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From her solo trips through India to her tireless work for women everywhere, Gloria Steinem is a rebel in the truest way! In this episode the amazing singer/songwriter, Ani DiFranco tells us all about Gloria’s childhood, her difficult relationship with her mom, and all the events that pushed her to spend her life fighting for the rights of women.
Ani DiFranco has written hundreds of songs, played thousands of shows, captured the imaginations of legions of followers, and jammed with folkies, orchestras, rappers, rock and roll hall-of-famers, jazz musicians, poets, pop superstars, storytellers and a martial arts legend. She’s “fixed up a few old buildings” and minimized her carbon footprint before it was trendy – from installing a geothermal heating and cooling system in the renovated church that her label calls home to using organic inks on all the t-shirts she sells.
ANI DIFRANCO Once upon a time there was a girl who’d spend her life traveling the world in the service of other women.
Her name is Gloria.
Gloria grew up on the road. Every year, as the air grew chill and the trees dropped their leaves, Gloria’s father would pack up an Airstream, a type of house trailer, with a few pots and pans, and the family’s most important belongings and they’d wave goodbye to their little white, stucco house.
With her big sister sitting next to her in the backseat, Gloria would lean her head against the window, reading a Wonder Woman comic, as they crisscrossed the United States.
Gloria’s father was a salesman who believed that traveling was the best education. So, until she was 10, America’s small towns and its big bright cities served as Gloria’s classroom.
Back then, in the back of her family’s car she could not have known that she would one day think of herself as “The Wandering Organizer.”
DIFRANCO I’m Ani DIFRANCO. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode: Gloria Steinem, a warrior for women’s liberation and equality.
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DIFRANCO When Gloria was 10 years old, her parents separated – or you could say – the family separated. Gloria’s sister went off to college, while her father continued to travel across the country, working as a salesman. Gloria and her mother, Ruth, first moved to be near her sister in Massachusetts, who was attending Smith College, and then settled into a rundown farmhouse in Toledo, Ohio.
In Toledo, Gloria was able to attend a traditional school, but that was one of the only “normal” things about her homelife.
Gloria’s mother struggled with her mental health. If she didn’t take special medicine, she could spend days without sleeping and would hallucinate, meaning she’d see things that weren’t actually there. Other times she’d forget things and become anxious. There were times when Ruth wouldn’t know where Gloria was, and in a panic, called the police, only to discover that her daughter was at school.
Taking care of her mother was stressful, but when her mother WAS well, she’d share details about her past… details that would inspire Gloria’s future.
DIFRANCO You see, before Gloria’s mother became a mother or even a wife, she was a writer. A journalist, in fact. She worked as a reporter for a major newspaper in Toledo and was so skilled as a writer that she was promoted to editor. It was rare for women to work in those days…. So rare, that Gloria’s mother had to publish her work under a man’s name!
Back then though, people believed a woman’s role was tending to children and supporting their husbands. Her mother kept her job for several years after having Gloria’s older sister, but eventually all that pressure, combined with her mental health struggles, meant Ruth had to leave a job she loved.
But Gloria would never forget the stories of her mother’s past…. The stories of who she was before she became her mother… before she became her father’s wife… of who she was when she dreamed about having choices…
As Gloria spent her teenage years caring for her mother, she’d always wonder… what is the life my mother could have had, if she were given. More. Choices?
DIFRANCO Gloria needed more choices too. It was hard taking care of her mother, and after a while she made the difficult decision to move in with her sister in Washington, DC to finish high-school. Eventually her mother moved into a facility where she could get the help she needed.
After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, just like her older sister, Gloria broke off a marriage engagement to do what she was born to do– travel.
She’d received a two-year fellowship to India to work and study, and after a few months, she decided to travel alone from Calcutta to Kerala. Instead of going by car, like most foreigners, she decided to travel in a women-only railway car. On the train, she was surrounded by women of all ages. They were chatting and laughing and sharing sweets and teas.
As the only white woman on the train, Gloria stood out. Soon, however, she found herself also drinking tea with the travelers, exchanging stories in a combination of broken Hindi, English and hand gestures.
The women offered their packed lunches of delicious curries and homemade breads, and they bought kulfi– a traditional Indian ice cream that Gloria loved– from the peddlers at the train stops.
The women on the train taught Gloria multiple ways to tie her sari – a beautiful fabric wrap or dress worn by women in India. They asked her to sing traditional American songs…until they quickly realized she wasn’t much of a singer.
The journey was a joy – but the destination didn’t work out like she’d planned. When Gloria arrived in Kerala, it turned out that the ashram – a place for spiritual practices – where she’d arranged to stay had been evacuated. A riot had broken out in a nearby town and no one was allowed in. People in the villages were frightened and stayed in their homes.
Men from the ashram were going from village to village, letting people know they were not completely abandoned– that the people of the ashram were here and would be holding meetings to organize against the riots. The men from the ashram asked Gloria if she’d join them.
