I recently heard feminist icon Gloria Steinem talk at a birthday bash thrown for her by Smith College, where she began studying in ’52.

I recently heard feminist icon Gloria Steinem talk at a birthday bash thrown for her by Smith College, where she began studying in ’52.

“The truth will set you free - but first it will tick you off,” she said that night, citing the motto of liberation-minded people everywhere.

To be frank, she didn’t say “TICK” you off exactly. She speaks an unvarnished truth and always has, which may be why, at 75, she still seems youthful.

Youthful AND good-humored: She told the audience she went to a Midwestern high school “whose only real rule was you couldn’t play football after age 22.”

But if she’s frank and funny, she’s also grateful and wise: She thanked Smith for believing in her when she didn’t believe in herself. And she cited her own now-much-quoted assertion that empathy is the most revolutionary of emotions.

As I listened to her, I realized how much things have changed since my own early days.

Back then, girls were expected to behave in a “becomingly” meek way, cheering for the boys rather than advancing themselves on any field of play. In her keynote address at Smith’s 129th commencement, Gloria recalled her own thoughts at age 22 when “even life after 30 seemed a hazy screen to be filled in by the needs of others,” and not by the call of her own young soul.

I had the same affliction. Straight-A student though I was, I still told my diary I would only marry someone taller, older and smarter than myself.

Well those days are over now, boy. Young women today aren’t afraid to excel. They expect to stand in their own shoes and make their place in the world.

Awhile back I flew through the tiny Santa Barbara airport where the only three people I interacted with were women younger than I am.

The person I spoke to when I realized I had lost something on the runway in Los Angeles an hour before? A woman in her 40s who took my lost scarf as seriously as she would have taken a left-behind baby stroller. She picked up that phone and described the thing in detail to an actual human on the other end of the line.

The person checking our documents as we entered the boarding area? A woman in her 30s and just about the jauntiest individual I have ever encountered.

“You’re sure you want to go in there NOW?“ she said to the couple in front of me. ”You’re WAY early and frankly it smells like … people in there!”

And the person out on the tarmac any loading bags too big for the overhead bins? A young woman in her 20s who, between hoistings, whistled merrily while executing a series of rapid squats.

Maybe our public spaces feel more open and friendly now because there are women are in them, and women are hard-wired to forge connections.

I know I feel connected wherever I travel and I travel quite a bit.

Gloria travels even more.

Not long ago, on finding herself marooned at an airport whose every amenity was closed for the night, she told us that a cleaning woman saw her despair, escorted her to a locked utility room and invited her to sleep safely there a while.

I don’t know if this woman recognized her or not but one thing is for sure: she proved Gloria’s point about empathy. It really is the most revolutionary of emotions and wouldn’t the world change if we ALL practiced it!

Write Terry at terrymarotta@verizon.net or at P.O. Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890. Leave a comment and read more on her blog Exit Only (www.terrymarotta.wordpress.com).