History collided with the present on Monday, March 28, when I had the opportunity to give one feminist icon a copy of a book that was inspired by the musings of another. The book, of course, was Wheels of Change, which developed out of Susan B. Anthony’s declaration that bicycling did “more to emancipate women than anything else.” The contemporary icon was Gloria Steinem, the speaker who capped off an impressive celebration of Women’s History Month at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. I was on a panel about women in sports at the college, which entitled me to an invitation to a reception for Steinem before her very well attended talk.
It’s safe to say that most people Steinem meets don’t ask her if she rides a bicycle, but how could I not? She said she did ride all the time when she was a student at Smith College, but now she lives in New York and the problem with riding there, besides the competition with cars, is that you have nowhere to leave your bike when you get to your destination.
Beyond that all-important question, I also mentioned that I had once attended another lecture she gave, way back in 1972. I was a freshman at Princeton on one of my first assignments for the school paper. Steinem said she actually remembered speaking there because the school had recently gone coeducational, which put it on her radar. But I remember her visit for another reason. The article I turned in was full of her brilliant words, but little else, and my editors pointed out that reporting meant more than just repeating. A certain amount of observation and conclusion also was necessary. It was a pivotal moment in my writing career, and while I still love to use quotes to tell stories, I make sure to use them judiciously and place them in context.
Since I wasn’t covering Steinem’s most recent talk as a reporter, I have only a few bon mots to share. She started out by acknowledging that this was her fourth college lecture in a week—Women’s History Month sure keeps feminists busy—and that she is happiest at community colleges because of their inclusive nature. She spoke of the success of social justice movements since the 1980s and the consequent backlash; the importance of vertical history—our connection to the native peoples who stood on the same land in the past as we do today; and her observation that women tend to get more radical and rebellious and activist as they get older, while men tend to get less so with age. She assured one questioner that ”it is very unlikely” that Sarah Palin will be elected president and pointed out that her approval rating is currently below that of BP. [Note: This was back in March.] And she talked about the need to reassess history and create a universal community that is not divided by race or gender, which she called “made-up political fictions.” All of which reminded me that while women rode the bicycle to many freedoms in the 1890s, we’ve still got miles more to go before the journey is complete.
Photo Courtesy of Seth Litroff Photography