DIFRANCO They needed at least one woman for each team because men were not allowed to go into certain areas that were only for women. Gloria agreed and met with the women of the villages and they gathered in circles to tell their stories.
She didn’t always understand what they were saying but she could hear the struggle in their voices.
Traveling around, listening and learning, Gloria picked up lessons on organizing people that she would use for the rest of her life. She learned the power of sitting in a circle so everyone could see each other as they spoke.
She learned the power of listening and the power of connecting.
Gloria returned to America and decided she would follow in her mother’s footsteps. She would become a journalist.
In the United States at that time, people were fighting hard for equality. It was called the Civil Rights Movement. Gloria wanted to write about what was happening but her bosses had other ideas. They wanted her to write about fashion, cooking and dating. There’s nothing wrong with these things – they just weren’t what interested Gloria.
DIFRANCO She had to fight hard to write about the things that mattered to her. But Gloria didn’t give up and she eventually was given a column in a big magazine. Then, after writing an essay called “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” Gloria was asked to give public speeches about this new thing: “Women’s Liberation.” What was it? How did it work? People wanted to know.
Here’s the thing: even though it was just over 50 years ago, women in America did not have some of the opportunities they have now.
You might not believe this – but women at this time couldn’t get a credit card or buy a house without their husbands signature! It was perfectly legal for companies to say they would only hire men or for landlords to only rent to men.
And a lot of women were not cool with it.
DIFRANCO Women of all races, from all across the country were standing up and demanding equal pay and fair treatment… more career opportunities and reproductive rights.
Gloria had seen firsthand what happened when women had limited opportunities, and she wanted to stand up too!
She was intrigued to be asked to talk in public about this movement. But there was one problem: Gloria was terrified of public speaking.
So, she asked a friend for help.
Dorothy Pitman Hughes is a Black activist from Georgia who helped Gloria become a stronger speaker. They became good friends and supporters of one another. Gloria and Dorothy would work together in the fight for equality for decades.
DIFRANCO Together, the two traveled the country, speaking to women about their rights. With Gloria being white and Dorothy being Black, they attracted diverse crowds during a time when many people still lived segregated lives.
And together, in 1971, they created an organization called the Women’s Action Alliance.
Gloria and Dorothy were a powerful duo who, with a collection of other women, banded together to speak and listen and fight.
And…they would create a new platform to do it…A MAGAZINE.
DIFRANCO In early 1971 Gloria invited all her friends over to her house. Her living room was packed. Women sat on the sofa, on chairs, on the floor. They sipped drinks…chatted. They were there to start something. Many of them were writers who just couldn’t get magazines and newspapers to publish articles about the REAL issues that girls and women dealt with.
So, they were going to build it themselves. And they did. But it took some work.
By August 1971 the team was still struggling to get the magazine off the ground. Then, an editor at a big publication called New York magazine, which Gloria had written for in the past, said he’d put the first 40 pages of THEIR magazine in HIS magazine to see if it would sell.
and …it DID.
The first cover showed a blue woman with lots of arms, inspired by the Hindu goddess, Kali, juggling all the things that women had to deal with.
Critics said that it would never last, but the first issue sold out in days, and the magazine continues today.
DIFRANCO Even though Gloria was running a magazine, she still thought of herself as “The Wandering Organizer.” Someone who travels and listens and works with activists of all backgrounds to make change in the world. Now though, instead of being in the back of her father’s car with a comic book – she was on a plane with her OWN magazine.
So she did what she does – she traveled the country, listening to the stories of women…and wrote them down.
One of the most important events that Gloria helped organize was the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. Some people were mad about it but it was a magical event.
TWENTY THOUSAND women from all over the world gathered to discuss women’s issues. Maya Angelou read a poem. Even troops from Girls Scouts were there. So many women showed up, there wasn’t even enough space for people to sit!
It was stressful…but exhilarating.
DIFRANCO At the event Gloria was asked to take notes for the women of color caucuses. She once again learned the power of listening. Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latinx women met to address issues concerning their communities.
As Black women discussed racism and poverty, Indigenous women discussed tribal sovereignty.
Gloria rushed to write down everything they were saying. And, she realized there was a lot she still needed to learn about the women in her own country. There was still a lot we could ALL learn…just by listening to each other.
DIFRANCO Gloria never stopped fighting, organizing, and listening. After the 2016 presidential election, she joined over 500,000 people marching in Washington DC for racial justice, gender equality, reproductive rights, and immigrant rights.
During the march, she said, “Sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are.”
DIFRANCO And that is what Gloria Steinem has always done. She has not observed from afar, she has not written without listening. She has gone to the places and worked with the people: To build women up. To listen to their stories. To provide safe spaces.
To make the world better than it was when she saw it – town by town, diner by diner, as she criss-crossed the country in the back of father’s car. Ever the Wandering Organizer…
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Sound design and mixing by Luis Miranda. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager.
This episode was written by Kirsti Peters. Proofread by Ariana Rosas. It was narrated by me, Ani DiFranco. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com.