all. She remains perpetually impassioned but also careening headlong from one activity to the next. She is so passionate about so much that throughout the memoir she assumes an almost phantomlike quality, momentarily materializing wherever the next great American cause emerges.
At first, this ghostlike ability to absorb herself into others’ dreams feels unequivocally noble and inspiring. But at the same time I perceived that her constant need to move mirrored a subconscious refusal to self-reflect, to confront herself and her choices. Never does she firmly establish a cemented sense of self outside of her countrywide search for the purpose du jour.
From my reading, the most raw and personal aspect of the memoir is found in its opening dedication rather than in its actual content. Steinem addresses Dr. John Sharpe of London, the deceased physician who performed her illegal abortion in 1957 when she was just 22 years old. She had just called off a marriage to a “good but wrong man” and was eagerly “seek[ing] an unknown fate” in India. The doctor made her promise two things: not to reveal his identity and to “do what you want with your life.” She closes the section by avowing to him that she has in fact “done the best I could with my life.”
The aching poignancy of her revelation touched me. Although I don’t have a whole lot in common with Steinem, I was almost in that position once. Also in my early twenties and blissfully chasing my dreams in Paris, I found myself pregnant and devastated. There was no future in the relationship, and I couldn’t fathom sacrificing my own purpose for a child that I didn’t want and would struggle to care for regardless. I distinctly remember telling myself after making an appointment at a clinic that I would make my decision worth it. I would do great things. I would dedicate the rest of my life to making the world more beautiful, less painful, for others. I would do things that I could never possibly do with a child. I would make the idea of me ever raising a child inconceivable, a lesser good compared to the things I would accomplish on my own. And I would never stop to think about that appointment. I would fill up my life with so much purpose and nonstop action that its memory would become irrelevant.
But I never showed up to that appointment, a decision for which I daily catch my breath in thanks. Nonetheless I understand the root of that pain that made Steinem a person so dedicated to bettering the lives of others. It helps me understand why she floats ghostlike throughout the pages of her own memoir. I understand her determination to focus on other people throughout a book that is ostensibly about her. I understand why she doesn’t stop to self-analyze. I understand why she never stops moving, never stops caring about a dizzying plethora of issues. She is working her hardest to make her sacrifice worth it. To make its memory and its implications into faded details from a past life.
And yet, as a mother taking care of my child now, I see how Steinem’s skewed perception of motherhood informed her own choices. Steinem writes admiringly of her kind but self-absorbed father, who dragged his family around the United States as a traveling antique dealer, while she deeply pities her “severely depressed” mother. Writing of her mother’s decision to be a mother and homemaker, she remarks that if she, Gloria, had never been born, her mother could have been born instead. In other words, because her mother was a parent, she sacrificed a happy and meaningful life. “I mourned her unlived life,” she recalls.
An “unlived life.” I wonder what type of mother Steinem would have been to a flesh-and-blood child. In some ways she embodies maternal love, particularly in her deep concern for others. In fact, while I spend my days with my toddler daughter, figures such as Steinem remind me of the importance of expanding my own concerns beyond daily parenting rituals. She reminds me to listen to the pain of others, to strive for justice for their sakes even when doing so requires personal sacrifice.
Still, I find it both heartbreaking and understandable that Steinem’s own dysfunctional upbringing so discolored her understanding of motherhood. Though a dynamic and powerful woman, she couldn’t help but believe that having her child would insulate and diminish her. But then again, I myself didn’t realize until my daughter’s birth that love only liberates and enlarges.
I would like to think that if Steinem had been able to see past her mother’s depression, had believed motherhood could be redemptive rather than deadening, she would not narrate her own life story as a ghost. That if she’d had her child, she would still have dedicated her life to helping others. To doubt that, I believe, is a troubling either/or. It sets up women to make a choice between fulfilling their purpose and being a mother—a choice that I don’t think women should have to make.
If only she’d known that motherhood could be a part of her purpose. She could have raised a daughter who knew that she, too, could change the world.