Dear Ms. Gloria Steinem,

I watched your documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words last week with my 11-year-old daughter.  Like you I was born in Toledo, Ohio. My mother was a subscriber to Ms. Magazine and she raised me alone in the thick of the women’s movement. I was also a caretaker like you, for my mother’s depression and later alcoholism.

I am writing a memoir after attending the Iowa Summer Writers program this year and have been thinking about the two books my mother owned when I was a child. I’m not sure she even read these books, but they sat on our shelf, emblematic of the change from poor agrarian farm girl to big-city possibility – Nancy Friday’s My Mother/Myself and Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones.

To fuel my writing, I have been compelled to visit the messages of my childhood. I wrote to Marlo Thomas to thank her for the songs “When We Grow Up” and the story “Atalanta.” I googled the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” I remember the hope I had, once I tore through Nancy Friday’s book. I remember my uncle’s Playboy magazines. I remember how the word feminism seemed so right and natural coming from outspoken women on television, and yet in my own mouth it was more scandalous than a dirty word. I remember my mother requesting a teacher change for me in sixth grade and being told the reason I didn’t like the male teacher was because there wasn’t a man in our house.

I am now immersing myself in those ideas and memories and thoughts and asking myself where the gap grew between what I wanted then – what I believed I was capable of – and where I fell as I grew. Why wasn’t I stronger? When my voice was dismissed why didn’t I leave?

Where did I go wrong? Yes, my mom has depression and became an alcoholic, only seeking treatment once I left for college. And yes, my father abandoned us to return to Canada to get his PhD in counseling, an ironic and slightly hypocritical manifestation of male obfuscation.  But why wasn’t I strong like you, Gloria, knowing what I thought I knew? Why did I choose the fantasy of love over empowerment? I thought I could have both. Instead I grew angry and more helpless, eking out my place, using my voice in the tiniest way I could. Not really choosing either and somehow stuck. I pretended I needed and wanted the love of a man while doing everything to sabotage it with my mother’s rage.  

At first I wanted to write you a letter to thank you for all you have done for women, for yourself, and for men. And I do thank you sincerely for standing so big and strong, for taking the heat and parting the Red Sea.

I also want to apologize for letting you down, for letting myself down, for letting other women down. I had the seed but I didn’t water it. I became a social worker to work for social change, but when given the opportunity to intern with the UNHCR I choose marriage and instead tied myself to the bizarre fantasy that a husband and having children would fill me up.

Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous gratitude for the experience of having children, but now I also have to become my own woman in order to model for them what it means to own my  power. I am only a couple steps ahead of them and wish I had not been so insecure. I wish that I had more to give them and that I didn’t abandon myself in the hopes that a man would take care of me.

Maybe my reaction to my mother is a natural and normal experience. Because she decided no men, to protect herself she swung to the other side of the pendulum. Maybe it was necessary or inevitable for me to swing back into a semblance of balance. I can see I swung too far, feeling small and feeble and marrying someone who would take advantage of such a weakness.

Either way, I am back in the game and I am grateful, forever grateful that you have gone before me. You have opened so many doors. You and your friends have made such a beautiful and brave impact on the universe.

I can only imagine how many mud pies you have had slung at you and still you are the picture of grace. Your voice is solid, where mine is still screechy and shrill as I practice. But I am listening to you, again like the 45 records we played over and over. I can feel the deep wide well of consciousness that is inside me and am learning to embrace that knowing calm voice.

I see that you are speaking in Kalamazoo next month. I am going to fly home to Ann Arbor and pick up my 70-year-old mother and bring her to hear you. It is my first amends. It will not be my last. My daughter and my son and their children’s children need me to lead better. To know the voice of feminine power and to learn the lesson of service and to be able to show them that love and empowerment are complimentary.

I look forward with anticipation.

Your biggest new/old fan.

Sincerely,

Rebekah Gainsley