On Her 77th Birthday, Seven Things I’ve Learned from Gloria Steinem

Four years ago I showed up on Gloria Steinem‘s doorstep in New York to take care of her animals while she was away for the summer. When she returned, she let me live with her while I got my financial and social footing in the big city. Yup, it was a very cool experience to live with Gloria Steinem, but not one I’m ready to explain in full  because I can’t possibly analyze and translate all the lessons I’ve learned from this “feminist icon” just yet.

It bothers me though, that on days like today there will be blogs posts and articles that memorialize Gloria as if she’s already gone or as if she’s a one-dimensional gray photograph in a history book with a list of accomplishments in the sidebar. Few of these will represent the very human, ever-evolving woman who is constantly teaching, by words and deeds, how to live a life dedicated to making the world better for all people. So today, on her 77th birthday, here are a few of the things I’ve picked up that daily influence my organizing, my worldview, my life:

1. Patriarchy is a relatively new mistake. If we think the world has always been run by and for men–mostly white and all of the colonizing sort–we assume that oppressing women and people of color is the natural order. I’d been so indoctrinated by this false history that it shook my whole world when Gloria spoke of egalitarian original cultures that honored and lived by the rule that both men and women have equal, necessary roles to play in society. For instance, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) clan mothers, to this day, have the sole power to nominate the chiefs that go on to represent the tribe in the Grand Council. In other Iroquois Nations, the women alone controlled the food supply, meaning male warriors had to seek their permission for rations to take to the battlefield. Once you know to look for them, examples like these abound, allowing us to imagine our struggle for equality as one to turn the world back right-side up!

2. “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but you think it’s a pig … it’s a pig.” Self explanatory enough– trust yourself, always. For many of us marginalized people, we’ve been taught to do just the opposite. This is what oppressive forces want and something we must resist with all of our being.

3. Ask the turtle. Via Donna Brazile, a story Gloria tells often: “While on a field trip in college with her geology class, [Gloria] discovered a giant snapping turtle that had climbed out of the river, up a dirt path, right to the edge of a road. Worried it would soon be run over, she wrestled the enormous reptile off the embankment and back down to the water. At that moment, her professor walked up and asked what in the world she was doing. With some pride, she told him. He said that the turtle had probably spent a month crawling up that long dirt path to safely lay its eggs in the mud on the side of the road and that she had destroyed all that effort with her “rescue.” This story informs every organizing effort I take to this day: Always ask the communities you’re trying to “help” what really needs to be done and how or you’ll invariably do more harm than good.

4. Good ideas are not a finite resource. From board rooms to organizing meetings, it’s more common than not for people to fiercely protect their ideas for fear of not receiving credit. But in reality, no one has the capacity to effectively enact every single idea they have. I’ve been privileged to watch Gloria share ideas freely with other organizers, lending her name to them if it helps but perfectly willing to hand them over without a mention if it doesn’t. More importantly, she is constantly introducing people to one another who can combine resources to make ideas come to fruition. I’ve learned that the best thing an organizer can do is help others brainstorm, act as a support where and when they can, and step away when they can’t.

5. Real intergenerational relationships are possible, but only if both parties are equal. With more than 50 years between us and more than a thousand miles between me and my biological family, it was easy for me to slip into imagining Gloria as my adopted grandmother. Or, if I wasn’t thinking that, she was obviously my mentor, teaching me how to be an effective feminist organizer. She made a habit of gently correcting me: We’re friends, colleagues and co-conspirators. She taught me that pasting familial terms and the mentor label onto any relationship between people of different generation creates a power imbalance that insists the older person has everything to teach and the younger person everything to learn. How limiting that is, when you think about it, and this is probably the root of a lot of the intergenerational conflict within the feminist movement. Therefore, a fave Gloria quote: “We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.”

6. We all need “chosen family.” Some of us are blessed with a supportive, understanding biological family unit and others are not. But we all benefit from finding and connecting with others who simply get, to the very core, who we are. I’ve tried to follow Gloria’s example of building a small group of like-minded friends with whom I meet regularly to laugh, cry, organize, drink and play. With bad news coming from every corner and patriarchs freaking out at our growing power, we really and truly do need our sisterhood.

7. Perhaps the only true sentences in the English language are those that begin with “I.” All humans, but especially female humans, connect best via personal stories. It’s our personal truths and experiences that inform our activism, and as soon as we abandon the personal for academic or movement language we lose the essence of what made us committed to social equality in the first place. Gloria taught me to stop talking if I find myself speaking in theories and return to what in my personal story made me connect with whatever I’m talking about.

Happy, happy, birthday Gloria–here’s to many more years, mutual learning and stories!

Photo of Shelby Knox and Gloria Steinem, reprinted with permission from The Ms. Education of Shelby Knox.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    What a wonderful article … and tribute to Gloria

  2. The intergenerational one hits home for me. It's easy to get caught up in all of the icons being our mentors. It's like it's a disrespect if they aren't given the status that they deserve, in my opinion. And now as I'm turning 35 a 22 year old just told me that I was their mentor, and I'm still wigging out about it. Me, a mentor? I am learning just as much from her as she apparently feels that she is learning for me. It's hard for me to think of myself as a mentor, while at the same time I don't see myself on equal footing with people who I idolize as my mentors.

    • Katy Wolfe Brandes says:

      You get what you give. You must be doing something right for that young woman to tell you how she felt. Good for you both!

  3. Pandora1 says:

    What a lovely tribute to a very personally powerful woman! Thanks so much for your 7 things you've learned, and I'll bet she's learned a lot from you as a "friend and colleague/co-conspirator" as well, as she is the best kind of teacher there is — a sharing and growing one! You are so right about aligning yourself with "sisters" who get it and who may or may not be part of your biological family. (I had one sibling who got it; another who didn't …so be it) But Gloria was one of the first for me, and as we both age, she remains one of the strongest!

  4. I have never heard a speaker with a more powerful gentleness than Gloria Steinem radiates. The minute she steps on stage, everybody in the audience wants to be her best self.

  5. I am turning 60 this year and learning from women 20 years my senior. I also learn from my daughter who is 25.
    Feminist come in any age group, shape or size.
    Thanks to Gloria Steinem for all her work and for the power of Ms. Mag.

  6. Cornelia says:

    Very good -)

  7. Loved this. A beautiful tribute to my hero from a wonderful woman I don't as yet know.

  8. Penelope says:

    Looking forward to the books you will write, Shelby.

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