Gloria Steinem on setting career boundaries


Gloria Steinem had so much credit card debt in the late 1960s that a collector had to visit her apartment and confiscate her AmEx.

This is just one of the financial memories she reveals in My Life on the Road, her 2015 memoir about traveling across the U.S. as a feminist speaker and organizer.

In the book, Steinem admits that she used a personal credit card to pay for portions of a farmers' march in California. The story starts when the famous union organizer Cesar Chavez asks Steinem to help get more press coverage around an upcoming protest for higher wages:

"It is the very end of the 1960s. Scared and in over my head, I am a volunteer flying to California at the request of Cesar Chavez, a man I don't know. His fledgling union is trying to raise wages for all farmworkers, but the growers have refused even to talk, and Cesar has enlisted public support by calling for a consumer boycott of grapes... The problem is press coverage...I have no idea what to do about it, but when Cesar says in his soft-spoken but urgent way that you have to be someplace, you have to be there."

After landing in the sunshine state, she finds that it’s nearly impossible to get reporters to cover the event. They list the 110 degree desert heat as their main deterrent:

"From gas stations and motels along the march route, I make calls to celebrities in Cesar's name. Several movie stars say no...The first to say yes is Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the civil rights veteran who marches with the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Steinem asks if he would like to stay with farm workers while he visits, but he tells her that he needs better accommodations. He requests an air-conditioned motel room in a voice that she describes as "filled with long years of movement fatigue." She hurriedly agrees, and once he’s on board, she’s also able to get Senators Walter Mondale, Ted Kennedy, and John Tunney to join the march. Their appearance turns the protest into nationwide news, and Steinem proudly recalls, “By the time I get home to New York a day later, even my taxi driver knows about this Poor People's March." 

Click here to subscribe

The problem? Steinem realizes after the fact that she can't afford to pay for the rooms she booked:

"In my rush and worry, I charge pretty much everybody's motel room to my brand-new American Express card. It's a sum I can't possibly pay. I remember the fatigue in Reverend Abernathy's voice and realize that movement survival over the long term means saying what you need. I also discover the final stage of bill collecting when a messenger comes to my door and confiscates my card. Friends are worried on my behalf, but I am improbably fine.”

So many interesting dynamics at play here!

I want to dissect what led Steinem to succumb to pressure and overcharge her credit card in the first place, because I think it has a lot to do with gender, age, and priorities. Some key phrases from her story:

“Scared and in over my head, I am a volunteer flying to California at the request of Cesar Chavez, a man I don’t know.”

Cesar Chavez was a hero. He was also a man who was older than Steinem.

It sounds like, though everyone’s heart was in the right place, Steinem succumbed to pressure that was placed on her by a older man without regard for her well-being. More importantly, thousands of farm workers were counting on Steinem to help their cause become visible. Of course she was going to decide to make personal sacrifices. 

On the other hand, the popular men who joined the movement slept in those air-conditioned motel rooms at Steinem's expense. Was that fair to her, even though it was in the name of a greater cause?

Should we continue to expect this level of self-sacrifice from women?

When do we expect women to go to far in sacrificing themselves for the betterment of others?

There's a lot of rich territory here about power dynamics, the appropriateness of making sacrifices, and who ends up in the red.

“Movement survival over the long term means saying what you need.”

Ultimately, I was happy to see Steinem acknowledge that voicing your needs is not only an exercise in self-preservation, but also a step towards the longevity of social movements. Self-care -- and setting appropriate boundaries -- is an act of political protest, after all.

I hope this serves as motivation to you to voice your needs, release your shame, and pay more attention to your sacrifices and the patterns they follow. 

Click here to subscribe

Books Mentioned