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What It Takes to Be a ‘Dangerous Woman’

by PAT MITCHELL

The following is an excerpt from Pat Mitchell’s new book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World.”

I can’t think of any single aspect of my re-wired and privileged life that gives me greater joy or more meaningful support or better company than my diverse and delicious circle of women friends. Too many to name here, but you know who you are. To my women friends who are in what Jane [Fonda] describes as our prime time, however, I feel a special bond and a big responsibility. 

We are potentially the most powerful women on the planet. Think about it. There are approximately one billion women over the age of fifty in the world. We’re the fastest-growing population on earth! We have the kind of experience that can only result from having seen a lot and done even more. We have the perspective and insights that arise after surviving failures and disappointments, overcoming the challenges that accompany each age of a woman’s life. And because most of us are healthier and more active than any generations of older women before us, we’re not ready or willing to take to our beds or sit on the beach or be anywhere other than right in the middle of the action. 

We’re better able to let go of some or most of the daily action of jobs, titles, attending to family. We’re ready to leverage all that we know and the lessons we’ve learned the hard way to make it easier for the generations following us—not only because this makes us feel useful and valued, but because this is the way we can make the biggest difference for women everywhere. 

I’ve thought a lot about how becoming dangerous is playing out in my life now. It certainly means I’m less patient—about very nearly everything, but especially injustice and unfairness. It means expressing anger when I feel it and being ready to fight for what matters. It means caring less what people say and saying more clearly what I think and feel. It has also meant coming to terms with my past, letting go of blame and shame, and bringing forward some of the experiences, buried deep, for better understanding of what my purpose is now. 

It means facing up to my privilege and harnessing every aspect of privilege and power to open doors, build bridges, heal divides, and fight for possibilities and a more equitable world for all. 

Each of us has to find our own way of describing and living from our own definition of danger. For one woman, it’s speaking truth to power by dropping a trail of f-bombs. For another, it’s volunteering at the local homeless shelter. For others, it’s running for a local school board or refusing to shop at a place that discriminates or tithing to a cherished cause or making phone calls for political candidates or simply saying no and setting a clean, strong boundary. 

I hope I’ve made the case with this book that it’s time for us to reframe the word dangerous. Let me add one more truth about becoming dangerous that I believe more strongly every day: you can’t be dangerous from the sidelines! We’ve got to jump in, be engaged, embrace more risks, optimize all our networks of friends and colleagues, and do more to shape a future where idealogues, tyrants, narcissists, and abusers pose less danger—and have less power. 

I am also committed to reframing the word and prevailing stereotypes and definition of power. Remember, the word comes from the Latin root meaning “to be able to.” I believe that women are able to change the definition of power as Bella Abzug predicted nearly thirty years ago: “Women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.” All my faith that the future will be better is grounded by my belief that women are going to come into positions of power and leadership and that we are going to use our power and share our power differently and effectively to improve the lives of other people, especially those without privilege, representation, opportunity, or access to power. 

People have argued that historically, women in power governed much as men did, but I believe these leaders were constrained by a patriarchal construct that challenged them to follow the prevailing and dominant model of leadership. In the past, many had to lead without the support of other women.

This lack of support is primarily why the United States hasn’t had a woman president. What will it take to make that happen? Feminist.com founder Marianne Schnall asked this question in her popular book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President of the United States? Remembering that we almost had a woman president in 2017, when an experienced and well-prepared woman leader, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote, it’s time to ask, what will it take now?

Ted Turner put forward one idea about what it will take when he spoke before the United Nations General Assembly some ten years ago: “It’s time for men to step down and let women lead. Maybe for the next hundred years men should be banned from becoming leaders as it will take that long to rid the world of testosterone poisoning.” 

We don’t have one hundred years to change direction, to reclaim the power that has been given up or taken away. We also don’t have time to repeat the mistakes of previous movements, which have left many out when fighting for rights or access to power or opportunity.  Acknowledging the omissions of the past, we have an opportunity, and indeed an imperative, to lead in a way that truly leaves no one out or behind—not other women, not those without representation, not men or boys. The fears of win-lose can be replaced by win-wins when doors to opportunities open wider than ever, often by activating incentives and strategies for inclusion, and when each of us commits to be an advocate for those not present in all the rooms where decisions are made. 

As a global community of women, we are at an intersection where the risks are bigger but so are the opportunities to lead toward a more just world, and I hope I have persuaded you to take up the opportunities (and the risks) to lead for change wherever you live or work, or wherever you may be on your

life’s journey. At this place and time in my journey, I am prepared to be as dangerous as I need to be to do my part. One of my favorite writings from George Bernard Shaw describes it this way… 

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” 

I am not viewing my life as a “brief candle,” but as a splendid torch to be thoroughly used up at the end of this journey.

Available now at bookstores or online at Amazon.com. SEAL PRESS. A division of Hachette

This excerpt was featured in the November 17th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

PAT MITCHELL

Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance and the Women’s Media Center boards and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and the Acumen Fund. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to The American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council. She is the author of Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World.

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