Anger Is Energy: An Encounter with Gloria Steinem

I was on my way home from work when my mother called.

“Did you contact someone about the event?” she asked warmly, her eagerness palpable.

“Work has been crazy,” I sighed. “I will though.” False promises came easier at dusk.

“I don’t know why you live in New York City if you aren’t going to take advantage of things like this, Erin,” her lawyer voice emerged. “It’s Gloria.”

The event she was calling about was a women’s conference where Gloria Steinem — whose speaking calendar we’d been stalking — was set to give the lunchtime address.

After an hour of stubbornness and a hot bath, I felt a mixture of guilt and excitement. Why wouldn’t I at least try? (What was I afraid of?)

I emailed the event coordinator and, to my surprise, she was willing to give me a pass for the lunch hour. In fact, why don’t I just come for the whole day?

My instructions were to meet her, promptly, at 8:30AM.

The redhead

I arrived rosy-cheeked and out of breath at 8:47AM to an empty lobby. After a flurry of security I stood on the top floor, unsure of where to go next.

An elegant, slightly exasperated, redhead finished her conversation with a stately woman before turning her attention to the uncomfortable blonde by the elevator.

“May I help you?” she piped.

“I’m looking for Maura Allen,” I cleared my throat. “My name is Erin Nelson.”

“You’re the journalist?” (Would she know I didn’t have a journalism degree or write for any major publication?)

“Yes, that’s right,” I coughed.

“Great. You’re the only writer here. If you’d like I can get you 15 minutes with Ms. Steinem.”

This was the time to summon words. Any word. Still, nothing.

“I wish it could be longer, but I need to get her in front of the camera with Sue.” I didn’t know who Sue was, but I wanted to know everything about her.

“Fifteen minutes will be fine.” I paused on my way to the general procession. Should I run back home (where I was safe from retching on Gloria’s shoes)?

The text

The conference room was flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows facing Hells Kitchen. I spilled my tea on the white linen tablecloth as I sat down. Sorry, I said with my scrunched face to my table neighbors.

With a pile of wet napkins in my lap, I turned my attention to the speaker, a black law professor at Stanford who shared her frustration when white faculty women began to touch her hair.

“I am not an animal and this is not a petting zoo,” she recounted. She was reprimanded for being too emotional during a faculty meeting.

The room inhaled with a sense of camaraderie. Not all of us knew what it was like to have coarse hair. But all 250 women were there because at some point, they too, felt overlooked.

I scribbled out the questions I’d begun preparing. What did I really want to know from a woman who had spent her life having tough conversations about the varied female experience?

I looked at the clock. It was 11:00AM and I hadn’t seen or heard from Maura. I dug up her number and typed it into my phone.

Hi Maura, this is Erin. I prepped some questions for Ms. Steinem. I also have a 1992 copy of Ms. I’d like to share.

Fourteen minutes went by.

Meet me in the Circle Room at 11:45.

The Circle Room

The Circle Room was the speaker room on the left of the main hallway. As I approached its ornate wooden doors, I instead veered right. Hunched over my knees in the bathroom, I was going to throw up.

Mid-heave, a woman appeared from a stall with cleaning supplies in hand.

“Are you okay, Miss?” No. I shifted. I was sick with nerves and, now, privilege. I looked in the mirror and adjusted my clear frames.

“I’m fine. I’m sorry,” I sputtered, though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was apologizing for. I left the bathroom and, this time, pushed through the double doors.

Inside the Circle Room was an inconceivably large roundtable and eight women. There She was.

I put down my bag, removing my notepad and copy of Ms. while keeping one eye on her. Gloria carefully ironed her flared hiphuggers with her famously long fingers — a habit, perhaps, to make her feel less like a spectacle. As she moved, the fringe from her tan suede jacket swayed with her.

Of course she has a suede fringe jacket. I felt a sense of kinship.

At the table, the videographer filmed a conversation between Gloria and Sue Toigo (Sue!) — the founder of the Toigo Foundation hosting the event — about their work fighting for affordable childcare.

As if choreographed, they took turns nodding in mutual respect. They had done this dance many times before. We’ve achieved a great deal. There is still much more to do.

Everyone else at the table was on their phone when Gloria fixed her gaze in my direction. Afraid to spook her focus, I gently set down my pen. Was she talking to me? I shut my notebook. It was time to listen.

The chat

The speakers each wanted a photograph with Gloria. I lingered at one side of the gratuitous table as they took turns passing their iPhones to Maura.

Flipping through my copy of Ms. — where was that Anita Hill article? —I halted with Maura’s bellow.

“Erin, I’d like you to meet Ms. Gloria Steinem,” Maura pronounced from the other side of the room. “Ms. Steinem, Erin would like to ask you a few questions.”

OH DEAR LORD. I could hear my dead feminist grandmother’s voice in the back of my head. What does He have to do with this?

Almost as soon as we shook hands, the speakers pounced again. “Just one more picture!”

A few snaps and she was free. Taking a seat two chairs to my right, she began reviewing her notes. For a moment, I remembered this was Gloria Steinem, the same Gloria Steinem — I knew from her books — who dreaded public speaking. She was nervous, too.

My courage, so far dormant in the Circle Room, chose this moment to erupt. “I don’t like public speaking either,” I said, sliding one chair closer. “How do you do it?” She looked up and offered a half-smile.

“If this was the last time I had to do this, it would be the happiest day of my life.” She noticed the Ms in front of me.

“This was a great issue. The Anita Hill feature is relevant today, isn’t it? Did you know the art for this cover is in the MoMA?” I didn’t.

“My grandmother left me a box labeled ‘Feminist Readings’ when she died. This was my favorite thing from that box.”

She turned each page with the tenderness of meeting an old friend. It felt like there was no one else in the room. (Except, maybe, the Ghost of Grandma?)

“I’m an editor for a tech company that sometimes lets me write about women’s issues. But I also write on my own. Would it be okay to record our conversation?” She continued to flip through the pages, stopping at Anita’s story.

“Of course,” she said, looking up. “Let’s chat.”

[You can listen to the interview here, or read the transcript in Volume 2 of the Angry Vaginas newsletter.]