The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Gloria Steinem on the Road as a Medium of Listening in a Culture Deafened by Speaking

“When people talk listen completely,” Hemingway counseled in his advice to aspiring writers, adding: “Most people never listen.” Indeed, listening doesn’t come to us as naturally as the biological act of hearing might imply.

Fifteen years after Anna Deavere Smith traveled the country to master the art of listening between the lines, another extraordinary woman makes a beautiful case for the humanizing power of the itinerant life as a medium of listening. In My Life on the Road (public library), writer, activist, and trailblazing feminist Gloria Steinem reflects on a lifetime of travel as a singular mode of human connection and a powerful medium for amplifying the voices of those muffled by our dominant culture.

Gloria Steinem

Steinem, whose enormous generosity of spirit emanates from every page of the book, writes:

One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.

She reflects on her own journey of learning to listen on the road:

What seems to be one thing from a distance is very different close up.


When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. For more than four decades, I’ve spent at least half my time on the road.


Taking to the road — by which I mean letting the road take you — changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories — in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

In a sentiment that calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on speaking, listening, and the potency of real human communication, Steinem considers the unparalleled power of human interaction unmediated by media manipulation and distorting interpretation:

People in the same room understand and empathize with each other in a way that isn’t possible on the page or screen. Gradually, I became the last thing on earth I would ever have imagined: a public speaker and a gatherer of groups. And this brought an even bigger reward: public listening.


What we’re told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t.

Altogether, if I’d been looking at nothing but the media all these years, I would be a much more discouraged person — especially given the notion that only conflict is news, and that objectivity means being evenhandedly negative.

On the road, I learned that the media are not reality; reality is reality.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Steinem issues a clarion call for inviting this reality-reclaiming power of the road into our own lives:

Spend some time on the road… in an on-the-road state of mind, not seeking out the familiar but staying open to whatever comes along. It can begin the moment you leave your door.

Like a jazz musician improvising, or a surfer looking for a wave, or a bird riding a current of air, you’ll be rewarded by moments when everything comes together. Listen to the story of strangers meeting in a snowstorm that Judy Collins sings about in “The Blizzard,” or read Alice Walker’s essay “My Father’s Country Is the Poor.” Each starts in a personal place, takes an unpredictable path, and reaches a destination that is both surprising and inevitable — like the road itself.


More reliably than anything else on earth, the road will force you to live in the present.

In the remainder of the enormously invigorating My Life on the Road, Steinem goes on to retrace the many roads she has taken along her journey and what they have taught her about the vital art of public listening — an art mastering which is more urgent than ever amid today’s culture deafened by speaking.

Published October 28, 2015




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