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Feminist Gloria Steinem Finds Herself Free Of The 'Demands Of Gender'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest today is Gloria Steinem, a leader and symbol of the women's movement since the 1970s, still active and speaking out at age 82. She cofounded Ms. magazine in 1972 and remained one of its editors for 15 years. She also helped found the National Women's Political Caucus and the Women's Media Center. She's written about political, social and economic barriers to women's rights. She's also written about her own life and the personal obstacles she's had to overcome and how they represent obstacles many women face.

Her memoir, "My Life On The Road," is now out in paperback. She estimates she's spent at least half of her time on the road for more than four decades. She says she's traveled with a purpose - to raise awareness of women's issues and organize women in the U.S. and around the world. And as we'll hear, she kind of grew up on the road. Terry spoke to Gloria Steinem in October of last year, when "My Life On The Road" was published in hardback.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Gloria Steinem, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to start by reading the dedication of your new book.

GLORIA STEINEM: (Reading) This book is dedicated to Dr. John Sharpe of London who, in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a 22-year-old American on her way to India. Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, you must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life. Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death. I've done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that dedication to your new book. When did you first speak about your abortion?

STEINEM: The amazing thing was that it took me so long. There was no women's movement. It was supposed to be a secret. Women didn't share in the same way. So it wasn't until many years later, after New York magazine had started. And I had gone to cover an abortion speak-out held in a church downtown in New York City. And suddenly, I heard other women standing up and talking about what it was like to have to go out and seek an illegal abortion.

This was actually an alternate hearing to one that the New York state legislature was holding on the liberalization of abortion law in New York state. This was before the Supreme Court ruling. And, you know, a group of early feminists had just said, wait a minute, you know, in New York (laughter) - in the legislature, they asked 14 men and one nun to testify. You can't make this up, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEINEM: Let's hear from women who have actually had this experience. So I sat there as a reporter for New York magazine, listening to women tell their stories, you know, that were tragic and ludicrous and every human emotion all wrapped into one. And suddenly, I thought, wait a minute, you know, I had an abortion. And actually, 1 in 3 American women had needed an abortion at some time in her life. So why is this illegal? And why is it dangerous? And it's the kind of revelation that comes from people just telling the truth and discovering you're not alone.

GROSS: So is this book - this dedication - the first time you mentioned the doctor's name who performed your illegal abortion in England?

STEINEM: It is the first time I mentioned his name.

GROSS: And why you decide - why did you decide it was OK now to mention his name?

STEINEM: Well, first of all, he was quite old at the time. So he clearly could no longer be alive, no matter what. Secondly, the laws have changed. Our understanding has - it just seemed to me that it was time to say thank you.

GROSS: Do you often wonder what your life would've been like had you not had the abortion and had you had a child at that age?

STEINEM: You know, it just - you know, I don't know what would've happened. I had been doing all the foolish things that we then did, like riding horseback, throwing ourselves down stairs (laughter), you know, the - all kinds of things in the hope that...

GROSS: Well, let me stop you right there. Did you throw yourself down stairs?

STEINEM: Yeah, kind of - I did. I did. And, you know, I am the most cowardly (laughter) person you can imagine, so - physically speaking. But I did. I kept thinking that somehow, you know, I could - I don't know what I thought. I was desperate. I really was desperate because, you know, I just knew that if I went home and married, which I would've had to do, it would be to the wrong person. It would be to a life that wasn't mine - that wasn't mine at all.

GROSS: Did you hurt yourself throwing yourself down the stairs?

STEINEM: No. You know, you're quite resilient at 22.

GROSS: Right.

STEINEM: (Laughter) I didn't, no.

GROSS: So what surprises you about the current debate around abortion?

STEINEM: I think I am still most surprised by the inability or the reluctance of many people to tell the truth because - you know, about the need for abortion and, I must say, about the morality of abortion because it seems to me that every child has the right to be born, loved and wanted. And every person has the right to control - male and female - to control their own bodies from the skin in.

I think we need a - legal principles called something like bodily integrity, which recognizes that, though the state may jail us, they can't insist on injections or tests or pressuring us for organ transplants or, you know, the - our skin needs to be the line of defense between our own dignity and will and any outside force. We do need a new wave of telling the truth, I think. However, I'm not surprised by the opposition because it is the basis of (laughter) - of everything. I mean, to be able - the definition of patriarchy is to be able to control reproduction. And that means you have to control women's bodies.

