It was 2004. The Iraq War was reaching devastating heights. The world was 15 days away from viewing the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison and seeing just how depraved humans can become. Of course, we did not know how bad things would get, but something could be felt- we knew things were going to get worse before they got better. On stage, Gloria Steinem stood and spoke to a room full of people in a small chapel on the Albion College campus, spreading a sermon that would change my world forever.
I was always a feminist. In the world of academia it became easy to lose sight of what that meant in the real world, as I was able to form an ideology based on theory rather than practice. It was through the words of Ms. Steinem that something in my glass world of theory began to crack. She spoke of what it meant to take action and to stand up and fight for our rights before they are stripped away bit by bit, and through that I understood that the ideas I could so easily pontificate were useless without the means and the action to back them up. Knowing that something should and could be a certain way was no longer enough, as the world (our country in particular) teetered on the edge of the peril we were seeing around us every day; it is through action that the real change was going to happen.
Earlier in the day, I was able to meet with Ms. Steinem personally. As she asked me questions about what I was studying, I answered with full confidence that I had it all figured out. Somehow, though, she saw through my inexperience and must have seen a glimmer of how unsure and worried my entire generation was becoming. I do not remember the entire conversation, because I was admittedly struck by her mere presence. However, I do remember the words that have echoed time and again inside my head, as she told me not to lose sight from where I came. “The power of change,” she said “is in not forgetting how we got to where we are. Memory is the most powerful imprint on your life.”
At the time, I did not take the time to process the power behind those seemingly simple words. Maybe I wanted to be told something that was immediately profound, or to be told that all my studies were going to lead me to great things; that I could stay in academia forever and live out my lofty goals of being a part of the feminist theory that would change the world from the inside out. But, Ms. Steinem was not there to pander to me. She was nothing if not honest. It took me some time to internalize the meaning in her words, and to understand the relation they had to my life.
It can be said that a single car ride can change the course of history forever. Perhaps, though, that is too grand in this case. Driving Ms. Steinem to the airport that night did, in fact, change the course of the lives of all of us within that car. As she explained that having the theory of how things should be was important, she emphasized that the actions, no matter how small, were where the change was actually occurring. If it had not been for one young reporter pinning on a pair of bunny ears, the path of feminist discourse would have, perhaps, taken a different turn. It was in the confines of that roadway, as she took us on a detour to show us her childhood lake home, and as she shot down some of our lofty ideas and gave credence to others, that something inside each one of us shifted imperceptibly that night.
Before the day that Gloria Steinem traveled into our world, on a tiny campus in lower Michigan, we thought we had it all figured out. We were preparing ourselves to finish theses, to enter into grad school, and to perpetuate that cycle for the next generation. However, a year later, as we were leaving the campus for the last time, most of us that were in the car that night were now readying ourselves to move back in with our parents, had pushed the grad school applications aside, and were as unsure as ever what was going to happen next. Some of us have figured it out, and some are still searching. One thing is for sure, though- we each have become part of a change at the grassroots level, each taking action in our own way, hoping (and knowing) that one day our efforts will ripple outward, just as the effects of a night in 2004 have rippled within our worlds.
As I sit here, writing this, Ms. Steinem is now 78 years old (as of yesterday, now). Our country has it’s first black president, and he believes in change. The Iraq War is over, and the effects are still reverberating throughout the world. The inner political turmoil within our country is causing many to attempt to take us back to the years before women had a voice. This time, though, there is a whole new generation to stand up and fight with those that did so long ago, and our voices are being heard. We are winning the war one battle at a time, against the likes of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Rush Limbaugh, and we will not back down. Things are not perfect like I had dreamed they would be in my hopeful world of eight years ago, but things have certainly changed. They have changed because we have not forgotten our past, and the path that many traveled so we may walk freely today. All it took for me to understand the impact of those who believe in something was a handshake, a conversation, a speech, and a car ride. A day with Gloria Steinem.
On Sunday, March 25, 2012, Huffington Post published the following video, with the accompanying article the can be found here.