Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem. If you are what eighty looks like, then there is hope in this world. And it is high time I thanked you for a few things.
First: Six years ago, for two weeks of my life, you gave me courage to get out of bed. It was April 2008. A cold April: frost every day, even a few snow flurries. Every morning, I huddled under the covers in my cottage at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers, reading your brilliant book of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.
You have to understand, Gloria: I did not deserve to be at Hedgebrook, because I was not a real writer. Documentary filmmaker, occasional journalist, effective public affairs bloviator—you could call me all of the above. But writer? What was Hedgebrook thinking, giving me a cottage for two weeks on the basis of a script I’d written for a doc film about Alzheimer’s disease?
It was you who gave me courage to get over myself, get out of bed and start writing. Your honesty—about being a Playboy bunny, about your mother’s mental illness, about being a woman—inspired me to write honestly. Your voice—frank, funny, humble, confident—inspired me to try out my own.
I was writing about my mother, too. Or trying to. Her birthday is also March 25th. She would have been 83 today, had Alzheimer’s not marked her and claimed her far too young: at 74, after nearly two decades of relentless assault.
Even though my mother was just a few years older than you, Gloria, her life could not have been more different than yours. Six children. Divorced twice, widowed once. But the work you did in the sixties and seventies? Gloria, you changed my mother’s life. You gave her courage.
She may not have openly acknowledged the debt. She may have thought that it was all about her own pluck and stamina. But after my parents divorced and my mother went back to college at 38, what she was doing was taking charge of her life in a way that you and your colleagues in the women’s movement had made possible. Who knows? A few years earlier, she might have accepted alimony or gone back to work as a secretary. Instead, she fulfilled her long-deferred dream of studying English and becoming a teacher. Instead, she exemplified for her impressionable daughters the women’s movement—your movement—in action. Feminist rhetoric was reality, not theory, at our house.
So I thank you, Gloria, for being who you were at the end of the 1960s. And I thank you for being who you were, to me, as I lapped up your book at Hedgebrook on those frosty mornings in 2008. I knew you too had spent time at Hedgebrook (and would continue to come for several summers). Which meant that you too knew the power of a cottage and privacy all day followed by good food and conversation in the evenings.
And now, on this your 80th birthday, which is also my mother’s birthday, it gives me great joy to tell you that the memoir I started scribbling at Hedgebrook, inspired by you, is going to be published in September by She Writes Press. It’s called Her Beautiful Brain.
And here’s a remarkable thought: in your lifetime, Gloria, we have gone from a world where it was quite acceptable to believe that all women’s brains were actually inferior to men’s to a world in which we women know our brains are beautiful. You helped us get there. You helped me get there. So did my beautiful, brainy mom. Happy Birthday to both of you.
Only a few spots left in my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.
The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS.fm; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.