GROSS: You spent half of your life on the road. You're still on the road a lot. You grew up on the road. Let's talk a little bit about your very atypical childhood. Your mother was often incapacitated by depression. Can we call it depression?

STEINEM: You know, I - I don't know what to call it. I think her spirit was broken. You know, she, before I was born, had to give up everything she loved and cared about. And she was depressed. She got addicted to tranquilizers. You know, I don't think there was any - when I first wrote about her years ago, I was surprised that people would say to me - do you feel this was hereditary? And I was shocked. And I always said, only if patriarchy is hereditary, (laughter) you know, because I just think her spirit was broken.

GROSS: Your father, until you were 10, during the summer, ran a dance pavilion that he created. Would you describe what your father did summers?

STEINEM: This was a little lake in southern Michigan called Clark Lake. He had built a kind of long, big pier with part of it covered, part of it uncovered over the lake. And on weekdays, there would be sort of canned music and a jukebox. And on weekends, a band - then, the big bands of the '30s and '40s used to travel the country in the summertime in a bus (laughter). And so we would get some famous bands sometimes - Wayne King and Joe Venuti, I mean, names I don't know if people know anymore. And this was his dream. And he - you know, he created a kind of a magical place.

GROSS: So what was it about being there or about being with your father that broke your mother's spirit?

STEINEM: It just wasn't hers. Well, let me describe what she had been doing before - long before I was born. She was a pioneer newspaper reporter and journalist and, actually, editor, which was extraordinary. But it was an era in which she at first had to write under a man's name in order to get published. So, you know, she was a real pioneer. And she loved it. She adored it. At the same time, she was married to my father, a wonderful, kind, charming, utterly irresponsible man. So there were always money troubles and, you know, lots of difficulties. She had my sister, who is nine years older than me. And I think, you know, as she later explained, she'd fallen in love with a man at work and had grown up believing that you could not divorce. You could not change. She had a girlfriend who wanted to come to New York with her where she could try her hand at being a journalist. You know, she had all these aspirations. She just couldn't make it work. She had a - what was then called a nervous breakdown, which meant she was in a sanatorium for a year or two. I'm not sure. And there, she got hooked on an early form of tranquilizer.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gloria Steinem. And she has a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gloria Steinem. She has a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." So getting back to this life that you had as a child, your mother's spirit was broken. It was often hard for her to get out of bed. Your father created this - you know, like, wonderful dance-pavilion summers. But then when the summer was over, the family would move into a van and drive south and basically live - when I say van, I should say trailer, I suppose - and then the family would live in the trailer for the duration until the following summer.

You write that you never started out with enough money to complete the trip. Your father would buy antiques and then sell them to antique dealers - you know, buy them at country auctions and then sell them to antique dealers at higher prices to fund your trip south. How did you like being itinerant like that?

STEINEM: I suppose that two things happen at once when you're a child. One is that you just accept as normal whatever is around you. And the other is that you go to the movies and you see kids or your classmates - because I would go to school until it got cold - to Halloween or something - who are living a different way. And you want to be like them. You want to be like the other kids. It never, for a moment, occurred to me that they might envy me. So I both accepted it and hoped that my real parents would come find me and take me to a house with a picket fence and a pony. I mean, that's the degree of realism and fantasy.

GROSS: Mhmm. So you weren't in school for those years that your family was on the road. How did you learn to read and do basic math?

STEINEM: Well, I'm not sure I've ever learned to do basic math to be frank.


STEINEM: But I learned to read just because my family had lots and lots of books, especially my mother - you know, read all the time. My memory is that I learned how to read from ketchup bottles and labels and billboards along the highway. I don't know. I'm not sure. But I don't remember not knowing how to read.

GROSS: Was it legal for you to not be in school?

STEINEM: No, I'm sure it was illegal. And my mother always said that if the truant officer showed up, she would use her teaching certificate - the fact that it was for university calculus, which she had been...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEINEM: ...Teaching in order to make money to finish college herself - I don't know how impressive it would've been. But anyway, no - but no truant officer ever showed up.

GROSS: How did your father's sense of money that you could start this trip without having enough money to complete it and just kind of buy and sell things to fund the family - how did that affect your idea of money and the security that you need or don't need for money?

