Wednesday, May 9, 2012

2012.05.09 One Guru, Two Gurus, Three, Four, and More

I went to hear Gloria Steinem speak in the early ’80s at Hartford College for Women in Connecticut. The lecture hall was packed with over a hundred women—and three men, one of them my husband who indulges most of my whims and also counts himself a feminist.

There were no seats except a few banking the side of the podium right up front. The usher apologized for the unfortunate sidelined seats. We thought they were perfect. Who would worry about a front view when you can view, with no neck craning, a profile as glamorously elegant as Steinem’s? 

The last time I’d  felt swoony like that was as a young teen over Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Steinem was graduated in 1956 from Smith College, just 4 years ahead of me. I didn’t even know that; nor had I read her books and was not a subscriber to Ms magazine.  But I was in love with Steinem’s voice because she was saying out loud in the public media what I’d sequestered in journals over many years. She awakened my soul and stretched its every nerve, as the hymn text suggests.

I wanted to hear that voice with my ears. She’d become one of my gurus, a spiritual teacher who had nothing to do with church, religion, or even spirituality in an obvious way.

Gloria Steinem embodied a whole movement. She wasn’t the first to stand up for women’s rights but she has remained the go-to guru for over 40 years since first advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970. (That was three years before I knew I even needed a woman guru, or anything but the joy of my children’s laughter and the drone of the vacuum cleaner.) 

When Steinem stepped up to the podium the applause and cheers were as robust as any you’d hear today from crazy mad fans at a sports event or a rock concert.  Women can roar. 

I was surprised that Steinem, although passionate and eloquent, was quite soft-spoken. I expected  a pep rally voice or a preacha. I expected waving hands and pointing fingers. I expected a “man”! But Gloria spoke calmly, with focus and direction about justice for women. And she spoke without using the vocabulary of war and fight. Stunning!  Her presence and clear voice hushed the crowd and opened our ears.

At the end of her talk she commended the courage of the three men in the audience. They stuck out like sore thumbs.  With a wry but not derisive grin, Gloria Steinem made them “honorary women” to protect them for “the revolution to come.”

That gesture I’m sure was something Jesus would have done. It gave me the Easter shivers.

Currently Steinem is working at Smith College on an archive that reflects the diversity of feminism. Like Christianity, feminism is a movement not a place or a person, and it has ballooned, thanks to the Internet, into a vast network organized for gender justice and equivalence, and also for a just society period. 

So no single feminist guru has emerged.  But do we need one?

Feminism’s slowly emerging fourth wave isn’t the kind of enemy-driven push for inclusion and empowerment I was part of in the late ’70s.  It is more spiritual, steadied by the drum of multiple voices. Steinem herself is quoted in a March 18, 2012 article in the New York Times Sunday Styles section: “It’s obviously a great sign of growth and success that the media no longer try to embody the bigness and diversity of the women’s movement in one person.”

I am reminded of the biblical women at the tomb of Jesus, looking for their guru and finding an empty tomb, a burial shroud, and their own terror. So they ran away.  But they stayed together—and talked, as women do, maybe strategized about how to tell a miracle.

Later the small band of women hooked up with their brothers, discerned the message of Easter’s God of new life, and started a movement that grew, fizzled, grew some more, got inflated and exclusive, nearly lost breath, then re-membered its own message: We are centered in, and motivated by Love, not fear.

The biblical women decided that the best way to get something holy across was to do it together.  Even Jesus refused kingship and the kind of guru-worship his world demanded.

I still long for a guru. And I know there is a better way.