Gloria Steinem: Just one of the girls

It’s not often in life that you get to meet a public figure you’ve admired for as long as you can remember. Last weekend I did, when feminist superstar Gloria Steinem came to town for the Milford Readers and Writers Festival.

Steinem was gracious, funny and inspiring as she spoke to a full house at the Milford Theater on Saturday. Earlier in the day, the longtime political activist and co-founder of Ms. magazine stopped by Hillary Clinton headquarters to rally the volunteers.

She encouraged everyone to vote, but her bigger message was nonpartisan.

Steinem urged her listeners to keep an open mind about other people, underscoring the point by reading an anecdote from her book “My Life on the Road” (Random House, 2015).

A trip to Sturgis, S.D., happened to coincide with the fabled annual motorcycle rally there. Steinem admitted to feeling uneasy amid the leather and chains. But one day, “While walking in Rapid City, I hear a biker say to his tattooed woman partner, ‘Honey, shop as long as you want—I’ll meet you at the cappuccino place,’” she writes.

On her final morning in Sturgis, Steinem was eating breakfast at her hotel, “hyperconscious of a room full of knife sheaths, jackboots, and very few women.” Then the leather-clad woman from the next booth approached to tell her “how much Ms. magazine has meant to me over the years—and my husband too.”

Steinem concludes that as with the landscape of the Badlands, “What seems to be one thing from a distance is very different close up.”

It can’t be easy being famous, but Steinem must be used to it. She seemed very down to earth. During the question-and-answer session after her talk, an audience member called her an icon. Steinem laughed, shook her head and said, “I’m just one of the girls.”

She appeared unruffled at being besieged by fans and autograph seekers everywhere she went. People corralled her for photos and selfies, touching their cheeks to hers or putting their arms around her shoulders like old friends. (I myself got her to sign my book as a friend snapped a cell phone picture.)

The fuss is understandable, since for women of a certain age Steinem is a legend—a larger-than-life role model. As a friend put it, “she fought the good fight for so long on our behalf.”

At 82, Steinem was smaller than I expected, and she cut a glamorous figure in a buttery-soft suede jacket with deeply fringed sleeves. I would have loved to hear her speak about aging and what growing older has been like for her. Her one remark on the subject was that women become radicalized as they get older because they lose power, whereas men grow more conservative as they gain power with maturity.

“I am trying very hard to understand mortality because being 80 doesn’t feel any different from being 40,” Steinem told an interviewer earlier this year. “I tell everyone in the world my age because I just don’t believe it myself.”

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