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A Contagious Path to Change

Gloria Steinem’s most memorable words remain relevant

If the women’s movement can be considered the longest revolution, then Gloria Steinem is its incontrovertible leader and popular voice. The Truth Will Set You Free, but First It Will Piss You Off! is a collection of quotes and essays selected from Steinem’s many books, articles, and speeches, accompanied by a few contributions from fellow feminists such as Michelle Obama and bell hooks. The book also features illustrations by Samantha Dion Baker.

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

A feminist icon for the last five decades, Steinem seems to have always been there, a steady presence as the women’s movement has evolved. In fact, she has literally been present at many of the most important political moments in recent U.S. history. Her roles as journalist and feminist activist sometimes overlapped, as when she listened to Martin Luther King in 1963 at the March on Washington or stood alongside Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in 1968 during the farm workers’ strike in California. She organized the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977 and gave the keynote speech at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

It is a testament to her longevity that Steinem can offer a book like The Truth Will Set You Free…, premised on the assumption that her words still inspire action and create hope in turbulent times. Representing a lifetime of activism, the book has a reflective tone but also contains the witty and calm steadfastness that Steinem is known for in works such as Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and Revolution from Within.If recent events such as the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and the spate of anti-abortion legislation around the country are any indication, Steinem’s voice remains as relevant as ever.

Steinem calls quotes “the poetry of everyday life,” and although few of us have had a life as remarkable as hers, her words speak to the experience of a great many women. It was in October 1991, as I watched Anita Hill testify before Congress during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, that I first considered myself a feminist. Seeing the spectacle of 14 white men questioning a black woman made the lack of female representation in American politics — and the need to correct that — obvious even to a 21-year-old college student like me.

For Steinem, the moment of awakening came early in her career as a journalist. In a chapter titled “Work Is Not a Four-Letter Word,” she describes how as a young journalist she was sent to report on one of the early feminist speak-outs against illegal abortion. It was the first time she was allowed to report on something other than stockings and dating. The experience led her and a group of women writers and editors to start Ms., the first national feminist monthly magazine in 1971, just as the women’s movement was gaining momentum. 

It is to this consciousness-raising that Steinem has devoted her long career. Remarking on the spread of quotes that have become slogans, like #MeToo and #Time’sUp, Steinem argues that “such shared quotes are the most powerful and contagious path to change because each one contains a personal story.” Her work has always invited us to reflect on how our personal actions can foster political change and The Truth Will Set You Free…, despite its pithy format, is no different.

Some of the quotes in the book are well-known (“Imagine we are linked, not ranked.” “This is not a reform; it’s a revolution.”), while others speak directly to the current moment (“Beware of any motto that glorifies the past. It’s code for restoring hierarchy. For example: Make America Great Again.”)

Steinem is definitely having a moment of her own. In addition to the play Gloria: A Life, which debuted on Broadway in 2018, her 2015 bestselling memoir, My Life On The Road,is slated for a film adaptation. Directed by Julie Taymor and starring Julianne Moore as Steinem, it is due for release next year.

At 85, the legendary activist shows no signs of slowing down. “I hope to live to 100,” she is quoted as saying in the HBO documentary about her life, Gloria: In her Own Words. She continues to encourage us all to make the most of our time here: “There is no greater gift than thinking you had some impact on the world for the better.”

A Contagious Path to Change

Joy Ramirez is a writer who lives in East Nashville. She is working on a novel.