The energy in the audience was palpable as Gloria Steinem walked across the stage to the podium on Monday night, March 7, on Stage One of Folsom Lake College’s Three Stages.
The women, young and old, and a sprinkling of men, could not stay in their seats and rose to greet Steinem with a standing ovation.
Attired in simple black pants and top, with the house lighting set at a comfortable range, Steinem created an informal atmosphere with the more than 800 people who came to see and hear a woman they obviously admire.
Steinem returned the compliment, saying that of all the venues where she speaks in the United States community colleges are her favorite. “This is the real world,” she said. “The teachers are here because they love it.”
Aiming a zinger at one of her favorite targets, academic writing, she added, “The incidence of obscure language is lower in the community colleges.”
Booked to speak for 90 minutes, the women’s rights icon mentioned the opportunity provided by creating the first lecture in what will be a series by distinguished speakers. “Let’s use our time together to learn one new idea,” she told the audience. Steinem said she had given up a part of her speaking time for questions and comments. “I want to hear what you think,” she said.
She had spent the day on campus talking with students and faculty, and had dinner at Bidwell Street Bistro with people who purchased the ticket-and-dinner combination. As a result of her conversations, she revised her notes for the evening, concentrating on questions she had been asked throughout the day.
With a combination of short stories, factoids and brief philosophical messages, Steinem wandered through the past, present and future of the women’s movement, hitting some of her constant themes.
Sounding much like Martin Luther King, Jr. she said at one point that studies of Women’s History, Black History and the other segmented histories should all be called Remedial History, and expressed the hope that one day there will be one Human History.
At another point she said all the “movements” are but different aspects of a larger human movement, and are connected with one another.
She told the story of visiting older women relatives of Gandhi during the time she was in India on a fellowship following graduation from college. She was impressed with his philosophy of nonviolent resistance and wanted to collect his letters to study his tactics. The woman who had his letters was cooperative and knew all about his teachings.
“Of course,” she told young Steinem, “we taught him all he knew.” The women had formed a group against the practice of Sati — forcing the living wife of a man who died to be placed on his funeral pyre — and against child marriages.
One of her current projects is the Women’s Media Center. She said it is a myth that only conflict is news. “Serious journalists are taught to write in generalities and to use statistics. Readers are starved for narrative and for images. That’s why they are vulnerable to gossip about celebrities. Those are the only stories being told.” She went on to say that humans are accustomed to learning from storytelling. “We didn’t sit around the campfires for millennia for nothing.”
When people lined up for questions and comments, Steinem let each woman have her say, going several minutes beyond the allotted time without complaint. Most of them prefaced their statements with, “You inspired me.”
She told one young woman, “Don’t listen to me. Listen to yourself.” She told another budding journalist, “Don’t write for Huffington Post. They don’t pay. Write for organizations that pay writers.” She said to another, “The greatest danger to activism is feeling isolated. Be sure to be around people who let you know you’re not crazy.”
She listed three rules of activism: 1) everything matters; 2) social change is bottom up; 3) ends are the means.
Underlying all her responses was her message of self-esteem: “You have value.”
Steinem ended her lecture with her signature challenge: “Tomorrow morning I want you to do one outrageous act, and I promise to do the same. It can be anything you choose. And I promise you two things: one, the world will be a better place; and two, the next day you will not ask whether you will do an outrageous act, but which outrageous act, and the next day and the next day and the next.”
Gloria Steinem lives in New York, where she is writing a new book, “Road to the Heart: America As If Everyone Mattered.”
Gloria Steinem’s appearance at Three Stages coincides with Women’s History Week at Folsom Lake College. For information about upcoming events visit www.ThreeStages.net or call (916) 608-6888.