Women’s History Month: Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within

Gloria Steinem's memoir about self-esteem has its positive moments.

In the beginning of her memoir, Revolution from Within, feminist icon Gloria Steinem inverts a phrase that had widespread currency during the 60s and 70s when she came of age:

The political, she says, is personal.

Part New Age treatise, part personal journey, part a compilation of biographical anecdotes from figures ranging from the luminary like Mahatma Gandhi to ordinary people identified only by their first names, Revolution from Within is a call, above all, for greater levels of self acceptance and the resulting self-esteem.

The work urges the reader to communicate with her inner child and participate in guided meditation so as to undo childhood’s inevitable wounds, slay the Iron Maiden who enforces unrealistic and unfair beauty standards and move into a more fully realized and authentic self.

Steinem intersperses poetic excerpts and quotes as section epigraphs as well as full poems to conclude sections and the book.  Readers familiar with the work of female poets like Alice Walker, Sharon Olds and Marge Piercy will likely recognize the poems that Steinem includes by these authors.

Although Revolution from Within contains information about everything from national identities-she asserts unconvincingly that different political social, health and cultural outcomes in Haiti and Barbados can be explained through national self-esteem-to task forces about the subject in California, the book at base is her story of personal liberation.

It was a hard road.

Steinem takes us back to her childhood in a Christian/Jewish home in Toledo, where she grew up with an obese father and emotionally constricted mother.  She explains that her formative years left her with a desire to take care of others and a distorted body image, among other negative results.

She moves from there to talk about her path to greater levels of self-esteem and emotional authenticity.  For Steinem, this meant abandoning a perpetually upbeat and nurturing affect to a more real acknowledgments of her own needs and darker side.

Although she does not name him, Steinem also spends some time explaining, or rationalizing, her romantic relationship with Canadian developer and billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman.  This occurs during a chapter about romance in which Steinem examines Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to make the case that romantic love can have deleterious effects on women, and that women who have higher self-esteem are more able to resist them.

She tells the reader that she was emotionally depleted after two decades of pushing non-stop for women’s rights, and thus was susceptible to Zuckerman’s extravagant gestures and insistence on taking care of her. For a time, this worked, but she was eventually unable to suppress and continue to look away from their profound political differences.

In the end, Steinem urges the reader to join her in not accepting the fates to which society would consign women and to live their own lives.  She writes approvingly about anthropologist Margaret Mead’s self-respecting sense of fashion, multiple husband and lovers of both sexes and general determination to live according to standards she had established, rather than received.

One of the book’s most interesting sections for me was the Afterword, which she wrote about a year after the book’s initial publication in the early 90s.  Steinem articulates and responds to the criticisms the book received, explaining that other people’s characterizations of the work as excessively personal, complaining and even weak hurt, but did not break, her.

In the Afterword, Steinem also calls for an integration of women’s personal and political lives that she referred to in the book’s beginning, and includes a helpful bibliography organized by topic.

The work’s claims occasionally stretched beyond credulity, and I did not find myself engaged or convinced by Steinem’s description of her stint with the unnamed Zuckerman. Still, Revolutions from Within does have enough moments to merit giving it a read.


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