HBO has recently released a documentary featuring social activist and icon Gloria Steinem. Ms. Steinem (born March 25, 1934) is an American feminist, journalist and social and political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader of and media spokeswoman for the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late ’60’s and ’70’s. Whether or not you agree with her politics, she was and continues to be a force to be reckoned with.
Very few of my younger colleagues are aware of her work…her trail blazing occurred long before they enjoyed the benefits she helped make happen.
I had the pirivlege to meet Ms. Steinem last year. She was in town speaking at an event sponsored by the University of North Carolina. About fifteen Charlotte women had lunch with her several hours before her speaking event.
Gloria is 77 years old. She is about my size. (For some reason I expected her to be bigger). Her presence is powerful. She appeared to float about the room. She was clearly at peace. We talked during lunch about systemic and cultural change. We talked of youth, girls and boys. We talked of the men in our lives and the influence they have had. We shared our anger, sorrow and peaceful resolve. When I asked her what she felt as she looked back over the legacy of her life her response was…”I don’t really have any regrets. I just wish I had been less lady-like.”
I am 50 years old and remember my father cursing Ms. Steinem back in the early 70’s when I was a young girl and desperately wanted to wear this “fab” synthetic fiber mini skirt to school. I had the spendid shiny WHITE patent leather boots and my macrame belt to go with it. My dad blamed her along with my big brother’s new wife. At the time they were the only two feminists he knew. (My mom had not yet found her power, but did only a year or so later. Sadly, or maybe not, their marriage didn’t last.)
In 1970, the women’s movement was in full effect. I was in 5th grade that year. It was no coincidence that in the fall of that year I and a few girls staged the Myers Park Elementary Pants Revolution. All girls at my school were required to wear skirts or dresses. Pants were NOT allowed. I didn’t think this was fair. We couldn’t play on the playground the same way the boys could. The monkey bars were out of the question. So, too, were cartwheels, handstands, football and standing broad jumps. To tackle the problem we secretly passed out flyers recruiting volunteers to help stage this revolution. Several girls signed up from each grade and we met in the girls bathroom to discuss our plan.
The big day came. I came downstairs in a pantsuit. I won’t ever forget it. I walked into the kitchen, both excited and afraid of what the day would bring.
My dad was sitting at the breakfast table.
“What are you wearing?” he asked as he peered for less than one second over his reading glasses.
“What do you mean?” I asked trying to be as nonchalant as possible.
“Isn’t there a dress code? You aren’t allowed to wear pants are you?”
“No, but today we are all…”
My father interrupted. “Go back upstairs and put on a dress.” His gaze never left the newspaper.
“But I can’t. I’m the one who organized…”
Again my father replied, but this time he removed his glasses, looked directly at me with that look that meant business. “Go back upstairs and put on a dress.”
I wore a dress to school that day. I was the only girl in the entire school in a dress. My friends were okay with it when I explained my predicament.
The outcome? The dress code was changed and the following week I played uninhibitedly on the monkey bars in my brand spankin’ new pantsuit.
We’ve all staged our own little mini-revolutions. Some, such as Ms. Steinem, more publicly and others like my own mother who in her more private way bravely stepped outside her “girl box” to recognize and activate her magnificent and beautiful potential, by first running and training for 5k’s, then getting into college and graduating (in her 50’s I might add) and soon after going to work a full-time job.
But no matter the venue, it sometimes takes more than a gentle nudge or a tender pull on our culture to create systemic change. Sometimes we have to just painfully yank off the outdated and limiting view held by the status quo to reveal a new layer beneath…expose the real, the raw and the honest as Ms. Steinem so bravely did in the 60’s and 70’s.
I see my children stage mini-revolutions everyday…part of the teenage process…whether the rebellion is with me or their peers. Our home is a safe place to express those rebellious ideas. Helen takes pictures of the world around her, tweaks them to reveal distorted and often times disturbing, darker images. She has covered one entire wall of her bedroom with them.
Hank writes lyrics and then performs them with his own music…very complex lyrics that reveal his world…a sometimes scary and violent world over which, at times, he feels no control and so writing it all down helps him process and take back some of that control.
I love watching them move through adolescence, one mini-revolution after the other.
I guess now that I’m older I choose to start mini-revolutions in a quieter and more personal way. Making eye contact with someone on an elevator and then proceeding to actually talk to them. Singing out loud while I run. Running a 5k with a third grade girl. Using the word love unabashedly at work, in speeches and with my friends. I don’t know…I think sometimes maybe the world might be better off, if instead of leaving the systemic change up to the systems, the politicians, the “leaders”…we just each staged our own mini-revolutions. Start from the ground up. Smile at someone, run with a kid, love the unloved, stand up for someone who doesn’t yet have the strength or the cirumstances to do so.
What’s your plan to stage a mini-revolution? How are you going to push those within your sphere of influence to grow, evolve and expand?