STEINEM: It felt insecure. However, I must say that unlike a lot of kids, I always had enough to eat. I always had shelter. I always had parents who loved me. So I had security in a lot of ways. But my father's philosophy was he didn't want to know what was going to happen tomorrow because if he didn't know, it might be wonderful, as he said (laughter). So I have to say it prepared me very well to be a freelance writer...


STEINEM: ...And never to have a real salary.

GROSS: You've said in the past and you said on our show years ago that you're a food-aholic (ph) - addicted to food. You were - you said, I'm a fat woman who's not fat at the moment.

STEINEM: (Laughter) True.

GROSS: And I think I didn't understand at the time that your father was 300 pounds. What was his relationship to food?

STEINEM: Food was his drug of choice and joy. You know, he knew every all-you-can-eat roadside restaurant within, you know, a hundred miles if - wherever we were, he knew who had the best super-thick malted. He was a foodie without snobbery, I would say.

GROSS: How did that affect your relationship to food? And I'm wondering if your father, when he binged, wanted you to eat a lot, too, so that he could maybe think of it as he was doing it for you, to make you happy.

STEINEM: I don't know if he thought that. But he did think that ice cream was the ultimate reward. I mean, no matter what bad thing happened - say our car had been repossessed by the finance company or he had mortgaged the house without my mother's knowing about it. And, you know, no matter what bad thing happened, or no matter what bad thing had happened to me, you know, the - my - I don't know. I mean, a childhood kind of bad thing - he thought that a malted and a movie could cure everything. And I have to say he wasn't wrong. A malted and movie can go a very long way.

GROSS: So how did that affect your sense of yourself as a food-aholic?

STEINEM: I'm still a sugar junkie. I still find it very difficult. I can't keep certain kinds of food in the house because they talk to me, you know, especially when I'm sitting there writing (laughter). So...

GROSS: They call you over?

STEINEM: They call me over.

GROSS: They summon you (laughter)?

STEINEM: I think - they summon me. And I think writers also need to chew in some odd way. Well - so I cannot keep ice cream or any - or bread or, you know, anything too rewarding in the house.

GROSS: Your parents separated when you were 10 in 1944. And you had to take on a lot of responsibility for your mother at a young age. What were some of the things you had to do for her when you were still a child yourself?

STEINEM: Well, it depended on - you know, on the ups and downs of her moods. But I would make her meals or the child's idea of a meal. And I kind of always worried about what I would find when I came home from school, you know, because she might be really depressed. Or she might have retreated into another world. Or she might be convinced that a war was happening outside the house and be wandering around in the street. I - you know, talking to other people whose parents were, say, alcoholics and who also kind of didn't know what they would find when they came home has made me realize that it's not - I mean, it's hopefully uncommon. But it's certainly not unique, my experience.

GROSS: She was called the crazy lady of the neighborhood once you had a neighborhood. What was your reaction to that? And did it make you think of her differently than you did before?

STEINEM: No, I don't - didn't make me think of her differently. She was someone - how can I say? - I mean, she was a loving, wonderful woman who recited poetry by heart and was, you know, certainly super loving toward me. But sometimes, she was just in another world. And I didn't know when that would happen.

GROSS: Are you still convinced that your mother was suffering from patriarchy as opposed to a mental illness of some sort - bipolar, depression...

STEINEM: No, I am because later on after I was in college and, therefore, my sister - my older sister was taking care of her and discovered that she just couldn't do it and keep her job. So she found a very good mental hospital where my mother was for a couple of years, which should've happened probably long before. And I asked the doctors there - the very expert doctors there - what was wrong. And they said she had an anxiety neurosis. And I said, would you say her spirit was broken, and they said yes, you know? I mean, she - I don't think there was anything organically wrong. She did get hooked on tranquilizers. And that became part of the problem, not the solution.

GROSS: During the 10 years that your family was on the road, did you have any friends?

STEINEM: I had a couple of very good girlfriends in the summer. And, you know, one was the daughter of a farm family. And I used to go to her house. And another was in a nearby small town. So I had always had a couple of good girlfriends. When we were on the road, I would make friends with other kids in the trailer parks along the way.

GROSS: What was it like when you started school after you were 10, having not been in school before, whereas all the other kids in school had been in school before?

STEINEM: I had been somewhat in school because I would go until it got cold, (laughter) you know? So I'd been - every year, I'd been a couple of months in school. I kind of knew what school was. But when I went for my first year, I discovered, A, I didn't know how to do long division. I didn't know the multiplication tables. Although I'd been in many states, I had no idea what the map looked like. It was a big deficit I'm not sure I've ever made up for.

