This collection of Steinem’s essays from the 70s and 80s was inspiring and accessible at the same time. She can easily fool you into believing you are engaging in a casual conversation with a friend, only to shock you sentences later with a thought so provocative that you start to think your friend may be the most humble genius you’ve ever known.
Steinem writes a lot about the power of language to change thought. In Words and Change she shows how the coinage of terms like “sexual harassment” and “battered women” changed the way violence toward women was perceived by the general public. She discusses how terms like “reproductive freedom” and “pro-choice” foreground women and their autonomy, altering how they perceive themselves and what freedoms they are entitled to. She wonders how men would feel if they received a “Spinster of Arts or Mistress of Science degree,” and then worked hard for a “sistership” (178).
Part of what makes Steinem so enjoyable to read is how she manages to be critical of her former beliefs without any accompanying regret. She is honest about her pre-feminist ideas without punishing herself. Of her undercover journalism stint as a Playboy Bunny, she writes: “Though I always identified emotionally with other women, including the Bunnies I worked with, I had been educated to believe that my only chance for seriousness lay in proving my difference from them” (19). She is always empathetic – even with herself – but never excuses or justifies anti-feminist behavior.
One essay I found especially inspiring was on Why Young Women are More Conservative. In this piece, Steinem challenges the truism that individuals begin their adulthood with liberal values and become increasingly conservative as they age. Steinem proposes that this trend is completely reversed with women. “As students,” she explains, “women are probably treated with more equality than we ever will be again…the school is only too glad to get the tuitions we pay.” Furthermore,
“As young women, whether students or not, we’re still in the stage most valued by male-dominant cultures: we have our full potential as workers, wives, sex partners, and childbearers.” (239)
This idea struck me as very intuitive and provocative. I’ve always accepted and subsequently worried about the trend of growing more conservative with age. The possibility that this is not the case with women was fascinating to read about. Steinem suggests that as women age, they experience certain “life events that are most radicalizing for women,” i.e. discrimination in the work place, a lack of equality in marriage, the pain of childbirth, and the social consequences of aging, which tend to lead them toward more radical politics (240).
There is even an essay where she lays out various fantasies she’s had where Feminism defeats a sexist institution or group. For example, “Feminists get together a small international army and take over Saudi Arabia…this fantasy can make you happy for at least ten minutes” (342). And then there’s the essay called If Men Could Menstruate, where she suggests such drastic world changes as “Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free” (383). (I think this all the time.)
Her essay/portraits on famous women were also impressive. She seems to have the gift of expounding an entirely new perspective on a topic everyone thinks they already know. I’m also a complete sucker for all-encompassing dramatic metaphors like this one:
“We’ve spent the first decade or so of the second wave of feminism on the riverbank, rescuing each other from drowning…. Now, some of us must go to the head of the river and keep the victims from falling in.” (408)
I truly look forward to reading more of Steinem in the future.