Gloria Steinem: The Strength Remains

Tenn in Conversation
The Court of Two Sisters
New Orleans

My primary function, I now realize, was to create for myself the perfect mother, which is to say the perfect woman. I shared this goal with William Inge, who, like me, was raised by a mother with thwarted dreams, a drive to protect her son, a determination to survive, a rage against what the world had done to her, and a missing husband.

All of us are activists through our work--to a degree. I believed for years that by writing so deeply and passionately about women, I was doing as much as I could for women and their rights and their trials. I would hope that it is clear from my works that I am very much made, influenced by, in love with, and shaped by women. As I told you, everything that matters to me, that I can call my true and unsentimental education, has come from two sources: women and photographs. Those are the only two items that I can believe, that can teach me something, that can bear witness to what has transpired.

When Gloria Steinem began to make her presence known through her writing and her appearances, I could hear--through brilliant and clear articulation--what was actually at stake, what was missing, what had been taken, and what had been taken for granted. Even I, a queer despised, had an easier path, a smoother transition, than virtually any woman I know and love and with whom I have shared working space. I felt I was doing enough to provide work and words and a safe place in which to work.

I was wrong.

I, like so many others, have a fear of appearing angry or strident as myself: I can craft a brilliant tirade as a character, but I am often unable to state clearly and forcefully how I feel about an injustice or a slight or an abuse. I learned a great deal from Gloria Steinem how I might be of some service, and I hope I might still be. It is possible to stand strongly, elegantly, confidently and state the facts and the conditions and the prescriptions. I have been awed by her poise in the face of so much poison, and I am happily amazed at the progress she has made on behalf of others, women and men.

It is believed that the greatest moment of our lives--which is to say birth--is not so special: It is, after all, what women were put on the planet to do; it is the natural order of things. I think that our mothers and the women in our lives are the architects of our souls. This is certainly true for me, as I only briefly had a father--hateful and absent as he was. But I feel that even if my father had been in my life for a longer period of time, I was tied, in every sense of the word, to my mother, to my sister, to my aunts. The dream that I lived to see fulfilled was fostered in their eyes and their hearts; in their backyards as they were my first actresses in my first plays; in the prayers I whispered in those hot bedrooms to which I had been sent, punished, because I was not boyish enough, because I was odd.

When I sought God--or, rather, a new God, at a new time in my life--the love and acceptance for which I searched I had already experienced from the women in my life--those given to me by birth and those I clutched to me to patch up the holes in my heart that the world had punched out.

We have to fight for the people we love. We have to taste the salt of the tears of others. We have to recognize the role of women in our lives. I think that you do as well.

[Gloria] Steinem has taught us how to fight most effectively: State the truth, for as long as the strength remains; care and love for as long as the heart beats; remember your mother and the dreams she passed to you.

Pass them to another.



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