But I had a huge vocabulary because I'd been reading all the time - grown-up books, kids' books, everything. And I soon learned two things - one, that that could compensate in a lot of ways and get me through school. And the other was that I shouldn't indulge in this enormous vocabulary too much because it was - seemed strange to the other kids.

DAVIES: Gloria Steinem speaking last year with Terry Gross. Steinem's memoir, "My Life On The Road," has just come out in paperback. After we take a short break, we'll listen to a short excerpt of Steinem's 1992 FRESH AIR interview, in which she talked about approaching the age of 60. And she'll tell Terry about what life is like these days, now that she's in her early 80s. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Gloria Steinem, who's spent decades as a leader and symbol of the women's movement. She co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972. Terry interviewed Steinem last year, when her memoir, "My Life On The Road," was just published. It's just come out in paperback.


GROSS: Do you remember the moment when you first realized women's rights was a legitimate issue along with all the other rights that you are interested in fighting for?

STEINEM: You know, the amazing thing is (laughter) how long it took me, actually. I mean, there was no - at least to me, there was no visible women's movement. So I thought I just had to function within the system as it was. And I identified with everybody else who was having a hard time. I think women often do that without knowing that it applied to us, too. But I owe it to the women who held that hearing on abortion, for instance, or, you know, who had been inside the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement and even in those movements that we utterly loved, still were not treated equally and so had understood that there needed to be an additional women's movement.

GROSS: How did it redefine you to know that as somebody at the forefront of the women's movement, you were going to be an example of what you were fighting for and that the choices that you made were going to be public choices?

STEINEM: I didn't really think about that because it seemed to me - was - the whole idea was the ability to make our own choices. So I never felt that I had to behave in a certain way that was subject to outside dictates. I thought the whole point was that we were able to use our own talents and do what we wanted. So I didn't feel inhibited by it in any way.

GROSS: I remember you telling me that one of the reasons why you co-founded Ms. magazine was that writing for other magazines - they just weren't interested in women's issues. They'd say, oh, we did an article about women's issues or about the women's liberation movement, like, eight months ago, so we don't need another article yet. And that article about men was, like, articles about the world. But articles about women fell into the category of, like, yeah, we covered that a while ago. We're done.

STEINEM: Well, in - that was true of women's magazines. But in other places where I was writing, including The Sunday New York Times - (laughter) you know, lots of other places - the attitude was even worse. It was sort of, well, if we publish an article saying women are equal, then, in order to be objective, we'll have to publish one saying they're not, you know? (Laughter) So...

GROSS: What was your reaction to that?

STEINEM: Well, it seemed perfectly logical to them because they thought it was debatable, if you see what I mean.

GROSS: Yeah, I definitely see what you mean.

STEINEM: But it seemed...


STEINEM: Right. But it seemed extremely frustrating and outrageous to me.

GROSS: Do you remember the articles - the headlines - in the first edition of Ms.? I want to see if those articles could still be written today. Like, how much have things changed (laughter)?

STEINEM: Well, we did have a piece about a couple that had made a marriage contract. In order to make up for the unequal laws on the books, they had made their own contract. We had reprinted an article from another feminist publication called "Why I Want A Wife," by Judy Syfers. I remember. She deserves credit.

GROSS: I remember that article.


STEINEM: And it was a woman talking about all the reasons why she needed a wife. It was funny and wonderful.

GROSS: To have somebody at home who was doing the cooking and cleaning and taking care of the errands and stuff...

STEINEM: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Which was what wives were supposed to do. But she was working, so she needed to somebody to take on that role.

STEINEM: Yes. Exactly. Right.

GROSS: Would've been helpful. Yeah. What else was in there?

STEINEM: There was an article by - let's see. I'm trying to remember. It was a woman, an activist in the National Welfare Rights Organization. And she was explaining - I think it was Johnnie Tillmon who was explaining why welfare was a woman's issue. At the time, it was viewed more as a racial or poverty issue but not a women's issue, even though almost everybody on welfare was female. It just wasn't perceived as it should be. And so she was writing about what life was like and why it was a women's issue.

GROSS: So that first edition was 1972, right?


GROSS: What's your connection to Ms. magazine now?

