Two teen-aged girls stepped to the microphone to ask a question of a woman old enough to be their grandmother. This “grandmother” was Gloria Steinem, and she waited, along with 2500 other people in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, for the question.
“We’re 14 years old,” one girl said, her friend pressed to her side. “What advice can you give us?”
“Don’t listen to me,” Gloria replied. “Listen to yourselves.”
The two teens turned toward each other, their eyes wide and cheeks flushed, then started up the aisle toward their seats as the theater filled with applause.
Throughout that November evening with Gloria (I feel that I can call her by her first name after hearing her stress that she sees herself not as an icon, but “as one in a tide of women who made and make change”) I learned how important listening is for her. For an hour, Gloria responded to questions from author Cheryl Strayed, then asked to hear our stories.
For another sixty minutes, women of all ages (there were men in the audience but none went to the microphones) spoke of their concerns and sought her wisdom.
Gloria has been making the rounds of lecture halls, libraries, universities, temples, and Planned Parenthood centers promoting her memoir, My Life on the Road (everyone in the audience received a copy). As she spoke about the issues facing the world today, she often moved a hand to her heart. “Social justice movements aren’t in silos—they’re all connected.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that I came late to the social justice movement of feminism. When Gloria began speaking out about women’s rights in the late 1960s, I was focused on my high school studies in a small, conservative Midwest town. Even though men and women in my community followed traditional roles, independent women surrounded me. My grandmother worked for years as a switchboard operator for Union Pacific Railroad. My mom worked outside the home after my father’s death when I was two, and she continued in a journalism career after she married my stepfather. After high school, I attended nursing school—all of my classmates, teachers, and the nursing leaders I encountered were women. Despite the medical and hospital hierarchy that ranked male physicians above female nurses, most of my role models were smart women in positions of authority. In my limited view, women were powerful.
That night at Benaroya Hall was the second time I’d heard Gloria Steinem speak. The first was thirty-four years earlier in a gymnasium at a community college in Seattle soon after my twin son and daughter were born. By then, I was more aware, and I unreservedly thought of myself as a feminist. But, as I joined hundreds of women in the gym bleachers, I questioned that I deserved the title. Although I was in graduate school and working—following what was viewed as the path for liberated women—I was enthralled with new motherhood and had wistfully left my babies at home with their dad. I worried that Gloria’s speech would leave me feeling that I’d betrayed her and the many others who had worked for equality in the workplace. Just the opposite happened, though, as she explained that feminism is about women choosing their own course. I left there knowing that I still fit.
All these years later, I still had much to learn about Gloria’s work, and her talk and memoir helped fill many gaps. One thing I learned is she’s committed to listening and creating opportunities for people to be heard. That dedication is especially evident in her stories from university and college campuses; here are a few examples from the chapter, “One Big Campus.”
- In 1971 she was invited to give the address at the Harvard Law Review She writes that to prepare, she interviewed women who were in the minority in the law school. At the end of her speech, “Why Harvard Law School Needs Women More than Women Need It,” she recited their testimony of the sexism rampant in the school. She could cite those examples because she listened.
- Gloria learned about disability as a civil rights issue from deaf students at Gallaudet University by “listening” to them through sign language interpreters. She wondered after meeting them if someday knowing “both an audible and a physical language” might be routine. She writes that, thanks to what she learned from the Gallaudet students, “I can imagine it.”
- During a conversation with students at an Oklahoma university, a young man protested Gloria’s support for legal abortion on the grounds it isn’t in the Constitution. When a female student rose to respond, Gloria described it as “…the magical point when people start to answer each other’s questions. I can just listen and learn.”
As a Quaker committed to nonviolence and equality, I know the power of listening and being heard. Gloria Steinem modeled that for the sold-out audience for her lecture. And that night, my daughter sat beside me to experience it herself.
You can listen to Gloria’s conversation with Cheryl Strayed here: http://kuow.org/post/feminist-icon-gloria-steinem-finds-hope-road. Be sure to scroll down to hear spoken word performer Hollis Wong-Wear who opened the event accompanied by cellist Rebecca Chung Filice.