The first two years of my marriage were spent in the suburbs of San Diego, in a sleepy town on the coast, straight out of the Truman Show, where nothing, not even Jim Carrey, ever happened. I came to look at the place, maybe a tad unfairly, as the Californian backwaters or, even more cattily, as one of those beautiful women amazing to look at, but with nothing much going on upstairs.
During those two years, I tried my best to fit in, to participate in PTA committees and to befriend my neighbors, who were all younger than me and mysteriously (in my eyes) preoccupied with toddlers and cleaning product. Books and words could always ease my discomfort so I would spend most of my free time reading and, eventually, I pleaded with the local Barnes and Noble manager to give me a part-time job. “We pay $8 an hour, you know”, she told me. Little did she know I was willing to work for free so I could meet other adults, on the off-chance they would also be interested in books.
One evening, a beautiful, slender woman, perfectly coiffed and made up in an effortless way that was uncommon to find in that part of the world, approached my cash register. She looked familiar. She handed me a stack of magazines, which I dutifully rang up, all the time thinking “Holy crap, it’s Gloria Steinem”, which was confirmed when she gave me her credit card. One would think that 15 years of chit-chatting with rock stars and famous people would have me prepared for some gracious remark to offer a woman I deeply admired. Other than thank you and goodbye I couldn’t come up anything articulate, which was a bit of a shame because, according to a front page article in the Opinion section of Sunday’s New York Times, Ms. Steinem remains very approachable and patient with strangers who routinely mob her.
I don’t think I ever aspired to emulate anyone if not a better version of me, but, if I had to pick five people who inspire me, Ms. Steinem would certainly make the cut. Maybe she became the most visible face of American feminism also on the back of her astounding looks but that doesn’t make her contributions any less real. And, just maybe, many more women could identify with someone who didn’t let her leg hair grow and had no problem flaunting her sexuality. I know I did. One could be pretty and smart, and act like it. Who knew?
From the time I could read English, I also started reading Ms. magazine. I can’t credit just Ms. Steinem for my profound belief in the power of women and the just cause of fighting inequality but, often, her words prodded me along the way. And so did her example on how she lived her life: going under cover to work as a Bunny at Playboy so she could give a firsthand account of the one-sided sexual haven the Playboy Club represented; her successful and public battle against breast cancer in the ’80s; her first marriage at 66, to David Bale (father of Christian) who, sadly, died only three years later.
Most recently, her musings on aging gave me hope.
“Fifty was a shock, because it was the end of the center period of life. But once I got over that, 60 was great. And I loved, I seriously loved aging. I found myself thinking things like: ‘I don’t want anything I don’t have.’ How great is that?”
At 80, her thoughts veer more towards mortality – still, her birthday will be celebrated riding elephants in Botswana, the country that is home to one of my favorite fictional characters, Precious Ramotswe, from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: a woman who flees an abusive relationship, sells her cattle inheritance to open the Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, employes Grace Makutsi (another stupendous female character) and goes about solving simple mysteries and helping fellow men along the way. Oh, she also finds a decent and kind hearted man in the process.
I am sure Ms. Steinem would approve of such an assertive and singular woman. And also that she sprang from the mind of a brilliant man, Alexander McCall. That is how far we have come. Still a lot of work to do but this is how many men see us and like us now: empowered and independent. We have finally become the men we wanted to marry, as Ms. Steinem once said.
If I could re-live my brief encounter with Ms. Steinem, there is no much more than thank you that I would like to say. For showing me, and so many others like me, how it’s done with grace and smarts and courage and for working so hard, and for so long, to make sure the more fortunate amongst us don’t drop the baton and forget to help those who haven’t gotten there yet.
Happy Birthday Gloria.