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In this oral history Steinem discusses her upbringing in a loving but unstable home with an emotionally ill mother and a carefree traveling antiques dealer father. She cites her years at Smith and experiences in India as pivotal in shaping her views on race, class and gender. Steinem also describes her journalism career and the role her work as a writer and speaker played in raising her consciousness about women and society. She speaks with candor about various feuds, conflicts and misunderstandings within the feminist movement and their impact on her life.
She also discusses strategies for building and sustaining personal and political alliances. I had about an hour between flights.
You have to go through customs in Montreal coming from Canada, and so they thought that they might not have my bag. I had to wait there about 30 minutes. Then I got to the plane. There was not one but two women pilots who flew me from Montreal to [Hartford]. And so when I saw that, I thought, How fitting, you know, that I would be flying to Smith to interview Gloria Steinem, and be taken there by not one but two women pilots.
I mean, for me it was just an absolute symbol of the impact of your work and then others from the second-wave feminist movement. So I asked the women to my boarding pass. Daphne and Carla J. I put a little note on it this morning. All right. I'm definitely going to frame this.
And I looked around. And it was aboutyou know, women and men flying from Montreal to[Hartford].
I looked around at the men to see if they were, like, flipped out about having these two women pilots, and they were completely, from what I could tell, fine with it. You know, it was very clear to me that they thought that this was completely normal, not at all out of the routine, to have these two women pilots.
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And it was just a wonderful experience. So this and your bag were a message. And so I stopped playing softball. So I shared that story with them. And I also shared with them — because it had such an impact on me when I interviewed you early on about Alice [Walker] — when you said that you had been the only white lifeguard at this pool in Washington, D. And when I said Woman want nsa Beechwood Trails about you, everybody in the room went, Really?
Has she written about that? So if you could share some about, you know, that experience. How you came to have that job, how old you were then, and just what you took from that experience. STEINEM: And actually, Alice and I were once going to do an essay like that, just our own early experiences of race, of being the only — or just, you know, as a kind of parallel. I came to that job just because I needed a job. There were two pools in Washington, D. One was in Georgetown, all white, and one was in the southeast section of D.
They put me in the all black, because I guess I was late. You know, they just sort of waited until I got to be okay. Meanwhile, they taught me how to play bid whist and cooncan, which is kind of like gin rummy, I think. You know, they just were themselves and made jokes and sort of just waited until I got to feeling less awkward, I think. I never really asked them about it, but I think that was really what was going on.
It gave me some idea of what it is like to be the one and the only, and also how important it is to feel included. And they made me feel included, even when we would go out after work for a beer or something like that.
And if other white people, especially some — It was a totally black neighborhood, but occasionally there would be a group of white guys — because I think there was a baseball field nearby or something — and they would look at us askance. A group of white guys, young guys, objected and said, What's that white girl doing with all of you? That girl is just one big recessive gene walking around on two legs.
And the kids were wonderful, because I was teaching kids to swim. A lot of them had never seen that much water in one place, and they were fearless, you know, fearless. Also I think that plus living in India helped. Nothing helps completely, of course, because we have this terrible consciousness of color, which is crazy, but it helped a lot. It really helped a lot. I remember you once talking about a black girl in dancing school that was sort of one of your role models. What was your experience with color and race like there? It was a very kind of midwestern, you might say, situation, where there were kind of two separate societies.
The football team had black players — who were very good players, so they were very valued. But I would say the most liberal thing that happened in that school was an effort to have the football banquet someplace where everyone could go. However, in my ballet class there was one black dancer who was very elegant and had aunties. I remember her aunties brought her.
She was, I would say, several class levels above me in the sense that I was coming from this working-class factory kind of neighborhood. So that was good too, in retrospect, because it made me understand that class and race were not the same thing; Woman want nsa Beechwood Trails there were upper-class and upper- middle-class black people and working-class white people. And coming from your working-class roots, as you know, there can be this sense of divisions, and blue-collar people do this and upper-class people do this.
Tell me about your sort of path to dance — ballet and other dance. Those of us who know you [know you] to be a wonderful dancer. I saw those programs over in the archives, with you in all these dance recitals. STEINEM: I was not exactly, I would say, a working-class person in the way everybody else was, because I was like a middle-class person on the way down, and everybody else was working class on the way up.
So, I mean, we had descended economically, but we had books in the house and we had things.
We had a tradition of speaking English. You know, it was a mix. Sorry, is it all right if I stop? The cigarette girl, whose name was Ruby, taught me how to tap dance. I liked it, and so then my parents got me tap dance lessons nearby.
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I used to do all kinds of routines. I remember doing the Minuet in G in a hoop skirt. But when my mother and I were living by ourselves in east Toledo, I started to take dancing again because I liked it, and also it was a way to earn money.
You could dance at supermarket openings and for the Lions. The foreman on the line there might belong to the Elks, and the guys on the line belong to the Lions. But I remember that later on in the evening, things must have got pretty rough, because they had chicken wire laughs covering the bandstand, from the bottom to the top, because people threw each other through the drum. So I went from that to also dancing in the chorus line of the operettas, which were in the park.
They would get the principals of Naughty Marietta, The Vagabond King, all these classic operettas, from someplace else, but they would hire the dancing chorus and the singing chorus locally. So I did that, having lied about my age a lot. I may be 13 to 18 or something, but I was this tall then anyway, so —. But it made me realize that I was having to fake ballet all the time, because the other dancers had had ballet. So I started to take ballet. That was my little route to ballet. And then I totally fell in love with it, and I went to all the movies that had Cyd Charisse.
But I was never very good. You know, I was going to dance my way out of this working-class neighborhood. I do think that show business, in general, is to little girls in poor neighborhoods kind of what sports is to boys in poor neighborhoods. So that was my great dream.
I mean I liked that the best, but I also did work as a salesgirl. That was a much more reliable source of income. She and my father had met each other at the University of Toledo, working on the News Bee, which was the campus newspaper. It will come to me. Then she later on got a job on one of the larger news — there were two large newspapers then.