Yesterday, I finished Gloria Steinem’s newest (and inexplicably badly-designed)steinem book, and I learned an unexpected lesson not from the book itself, but from talking about it.
I tweeted a photo of a very nice quote she had included in the manuscript. The quote was simply attributed to “tribal elders.” Steinem is an incredibly thorough journalist and one of our greatest living political organizers. She credits all her success organizing to what she has learned from Native American groups and their social structures, and particularly to Wilma Mankiller and her community of tribal elders. If any non-Native-American person is going to get a Native American community’s quote right, it’s Gloria. I tweeted it, thinking the quote was wise and particularly insightful to my life right now.
Soon thereafter, I was carrying the book and no less than two men pointed it out, eagerly, saying they wanted to read it and asking me how it was. The move seemed a little desperate: “Look at me! I know who Gloria Steinem is! I want to read that feminist book!” The way they spoke tipped me off to this, but I can’t really paint that picture here, so you’ll have to trust me that that’s how it seemed. I thought it was sweet if a little eye-rolly, and later told friends about it (two women and one man), and we all chuckled.
The same night, someone tweeted back at me, calling the Steinem excerpt “bigoted” and “nonsensical,” implying that this was clearly not really a quote from “tribal elders,” and that Steinem was just trying to piggyback on increased concern for the oppression of Native Americans and other groups. This annoyed me to no end, as Steinem credits her entire success to the Native Americans who have taught her, and devoted no less than a third of her book to the specific tribes and people who taught her particular lessons. The book is nothing if not modest, and I got the impression that if Steinem could have instead written a biography of Wilma Mankiller, that’s what she would have done. But that doesn’t sell, even though it should, so she wrote a book about “life on the road,” and squeezed in what had to be 25 stories about Wilma and her tribe, alone.
Then I realized I’d done the very same thing the Twitter stranger did: assumed that someone’s enthusiastic support must be motivated by some self-aggrandizing impulse to appear “with it,” and an “ally.”
Of course, there’s something to be said for making sure your support of others isn’t all about you, and posturing to make yourself look cool. I saw that Drew Barrymore movie about how Native Americans are magical, and I wanted to vomit in my popcorn as much as the next person. And I’ve had enough male friends post on Facebook that they’re feminists to know that some of them probably just think that’s what dudes have to do now, to be considered Not-A-Creep (TM).
But when someone steps up to support something that’s important to you, what if we assumed, instead, that they *actually* want to support you? That it’s a good thing when men are eager to read women’s books, whatever their many, nuanced motives? That it’s good when a historian quotes the wisdom of tribal elders, and brings those thoughts to a new audience, even if we’re not sure how cool that historian fancies herself?
I tweeted back to the woman who got mad at Gloria. I explained the context, and Gloria’s history with Native American organizers. Instead of getting mad and self-righteous, I explained. She said she was too quick to jump to her conclusion, and politely listened. I didn’t get a chance to apologize to the guys who wanted to read Steinem’s book (not that I’d said anything to their faces anyway), but the next time some dude wants to talk about Gloria Steinem’s new book, I’ll tell him where to get a copy.