Gloria Steinem tells a number of revealing anecdotes in this collection of essays. In one piece she describes how she and George McGovern drove to John Kenneth Galbraith’s home for a weekend of heavy political strategizing. After the weekend talks, during which Steinem was greatly impressed with McGovern’s brilliance, they got in the car and discovered that McGovern had left the key turned in the ignition. The engine was dead. Steinem remarks that she realized then that McGovern, like her, “was great in emergencies but can’t handle everyday life. “This realization, so rarely stated in her other essays, is a key problem with her vision of women’s lives. Steinem is very competent in outlining large and universal problems facing women in general, but her theories do not correspond to the realities of everyday life for the majority of individual American women.

Steinem essentially answers the question: What could a woman with intelligence and no obligations do with her life? She could take up, as Steinem has, politics, pornography, work, and words. This has led her to work as a volunteer for McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and Bella Abzug, to meditate on the differences in female bodies, and to muse on the political consequences that would occur if men menstruated. Steinem apparently thinks that she is the veritable keystone of contemporary feminism. She supposes that her work as an editor of Ms. magazine has established her as guru to the women of America. She strains to explain how difficult, heroic, and beleaguered women’s lives are, but somehow the refrain rings false. One does not sense that Steinem knows what reality is like for most American women. She writes from Olympus as a female eunuch, while the majority of her possible but not probable audience exists in a more mundane realm.

Steinem’s life is free of family, husband, and children, the usual encumbrances that most women in the world possess. And yet Steinem has set herself up (or has been set up) as a spokesperson for women. But for which women? How many women in this country—or anywhere else, for that matter—identify with the opportunities and freedoms she has had? Steinem may be correct in many of her assessments of sexual discrimination, inequality, and harassment, but her vision is always skewed by her lack of empathy and experience, her limited awareness of the average woman’s everyday realities. As most women know, once one becomes a mother, one is never again simply a woman, an individual. This is a fact that a childless woman never understands, never feels, until she too joins the mass of women who face the real issues of sexual politics—not theoretical debates about women in Africa, but the challenge to find the time to wash one’s hair. Steinem may attempt to envision the concerns of the world ‘s women, but she imagines an illusory universe where women live in some divine-like individuality, free to self-actualize and write five letters every week to their congressperson. Steinem’s universe is one wherein none but the chosen few Live.

Does Steinem, any better than Freud, understand what women want? She is correct in her essay “Why Young Women Are More Conservative” when she remarks that the important factor in most young women’s lives is acceptance, belonging to another person or group. But she somehow assumes that this impulse to connect is something that is outgrown, sloughed off as one matures. Anthropologists (whom Steinem is continually citing for support) tell us differently, as do medical researchers. The need to belong to a support unit is a basic human need and one that, in fact, enhances our longevity. Even when Steinem admits this need, she turns the discussion to a need for perfectly equal relationships, an arrangement where both mother and father divide the care of their children. Such sharing, indeed, is laudable and many feminists are working towards it, but the realities of the marketplace and the facts of the human condition cannot be ignored. When two people work and attempt to share childcare, conflicts arise and compromises follow. And several difficulties emerge. How many women want their children in 40-hour a week institutional settings? How many childless women understand the guilt and pain that comes from any prolonged separation from our children? How many women occasionally curse their children and long for a life with no obligation to anyone but self? But how many of us would, under any circumstances, deny the love and growth we have experienced by nurturing and caring for children?

Steinem’s misconceptions of motherhood seem to derive from her relationship with her own mother, painfully recorded in her essay “Ruth’s Song.” So much energy was expended in being a daughter, surviving her mother’s bouts of mental illness, that Steinem seems to have become forever frozen in the daughter role. The saddest and most revealing episode comes when Steinem tells of her asking her mother about why she did not walk out on her marriage. When her mother replied that she would not have given birth to Gloria and her sister if she had, Steinem self-righteously proclaims that the mother “might have been born instead.” What Steinem does not understand is the transforming love that mothers feel for their children. What she does not comprehend is that what may appear to be merely sacrifice is not sacrifice to a mother who is motivated by love, not personal gain. What Steinem fails to grasp is that human relationships are not based on power, but on love, and that is a reality that never seems to enter into her vision of possibilities. She does not seem to realize that women might choose to love their husbands and children, not as slaves love, but as equals who have no need or desire to give commands, or to calculate who has done what for whom. No contemporary woman who is sensitive to the issues raised by Steinem can simply dismiss them. But those women who have tried to juggle family and career resent bland statements about how they have to work both at home and at work. These women have chosen this life, they know the true costs, and they have accepted them.

Finally, Steinem’s vision seems inadequate; not only because it fails to touch the personal realities that women face, but because it errs in thinking that all human problems can be legislated away. “If only the ERA had passed,” is a refrain she sings often throughout these essays. To believe that our individual lives can be changed drastically by Washington bureaucracy is to be naive. The hard and cold fact is that each person bears responsibility for the shape of her or his life—its accomplishments and its frustrations. Salvation for women, like salvation for any group of human beings, is won individually. Each of us must fight the same battle that every human being fights in order to make ourselves into the realization of our best imaginings. Steinem should know this fact from her own experience—after all, she started out as a poor tapdancer in Toledo.

Some of what Steinem has accomplished is notable and valuable, and her energy and work for women are admirable in many ways. But she is not a role model for all women. Women in the real world need a woman to speak for them who understands the complexities of human relationships and human love, one who can speak in concrete terms about both the burdens and the blessings of being a woman and a mother.