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Don’t Call Her an Icon: Visiting Prisons with Gloria Steinem

By Deborah Jiang-Stein 

Deborah Jiang-Stein and Gloria Steinem
Deborah Jiang-Stein and Gloria Steinem. Photo credit: unPrison Project

In our fame machine culture of “Look at me, look at me!” where fame is marketed as a drug of choice, we’re consumed by the notion that the only light worth seeking is the limelight. I recently had the privilege to witness another way to hold the light.

With Gloria Steinem at my side last spring, we entered the state prison for women in Minnesota to share a tour and speaking engagement. She was in Minnesota on a generous acceptance when I invited her to a fundraiser for the nonprofit I founded, the unPrison Project, so that we could raise funds to reach the thirty-one states that have requested my speaking and our programming into their women’s prisons.

First of all, don’t call her an icon. I hadn't realized this from her public media presence. Up close, I learned she doesn’t take on the identity as an icon. She is truly one of the most humble women I’ve ever met.

Her work is not about Gloria Steinem. She is not dedicated to her fame; she’s dedicated to the work of her mission that elevates the status of girls and women. She’s all about the message, not the messenger, and her fame is a by-product of her work. She is accessible, and people have been able to hear her and respect her for over five generations because of her humility. As far as the myth that she only fights for the white, middle-class “feminist liberation movement” is concerned, she started early in her activism to reach communities of color and indigenous people.

My Life on the RoadGloria helped me confirm my personal and professional purpose. Every trip I make to a prison around the country, which is a continual step into a new environment each time, is exactly what I was born to do. Learning circles, which Gloria writes about in her recent book, My Life on the Road, are as vital inside prisons as on the outside. She herself is a life-long learner and deep listener, not the Oh Holy Mother of All Answers which some people lay on her.

My obsessed focus on elevating awareness, hope, and opportunities for women in prison is, now more than ever, my life’s work. Most of all, my time with Gloria showed me what I’ve believed for a long time: fame can lead to spiritual vacancy when humility isn’t along for the ride.

Here’s the passage from My Life on the Road where she writes about visiting the women’s prison in Minnesota with me.


Prison BabyWe meet outside the prison with both the surprise of strangers, and instant intimacy. I have read her book, Prison Baby: A Memoir, and she has read my writing. I know she was born to an incarcerated and addicted mother, was lucky to survive withdrawal from the heroin she had absorbed from her mother’s body and blood, and also lucky to spend her first year in a rare prison with a nursery so she could be with her mother. Then she was adopted by a Jewish family of teachers who gave her the gift of education, a gift she passes on to imprisoned women like her mother who was in and out of prison all of her life.

Since she is way more familiar than I am with prison routine, she guides me through a filling out forms, removing jewelry, leaving everything but our clothing in a locker, and passing through metal detectors. When we are finally in the halls of the prison itself—surprising because they are bright and clean and depressing because there is no way out—we see five mothers with very young children. I am sad because I know this is a rare visiting day. Deborah is not sad because she knows this prison is rare in allowing maternal visits at all. Because it is a weekend, the first big room we enter has about thirty women listening to two volunteer musicians who have come in to entertain. When I ask about the many empty seats, the male guard explains that gatherings have to be small because prisoners far outnumber the guards, and they could be overwhelmed in a riot. One has never happened here, it is a rule made for men’s prisons.

Steinem and Jiang-Stein at Shakopee Women’s Prison in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Steinem and Jiang-Stein at Shakopee Women’s Prison in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo credit: Minnesota Department of Corrections

Here as nationally, the number of incarcerated women has gone up by 800 percent in the last twenty years, mostly because of drugs. There is a well-stocked library, and when we enter, the librarian, a Smith College graduate, has gathered a dozen women prisoners who are talking around a table. But if our school system didn’t produce one of the lowest literacy rates in the developed world—if the rate of childhood sexual abuse, domestic abuse and drug addiction weren’t so high—those dozen women would probably not be here at all. I meet separately with twenty or so prisoners in a very competitive and successful military-style program that creates confidence, and reduces the likelihood of return, but it is so about marching and barking out orders in West Point style that we spend quite a while talking in a room together before anyone speaks spontaneously or laughs or calls me by my first name.

I can see why Deborah is devoting her life to talking to people outside prisons about people inside, and to people inside about kindness, literacy, skills and hope in any form. They are like sponges soaking up attention and the novelty of being listened to. It’s just possible that prison could be a restorative and communal place.

I leave with the hope of going to other prisons with Deborah, including men’s prisons where she takes her book program to fathers, too. I feel I have entered a world where I want to be again, a world where small things can make a big difference.

From the book MY LIFE ON THE ROAD by Gloria Steinem. Copyright (c) 2016 by Gloria Steinem. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.


About the Author 

Deborah Jiang-SteinDeborah Jiang-Stein is author of the memoir Prison Baby. She is founder of the unPrison Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls. Deborah advocates for creative free expression, capacity building, and mentoring. She works to build public awareness about mass incarceration as a collaborator and a keynote speaker. Deborah is a 2012 graduate of The Women’s Media Center progressive Women’s Voices, the nation’s premier media and leadership training program for women. Follow her on Twitter at @deborahdash and visit her website.