Feminist Missteps In Front Of Gloria Steinem

Last night, Suzanne Braun Levine, author of the new book, 50 is the New Fifty, joined feminist icon Gloria Steinem, famed actress and director Isabella Rossellini, editor-in-chief of More magazine Lesley Jane Seymour, and congresswoman Donna Edwards for a panel on the book’s subject matter, life after 50.

I didn’t intend for this to be a personal post, yet the fact that I now sit here writing in the first person and with the aid of some scotch suggests all did not got as planned. When I saw the advert for the event in my local B&N last week, I thought the panel would make for a good piece of reportage for The Frisky. Yet, it would also have been something I’d have considered going to on my own if only to see Gloria Steinem, a woman I’m proud to call a fellow graduate of my Smith College, and who also spoke at my graduation in 2007, delivering what was surely the greatest commencement speech a young woman could hear. Settling into the packed room, I took a look around. At 23-years-old (but with the face of a teenager, ugh), I was without a doubt the youngest person in the room in the crowd of 50-and-up women.

The talk underway, I couldn’t take my eyes off my role model. She looked fantastic in brown bell bottoms, suede boots, and a tan leather jacket. Soaking up her words (as a clearly preferential reporter), I relished recording her wisdom about post-50 life: “I’m not obsessed with sex anymore. It’s not a loss, it’s just different…the brain cells obsessed with it can now be devoted to other things,” “I don’t regret not having children,” “the bad news is that I find myself doing things over again, the good new is that I can.”

As the evening went on, the other panelists also contributed wise words: Rossellini talked about the difficulty of physical aging, Edwards saw how divorce changed the course of her life, and Levine discussed the power of saying “no.” As I jotted notes, I encouraged myself to ask a question during the Q&A. A horrible public speaker, it was the kind of inner goading that I knew probably wouldn’t happen. Yet, as the session neared an end, the idea of posing a question became a strange necessity.

I would be the brave youngster, and later I’d talk to Gloria, introducing myself as a fellow Smithie. I’d tell her how I kept a copy of her commencement speech in my desk to read during tough moments at my first job at a ladymag. How at my job I would play a game in my head called “What Would Gloria Do?” while organizing sex positions, contemplating my place in the production of something she might label as anti-feminist. Then we’d go have drinks, and before I knew it, we’d be good friends.

My heart beating, I began formulating my question. Okay…you’re reporting on this for a website catering to young women…why would they be interested in this book? Question: What advice do you have to women in their 20s/30s/40s so they can have a good post-50 life? But wait, I’m 23, do I really need to be thinking about this yet? More interesting question: Should pre-50 women be thinking about planning for later life?

My hand raised, a microphone was brought to my face. My heart was now racing, my ears thumping.

“Uh, hi.” My voice shot into all corners of the room, higher pitched than I expected. I was now blinded by fear and my mouth was moving just to get through this.

“I was, uh, going to ask what advice you have for women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but then I thought, is there any value to younger women planning and even thinking about old age?”

Oh boy did that come out wrong. I could tell the second “old age” came out of my mouth, the dynamic in the room shifted. Resounding tsk tsks, laughter, and stares that said, “The nerve! Who does this naive prick think she is?!”

I can’t for the life of me communicate what the panel advised because I could tell that they, too, were a bit incensed by the question. Something about, “You have us to look to,” but I didn’t hear it. I want to die. What did I just do? Oh God, they have my credit card number from the copy I bought. They know my name! I will never work in this town again!

When the talk concluded, I sat in my chair, unable to move. The brave thing to do would be to introduce myself to the group, apologize for what may have seemed a bit out of place. I couldn’t.

On the walk home, I physically recoiled as I replayed the moment over and over again in my head. OLD AGE, OLD AGE. In my panic, the only way I imagined a resolution would be to become a great, famous something-or-other, so that when Gloria would be interviewed for a profile about me, she’d have to say, “Well I first knew Leonora as that ballsy prick in Barnes & Noble…”

I saw my mother later that night, rushing into her arms searching for comfort. “Oh dear,” is all she offered. Before I left, I said, “Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I got you a book,” I declared, reaching into my handbag and plopping down 50 is the New Fifty on the table.

[50 is the new Fifty: Ten Life Lessons for Women in Second Adulthood, $25.95, Barnes and Noble]