STEINEM: Now it's published by the Feminist Majority Foundation in Los Angeles. And I am an adviser to it. But I'm not the daily role at all that I was for, you know, such a very long time. And I'm very grateful to them that they are taking good care of it. And now it's quarterly, but it has an additional and big life on the web.

GROSS: If I asked you to make a list of the five most important issues for women today, what would be on that list?

STEINEM: Well, I can do it. But I would like to say that the most important issues are those to the women who are listening. I mean, it's not about dictating to each other what's important but supporting each other and solving the ones that are in our daily lives.

GROSS: I like that point that you just made (laughter).

STEINEM: However, if you add up, you know, in terms of the numbers of people, I would say that competing for No. 1 would be violence against females worldwide. If you add up all the forms of violence, whether it's domestic violence in this country, which is at an enormously high rate - I mean, the most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home. And she's most likely to be beaten or killed by some - by a man she knows. Or it is FGM - female genital mutilation - or it is female infanticide or honor killings or child marriage and too-early childbirth, which is a major cause of death among adolescent girls worldwide. So, you know, violence has reached an emergency - well, it's - I mean, any violence is an emergency. But, you know, collectively...

GROSS: What - well, the sense of emergency has certainly increased with groups like the Taliban and ISIS...

STEINEM: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Truly attacking women and denying them any form of rights.

STEINEM: Yes. No, it's the extreme forms of patriarchy, often religious - so-called religious - and the violence against females in warzones - sexualized violence in the Congo and, you know, many in the former Yugoslavia. You know, and all of these have mounted up to a real emergency. But tied, I would say, for first place is the ability of women to decide when and whether to have children because that is a major cause of death. The lack of that ability is a major cause of death. And it is also a major cause of inability to be educated or to be free outside the home or to be healthy. You know, so I would say those two concerns, violence - sexualized violence against women and reproductive freedom or reproductive justice are right up there in our focus in every country.

GROSS: Because you spent half of your life on the road, you've had a very ambivalent relationship to home. You write that it took you a really long time to create a comfortable home for yourself, in part because you were on the road all the time and you grew up on the road until you were 10. At what point in your life did you create a home that was truly a comfortable place - more of a nest - (laughter) that was a good place to return to?

STEINEM: Really only after 50. I had buried in my head this idea that you only made a home for husband and children. I didn't see a lot of women making a permanent home for themselves. I didn't think that way. And also, I was on the road, so I was always in - living out of suitcases and cardboard boxes when I was at home. And even though I now, to this day, live in the same apartment that I did then, it was more like a storage place than an apartment.

It was only after I was 50 that, thanks to dear friends who came and helped me to unpack my cardboard boxes and another friend who explained to me how to make beautiful colors on the wall and took me around to auction places to buy things that I loved - she said, only buy what you fall in love with because if the same person falls in love with all these things, they'll fit together. Don't worry about it. I remember going out with her to buy antique sheets. It was orgasmic, practically...


STEINEM: ...The pleasure of buying antique sheets (laughter). And so I began to make a home - a nest - for myself. And I take such pleasure in it. I think, in general, as a culture, we tend to think there are two choices - settling down or traveling. And actually, you need both. You need a nest - birds need a nest. And they still fly, you know? So it took me a while - that it wasn't either. Or it was both.

GROSS: It's interesting what you say - that because you were single, you thought, well, a nice home - that's what you build for a family but not when you're single. It reminds me of the attitude a lot of people have when they live alone. And they don't cook for themselves because, no, cooking is what you do when there's other people. If you live alone, you don't make yourself a nice meal.

STEINEM: That's true. I have to say that I still am much more likely to order in than cook.

GROSS: Right.


STEINEM: But I take great pleasure where - in the place I live. And also, there's something extra for me because I could never have my friends in the house when I was growing up because of my mother. So now I have the Steinem-Hilton, basically (laughter). I have a guest room where friends from other countries and who are in town - you know, it matters so much to me that I can have people in my house.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gloria Steinem. And she has a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gloria Steinem. And she has a new memoir called "My Life On The Road." I interviewed you several times on FRESH AIR in the past. And I want to play an excerpt of our interview from 1992. And one of the things we talked about was you were looking back on having had a lumpectomy - breast cancer - and how that affected you. So I want to play what you said about that. So, again, this is from 1992 - Gloria Steinem looking back on having that lumpectomy and how it affected her life.


