Sheila MacLeod

Compassionate Odyssey

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

By

Jonathan Cape 384pp £8.95 order from our bookshop

A Nice Girl Like Me

By

Chatto & Windus 256pp £8.95 order from our bookshop
 

Gloria Steinem has never written a book. She has been much too busy campaigning – mainly for feminism, although Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern have also earned her support. Co-founder of both New York and Ms magazines, she had earned her living mainly as a journalist and, latterly, by lecturing. But that never-written book irks her. Having admitted in the introduction to this edition of her collected journalism that activism is not altogether to blame, she comes to the rather defensive conclusion, ‘What is so sacred about a long and continuous piece of writing?’ Good question, on the face of it. The answer is, of course, nothing. The point, Ms Steinem, is this: we poor benighted creatures on this side of the Atlantic have never had the chance to read you before; and that, on the evidence of this impressively rich collection, has been our loss.

And yet Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions is a book, as much epic as it is autobiography. It is a sort of odyssey towards political awareness, which is to say, self-awareness: the two are always interconnected and interdependent. Steinem’s main strength is her ability to respond quickly and warmly to any immediate situation and, by means of that response, to grasp and demonstrate the larger, often revelatory implications of her own and others’ experience. Her odyssey, though that of an outstandingly able woman, is at the same time that of every woman of her times writ large and articulate.

Nothing seems too trivial for her attention. In an essay, ‘In Praise of Women’s Bodies’, stretch marks and Caesarian incisions are contrasted with the scars and wounds of war which are traditionally occasions of male pride:

They evoke courage without violence, strength without cruelty, and even so they’re far more likely to be worn with diffidence than bragging. That gives them a bittersweet power, like seeing a room where a very emotional event in our lives took place.

An earlier and now (rightly) classic account of Steinem’s infiltration of the Playboy Club, a feminist in Bunny’s clothing, gives a nicely complementary view of women’s bodies. The too-tight costumes and too-high heels demanded by management and male fantasy are revealed as emblematic of the concomitant degradation and financial exploitation which are the Bunny’s lot. I particularly enjoyed the unofficial list of Bunny ‘bosom-stuffers’: Kleenex, plastic dry cleaner’s bags (make you sweat), absorbent cotton, cut-up Bunny tails, foam rubber, lamb’s wool, Kotex halves, silk scarves and gym socks. The whole piece is horribly funny and at the same time both serious and valuable. Our bodies are where we start from and are defined, and Steinem wisely never forgets as much.

The section on Campaigning is written, like the Playboy piece, in the form of a quasi-diary or factual Bildungsroman. We start off with youngish Gloria in 1968, brilliant in print but terrified of public speaking, idealistic enough to campaign for any political candidate with even vaguely radical policies but still the supportive female dogsbody, discovering solidarity with black women but still taking it as a compliment when told that she ‘writes like a man’. Gradually, as if in a psycho-political detective story, those and other contradictions come to be resolved. A (tacit?) disagreement with Shirley MacLaine during the course of the 1972 McGovern campaign provides one of the moments of truth. Having coined the phrase reproductive freedom as an alternative to ‘such old paternalisms as population Control, and a Fifth Freedom of special importance to the female half of the world,’ Steinem and her associates were determined to make the actuality – essentially the freedom to choose abortion, where necessary – a plank in the McGovern platform. MacLaine worried protectively that Nixon would use the issue profitably against McGovern. ‘Had I been so obsessed with campaignitis in my pre-feminist days?’ Steinem asks us and herself. ‘Perhaps. It had taken me a long time to learn that no one could speak for these issues if their natural constituency did not, and it had taken even longer to understand that they could win.’ The art of the possible, indeed, but in view of the policy’s eventual acceptance, also a redefinition of the possible. By the end of the 1972 campaign Steinem has discovered ‘politics that are not intellectual or superimposed. They are organic.’ This is all heady stuff – and excellently judged journalism.

The section Five Women contains profiles of such diverse heroines of American culture as Alice Walker, Jackie Onassis, Pat Nixon, Marilyn Monroe and Linda Lovelace. All are treated with compassion, but without the mawkishness which so often attends the genre, and the last-named should be required reading for anyone who believes that pornography is good, clean, liberating fun designed to keep the perverts off our streets. A sixth woman to appear in these pages is Steinem’s own mother, Ruth, an incapacitated depressive who, though once a promising writer, became daughter to her own daughter. Their relationship is delineated unsentimentally with a remarkable lack of rancour and tells us a great deal about the progression from the ten-year-old girl forced into a mothering role to the adult who now advocates that women should become one another’s mothers.

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions is first-class journalism, and I shall not insult either journalism or Gloria Steinem by claiming that it is also something more, because this is what journalism can and should be at its very best. The wide-ranging, in-depth observer capable of combining the personal and the political with wit, zest and intelligence seems (alas for us) to be a peculiarly American figure. The publication of this book is salutary and there are many women (perhaps men too) who will be grateful for it.

Rosie Boycott has been pretty busy too, and someone has persuaded her to tell us all about it. The result is unsatisfactory: a rather good book struggling womanfully to get out of a careless and messy one which does less than justice to its author and her achievements. A Nice Girl Like Me consists of two interweaving narratives, one of which is an over-potted autobiography, and the other an account of Boycott’s stay at a private clinic as an alcoholic attempting to dry out and set her life in order. The first worries me; the second I found painfully moving, and could not but admire its combination of honest doubt and tough optimism.

My worry stems from a certain moral queasiness. The story-of-my-life chapters arc related in the third person (always a mistake, this, except in the hands of a very skilled and experienced writer) and are so compressed as to make the genuinely interesting events they describe read like a parody of ‘True Confessions’. It is as though Boycott has picked on all the most sensational aspects of her life and strung them together, daring the reader to be shocked and to condemn. And yet she was a co-founder of Spare Rib and has done some excellent work. There must have been an intellect, an imagination there somewhere. Perhaps these chapters embody the self-lacerating need of the alcoholic to Tell All with pitiless disregard for anything that might count in her favour. But it’s not the whole story, and it seems unfair on both writer and readers that people should be led to think otherwise.

The clinic chapters arc related in the first person and are altogether more straightforward, more engaging. The writing is also considerably better, and here the journalist in Rosie Boycott comes into her own. Faced with a prescribed and limited situation, she becomes the keen and compassionate observer both of herself and those around her, while drawing on a well-researched body of information as to the causes of and cures for alcoholism. Here too is the woman who responds thinkingly and feelingly to her fellow-creatures, and the woman with nothing more to lose who emerges as someone learning to become strong while remaining sensitive – a survivor. So we get there in the end, however haphazardly. And perhaps, ironically enough, such is the true message of this uneven and unsparing book.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter