Form and Content

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Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within locates the possibility for revolution in the psyche rather than in the ability to act decisively and independently in the world. Wherever she traveled, Steinem found that although women were acting in courageous, ambitious, and committed ways, they did not see that they were doing so. Steinem began to admit to her own feelings of self-doubt and emptiness. Through her personal experience and the personal experiences of others, Steinem located a crucial problem for contemporary women that accompanies the great expectations they hold for themselves: As they try to succeed in many roles, their self-esteem can be damaged by the ongoing expectations that they should fill those roles. After Steinem had written 250 dry, unsuccessful pages, Steinem’s friend, a family therapist, read the manuscript and commented that Steinem had a self-esteem problem. Yet Steinem had been named one of the ten most confident women in the United States. The coincidence made her even more convinced that women were in serious trouble.

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To rewrite her book, Steinem added autobiographical elements and invited her readers to connect her stories with their own. Her approach reflects feminist consciousness: the movement back and forth between the personal and the political. Steinem has a political purpose for addressing self-esteem; she sees it as the basis of any real democracy. By locating strength in the self-belief, she draws connections between self-esteem and the ability to demand fairness and to change the hierarchical paradigms of the family, the nation, and even the world.

Steinem structures the book by first giving a detailed account of self-esteem. She relates not only her own parable (by this she means a personal anecdote from which more far-reaching generalizations can be made) but also a history of the notion of self-esteem that goes beyond Western culture to Egypt in 2,500 b.c.e., Hinduism, and the Upanishads. She introduces early on what will be a recurring theme throughout the book: the belief that there is a crucial core self that is a powerful part of human identity, one that needs to be recognized and liberated.

Because she locates this core identity in the child, one must, as a step toward self-healing, rediscover that unique child—a waiting true self. Hence, one must journey back to what one has lost, recover what that child experienced, and re-parent oneself in order to reclaim one’s most true, creative core. In the appendix is a “Meditation Guide” that can assist one in making the journey inward.

She follows with chapters that discuss education and the ways in which it undermines intellectual and interpersonal self-esteem. She advocates not only a change in institutional structures but also the revision of the very norms against which people judge experience. By giving a brief history of scientific “facts” that have been used to bolster social prejudices, she seriously calls into question modern measuring techniques that still rank individuals based on mainstream (white, male, middle-class, heterosexual) knowledge.

The book goes on to address issues such as women’s bodies, love, romance, and animal rights. Throughout, Steinem returns to the theme of authenticity. Beauty is the ability to decide what is beautiful within oneself, not how well one measures up to what is considered beautiful. Pleasure and creativity are expressions of the true self. Love exists when one is loved for an authentic self. Her message finally is that there is one true inner voice, and that by trusting it, one can stretch one’s abilities without sacrificing self-esteem.

Context

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Revolution from Within appeared during a crucial year for feminism. Susan Faludi’s Backlash, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Feminism Without Illusions, and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth had also...

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