STEINEM: It made me realize several things. One was - this may sound strange if I try to say it short - but that, actually, I wasn't - I was less afraid of dying than of aging - or not of aging, exactly. I didn't know how to enter the last third of life because there were so few role models because when I first heard this diagnosis, first, I thought, ironically, oh, so that's how it's going to end, you know? And then I thought to myself, as if it was welling up from the deepest part of me, I've had a wonderful life. And I treasure that moment. You know, it meant a lot to me.

But on the other hand, it also made me realize that in this culture, women - we know how to be in the central plateau of life. And I'd been there a terrifically long time because I'd become a grown-up too early because - my mother being an invalid. So from about 10 to 52 or so, I'd been in this central plateau. Now I was entering a whole new place. It was like falling off a cliff because I couldn't see enough people ahead of me.

You know, in the last two or three years of really - how shall I say? - of kind of paying more attention to my own inner life, I've realized that this aging in the last third of life or whatever is a new country. I now actually feel excited about it because you - as Carolyn Heilbrun has pointed out so brilliantly in "Writing A Woman's Life," women become ourselves after 50. You know, we leave behind this female impersonator role and drop a lot of baggage and really become much more our true selves.

GROSS: You know, what I find particularly interesting about hearing you thinking about the latter part of your life is that I think for a lot of women, it's the end of your life where you're supposed to be punished for the freedoms that you've taken during the first parts of your life.

STEINEM: (Laughter).

GROSS: You know, like, if you've decided to be independent or, you know, not be married or not have children or something, you're punished for that in the end because you're supposed to look forward to an old age where you're lonely. You're alone. There's no one to be with, no one to take care of you. I mean, I think that's been really instilled in all of us.

STEINEM: Mhmm. Yes, it's sort of the secular version of hell, I think.


STEINEM: And like the religious version of hell, it has nothing to do with real life.

GROSS: OK, that was Gloria Steinem on FRESH AIR in 1992. And I just did the math. And I think you were 58 when that was recorded (laughter). So now...

STEINEM: Thank you for playing that because it's fascinating to listen to your earlier self. (Laughter) Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. So does what you said then still ring true?

STEINEM: Yes, it does. And I realize that - I realize more now that I'm past that stage, that 50 was a very difficult birthday because it was the end of the central years of life. But 60, which I was just entering when I was speaking then, was like entering, as I was saying, a new country. And that means that all the demands of gender that spread from something like 12 to something like 50 and are something of a prison sometimes are gone. And suddenly, you're free.

Here's my comparison now. Remember when you were 9 or 10, and you were this independent, little girl climbing trees and saying, I know what I want? I know what I think and so on. That was before gender descended for most of us, as Carol Gilligan has pointed out in her work. After 50, you've theoretically, according to society, had kids, raised them. So your gender role is over. And ironically, I found by 60, you're free again. So you're the same person you were at 9 or 10. Only now you have your own apartment. You can reach the light switch (laughter). You know, you hopefully have a little money so that you can, you know, do what you want. There is, as I was saying then, a whole different country after 60.

GROSS: But you were never tied to those gender roles anyways. You didn't need to be...

STEINEM: Well, we're all tied to those gender roles. I mean, I don't think they're escapable...

GROSS: But it's not like you had the children who are now out of the house, so now, like, you have more independence.

STEINEM: That's true. No, that's true. It wasn't tied to the life cycle of a child. But it was tied to hormones and sexuality and affairs and how you looked. And none of us escapes this completely. Nor should we escape it, necessarily.

GROSS: What does being in your 80s symbolize to you now? If - you told us a little bit what 50 and 60 symbolized...

STEINEM: Shock - total shock.


GROSS: Shock in what sense?

STEINEM: I stop people on the street and tell them how old I am...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEINEM: ...Because I'm trying to make myself believe it. I mean, 81 is an age that I think is someone else's age, you know? It's quite bizarre. And part of it is, I think, because we don't have role models of people going ahead of us. I don't have - I've very few role models of women my age who are doing what I'm doing. And in fact, the people I work with every day and love and, you know, are my current chosen family, in terms of numbers, are probably - I don't know - at least 40 years younger than I am. And even my friends from Ms. and so on are at least 10 years younger than I am.

GROSS: Gloria Steinem, it has been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

STEINEM: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Gloria Steinem's memoir, "My Life On The Road," is now out in paperback. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Southside With You" about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.