Thursday, March 3, 2016

Gloria Steinem's public-speaking "Road"

My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem's new bestselling book, is part memoir, part travelogue. She was an early role model for me as a writer and a feminist, so I'm delighting in this behind-the-scenes look at her life--not least because it's studded with gem after gem about public speaking, speechwriting, and speaking up for women. It's the first selection in actor Emma Watson's feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, and I think it belongs on your public-speaking shelf, too...even if her recent remarks on the U.S. presidential political campaign annoyed you. Maybe especially if they did. You'll find a nuanced portrait of a woman who has paved the way for you far more than you may know--particularly in speaking.

Early on, Steinem admits:
Take public speaking: I spent all of my twenties and early thirties avoiding it....Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the editors I'd been freelancing for were gigantically uninterested in the explosion of feminism across the country. I finally got angry enough and desperate enough to partner with a woman who was much braver than I, and to travel to campuses and community groups. Over time and far from home, I discovered something I might never otherwise have learned: people in the same room understand and empathize with each other in a way that isn't possible on the page or screen.
Gradually, I became the last thing on earth I would ever have imagined: a public speaker and a gatherer of groups. And this brought an even bigger reward: public listening.
Steinem, by now a stellar speaker and listener, uses this book to share the stories she's collected over the years. (One chapter winningly shares stories she's had from the thousands of taxicab drivers who have ferried her to airports all over the world.) Her introduction tells us she thinks our stories are important, too, saying, "If I could, I would leave an open space for your story on every page." And her stories show that she has been a fortunate witness to so much history, including the history of modern American public speaking. Among her many tales, she relates:
  •  Witnessing the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as a journalist, and marching alongside an older black woman who pointed out to her the absence of women speakers on the program. "Mrs. Greene's daughter rolled her eyes as her mother told me about complaining to her state delegation leader. He had countered that Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were singing. Singing isn't speaking, she told him in no uncertain terms."
  • How she partnered with Dorothy Pitman Hughes to speak jointly, a black woman and a white woman who wound up drawing more diverse and larger audiences as a result of their teamwork. There was a more practical rationale for the pairing: "we could each share our different but parallel experiences, and she could take over if I froze or flagged." It's still a great tactic today.
  • So much wisdom about audiences, Q&A, and speaking up in public settings, based on Steinem's hundreds of lectures and appearances. "I've also noticed that, if an audience is half women and half men, women worry about the reaction of the men around them. But in one that is two-thirds women and one-third men, women respond as they would on their own, and men hear women speaking honestly." It's true as well, she says, when people of color are the majority in the audience. She covers handling hostile questions, and that magic moment where one audience member answers another's question, an excellent sign of engagement.
  • From a speechwriter's perspective, there are many gems, including time spent with Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's speechwriter; participating in a frustrating meeting with presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy, who didn't want to give the speechwriters anything new and kept asking another aide to give them quotes he'd said before; and her own speechwriting for presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm for a key televised speech.
At one point, this formerly scared speaker describes the breadth of her now-extensive public speaking skills:
I've spoken in backyards to a dozen neighbors, at huge concerts of rock and grunge bands, at teas in quiet living rooms, on flatbed trucks with bullhorns, and on foot while door-to-door canvassing. Once the women's movement was really underway, we sometimes found ourselves speaking at marches in Washington of more than a million people. I recommend all these tasks, high and low. 
Women of all ages also will appreciate hearing the many, many times Steinem second-guessed herself, didn't speak up when discriminated against, and learned over time to respond and stand up for herself. These are great lessons from a great woman, and you'll enjoy hearing her stories.

(Photos: 1971 Esquire Magazine Image by Dan Wynn and 2014 Women Of Vision image by Dan Bagan, both of Steinem and Hughes, then and now)