I have to admit, the setting was not as glamorous as I had pictured it. I was less than three feet away from Gloria Steinem, but despite the artful curve of Ratner Athletics Center’s side window I was still sitting on bleachers in a gym and two rooms away from a sorority pool party. Yet, as soon as Steinem took the podium last Saturday, that awareness faded. Laughing, she declared, “Progressives have taken over the University of Chicago!”
I could see why this was a woman that a movement could get behind. She had a remarkable ability to engage a crowd and impart her thoughts, but at the same time be so down to earth as to almost give the impression of being part of the crowd. At 74, she was still energetic and fit, donning form-fitting clothing and–as some later noted–high-heeled boots. Steinem’s words galvanized the four-hour Progressive Gala, noting that the many activist associations in the world are united like “spokes on a wheel” with the common goal of change at its center.
Elevation and unity were naturally the dominant themes of an event that was sponsored by over twenty organizations throughout Chicago. So was partying: Hollie Gilman, president of the University of Chicago Democrats, described the Gala as “a night to celebrate what we share together and work to strengthen our progressive identity.”
As a Gala volunteer, I handed out tickets to college students as well as community activists from across the region. Our backgrounds were varied, but once at the Smart Museum for the latter part of the event, we all discoursed within the two panel forums presented by the Organization of Black Students and the Feminist Majority. We stood transfixed by the same performances and together consumed delicious food.
Perhaps the most unifying factors were the conceptual threads that ran throughout the night. Amina Norman-Hawkins, in her poem “I Think,” expressed a kind of sticky-thought syndrome probably common to the activists in the crowd, especially the words: “These thoughts / they never fade away / they just twinkle.”
At times, the Gala felt more like a large progressive support group than a party. Feminism is not as popular today as it once was, to say the least, and during the Question and Answer session with Steinem, inquirers seemed to primarily be after advice and motivation, asking questions about everything from how to educate anti-feminists to her thoughts on high-heeled shoes. Though at times expressing concern about the fact that people might take some of her advice too seriously–“once I got older, people think I’m telling them what to do” –Steinem answered every question meaningfully and with great humor. She emphasized that every great movement takes massive amounts of time and that every revolution is ongoing, giving every activist in the room hope with the words: “Don’t let them tell you that it’s over.”