I saw her off to the side of the stage, notecards in hand, patiently waiting while the evening’s host read aloud her accolades. From where I was sitting I would have pegged the woman in the wings as thirty or forty, but no more, had I not known otherwise. She stood ramrod straight and confident, with lustrous tresses that highlighted her famous face and when the moderator said, “Please welcome Gloria Steinem,” she strode across the stage waving and smiling to the crowd, her long elegant limbs outlined in all black, cinched at the waist with a wide sparkly belt. I’d never before envied an octagerian’s carriage or posture but her assured stride gave me hope (for the first time, really) that aging can be graceful, advantageous, and quite possibly even luminous. I realized then that being elderly doesn’t have to mean you shuffle and snivel around, worn down and cranky; it can mean communicating big ideas with no waver whatsoever in your voice as you speak clearly into a microphone, even if, as Steinem admitted, “Public speaking can make you lose your saliva to the point where your teeth feel like they’re wearing miniature angora sweaters.”
A friend who was traveling overseas had kindly given me her tickets to see Gloria Steinem, a featured speaker that night at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, a glorious venue that visitors can’t help but be struck by, not always kindly though, more like they’re stunned that a city associated with crime statistics can house anything beautiful. I much prefer Steinem’s perspective, which she said right up front, spreading her arms wide as if to encompass all of us: “Brooklyn is the Oakland of the East. It doesn’t care if it’s not Manhattan either.” The East Bay crowd went wild with appreciation and applause. Steinem was well aware of less-than-fair comparisons to our glitzier San Francisco sibling and we loved her for it.
As the saying goes, she had me at hello and when someone asked later during the Q&A session if she could identify the trigger that had caused her to become a feminist, she leaned into the microphone with a grin: “I was born female.”
Back in the ‘60s, when Steinem first began touting equal rights for women, the idea was considered radical, and even today many successful females, including actresses, authors, business owners, and high ranking executives are leery of attaching themselves to such an “off putting” label. There are probably a myriad of reasons for doing so, the least of which equates to earning power, which is ironic in light of a statistic Steinem is fond of quoting: “A woman with a college education is still outearned by a male with a high school education.”
As opposed to what someone like Bill O’Reilly might irresponsibly say (feminists are feminazis), feminism simply stands for the right to receive equal pay for equal work. Is this radical? Or reasonable? True, hierarchies might need to change, they will need to change for that to happen, but Steinem’s messaging isn’t hateful or oppressive or exclusive. She stands for inclusion – both for gender and race. She stands for a unified people, which as I’m typing calls to mind that obviously not everyone wants unification (or anything close), which unfortunately can lead to offensive terms like feminazis. I mean, really?
I myself was unclear about the definition of feminism for quite some time. As a child raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s I remember seeing newspaper images of women burning their bras and letting their leg and armpit hair grow long. I associated feminism with being anti-feminine. That wasn’t for me, no thank you, yet I did seek self-sufficiency and independence. I didn’t want to rely on a man for income, wellbeing or identity. Looking back, I attribute my vision to what my parents had laid out while growing up: Girls can become whatever they want and should know how to take care of themselves. Did this make my parents feminists? Until hearing Gloria Steinem I wouldn’t have thought so. But perhaps that’s exactly what they were – subconsciously or not, it was to my benefit.
Feminism wasn’t intended to be the focus of this article. It was meant to be about being inspired by someone who knows who she is, who is true to herself and her beliefs, and who has aged as graciously and intelligently as anyone I’ve ever seen. It was meant to be about charging up the rest of us, the ones who might feel occasional bewilderment and melancholy about getting older, about shunning our ambiguity as to whether we can make a difference well into our later years, about affirming that we count. As Gloria’s presence reminded me, there’s no reason we can’t be relevant and interesting and curious up until our very last day.
When an audience member asked Steinem what advice she would give to grandchildren, she paused only for a second. “I wouldn’t say anything. I would just listen. And then I would ask what do you love to do so much that you lose track of time?”
While listening to Gloria, I lost track of time and didn’t want the evening to end. I jotted down notes to discuss later with my husband. We’re fans of sound bites and she offered a couple that illuminated and encapsulated the evening. Statements like: “My fondest hope is that we all leave here feeling different and better tomorrow after being with each other.” (My goodness, how refreshing.)
“If you’re ever in a place where you’re forbidden to laugh you’re in the wrong place.” (Copy that.)
And: “The only place on earth where the least powerful person has the same amount of power as the most powerful person is in the voting booth, so we need to restore our faith in the system.” (Beginning with local elections, not just the big ones.)
As much as I nodded my head in agreement and silently fist-pumped the air throughout most of Steinem’s speech, it was my husband who wound up with the best quote of the night. Every so often he does that. He expels little gems, things that cause me to look deeper into myself (not that I’ll always admit it). Granted, he may wish I’d do this more often in relation to other sorts of comments, like did I happen to pick up some dark chocolate or did we get the taxes done, but when he looked at me over a glass of wine afterwards and said, “Gloria Steinem is someone who has used her life well,” I clapped my hands together and said, “That’s it! That’s the perfect way to describe her.”
Secretly, though, I felt a little morose. His observation lit me down a path strewn with loose pebbles, and ever since, those darn little stones have worked their way into my shoes and in between my toes, causing gritty discomfort as I turn over thoughts in my head, assessing my purpose, my hopes and my goals. We all want our lives to matter, to be filled with meaning and joy and love, and perhaps for a part to outlast us, to live on in some way. Taking a look and daring to ask whether I’ve used my life well has caused some unsettled rumbling from within. It’s also produced buds of hope, though, the blossoming of ideas that I plan to capture and carry out, with the fervor and vibrancy of a youthful eighty-one-year-old.
I may not have a banner yet, but I will find one to wave.