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Becoming a Dangerous Woman
Embracing Risk to Change the World
By Pat Mitchell
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The Most Dangerous Woman in the Room
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
—MARY OLIVER FROM A STITCHED NOTE “SOMETIMES”
“YES, I’LL BE there.”
Eve Ensler was calling with an invitation to what she described as “the meeting of movements,” planned for the first week of January 2017. In the wake of a polarizing presidential election in the United States, Eve had decided it was time for activists to come together to shape strategies that could unify and leverage the collective power of a wide range of social-justice organizations.
“Who else is coming?” I asked.
“I’m not releasing the invitation list,” Eve replied, “but you’ll want to be in the room.”
Indeed, I did want to be in that room, knowing from past experiences that any meeting or event that Eve organized would be meaningful. So I showed up, as the invitation indicated, at a nondescript building in Stone Ridge, New York, and surrendered my cell phone to the smiling young volunteers at the front door.
“Best to have all communication devices outside the room,” was the explanation, which of course heightened my anticipation about what would transpire within the room.
I entered a large room and saw Eve standing at the front, with folding chairs in a circle. Mingling about the room were some familiar faces: the meeting’s other conveners, Kimberlé Crenshaw of the African American Policy Forum; Naomi Klein, award-winning author and activist; independent media entrepreneur and journalist Laura Flanders; and Jane Fonda, actor and activist.
We were asked to find our seats, and Eve began.
“We are living in dangerous times,” was her opening line, “and such times call for new levels of activism from all the communities represented in this circle. Let’s begin by identifying who’s in the room.”
One by one, the introductions began: “I’m one of the founders of the Women’s March.” “I’m the executive director of 350.org.” “I run Project South.” With each introduction, the level of leadership and activists’ credentials became more impressive, and for me, more intimidating.
I could feel my anxiety building. How was I going to identify myself? I had no title and was no longer running an organization, having left my last CEO position at the Paley Center for Media the previous spring. I could say that I was the CEO of Pat Mitchell Media, with its grand total of two employees (including myself). But that felt wholly inadequate to explain why I belonged in that room.
I mentally rehearsed some other options. I could say I was a lifetime advocate for women—true enough, if a little vague. I could list some of my previous titles—but why make a point of being the former anything? I was struggling to come up with how to identify myself in the present, an identity that would hopefully give some indication of why Eve had included me in this circle of activists and leaders.
Finally, it was my turn. Before I knew it, I heard myself saying, “I’m Pat Mitchell. And I’m a dangerous woman.”
I’m not sure exactly what prompted this personal declaration of dangerousness, but I could tell from the looks of surprise that I needed to add a bit more context.
“At this time in my life, about to turn seventy-five,” I continued, “I have nothing left to prove, less to lose, and I’m ready to take more risks and to be less politic and polite. As Eve said, these are dangerous times, and dangerous times call for dangerous women.”
That got a big, sisterly “YES!” from Eve and others in the circle, including Jane Fonda, who was sitting across from me and stood up, declaring, “Well, I’m older than my friend Pat, so that makes me even more dangerous.”
Laughter erupted, of course, and I could sense that others were contemplating exactly what becoming more dangerous to meet the challenges of dangerous times would mean for each of us and for the work we had convened to consider.
Certainly, Jane Fonda’s life of activism is a textbook case for being bold and brave. During our many years of friendship, I’ve witnessed her willingness to take risks for a good cause, to speak out and show up, even when it meant personal peril or sacrifice. At eighty-one, she is still on the front lines, campaigning for domestic and restaurant workers’ rights, standing with the American Indian communities protesting natural-resource exploitation at Standing Rock, and busier as an actor than ever. In her book, Prime Time, Jane advanced the idea that older women have the potential to become the most powerful population on the planet. She’s a great example of how we embrace that potential at every age.
My personal potential for becoming more dangerous is perhaps most directly linked to my friendship with Eve Ensler. From our first conversation in war-torn Sarajevo in 1998, I have been deeply inspired by her courage and her commitment to doing whatever is necessary to end violence against women everywhere. Taking risks comes easier to Eve than to many: writing and performing The Vagina Monologues, making it the centerpiece of a global movement, V-Day, to end gender-based violence is a transformative approach to activism that I feel privileged to have experienced. Yes, I was an activist and women’s advocate before I met Eve, but through my relationship with her and as a board member of the V-Day movement, I’ve met activists facing dangers every day to create change in some of the most difficult places on earth to be a woman.
But until that day, I had not felt dangerous myself.
DECLARING MYSELF A dangerous woman still feels a bit, well, dangerous, and I readily admit to some second thoughts about declaring it even more widely and boldly as the title of this book. But every day since that convening, I’m discovering more about what being dangerous means in my life and why I believe that it’s time for us—women and the men who stand with us—at whatever age or place in life’s journey, to embrace risks and engage with renewed passion and collective purpose in the truly dangerous work of making the world a safer place for women and girls.
I have had to face my own questions and those of others about the definition of dangerous in this work. For me, it doesn’t mean being feared but being more fearless; it does mean speaking the truth when silence is safer; showing up for one another even within the patriarchal construct that encourages us to compete and compare; and it does mean speaking out about the politics and policies that divide us and diminish our individual and collective power. It also means optimizing that power to be effective in allying with those who don’t have access to opportunity, influence, or privilege. It also means, for me, sharing our stories as women have done for generations to survive, thrive, and move forward.
That’s why I’m sharing my journey from small-town South Georgia girl with big dreams but little means to realize them—no money, no connections, no power or sphere of influence—to media executive with influence, to where I am today, more prepared to leverage my privilege, platforms, and connections; to optimize every opportunity to elevate other women and their stories; and to support their struggles and celebrate their accomplishments.
MY STORY BEGAN in an unlikely place, on my grandparents’ small cotton farm with no electricity or indoor toilets. But what I had in those early years was a grandmother who could wring a chicken’s neck with one arm and churn butter or pump water with the other, while telling me fanciful stories of places she had never seen—stories that ignited an intense curiosity that is at the heart of everything I have done in my life and work.
By taking some early risks and leaps of faith in myself, I escaped the limitations of resources and pushed past barriers, sometimes helping to dismantle them, while often coping with the challenges of being the first or only woman. Very early on, I learned the value of nurturing connections, of building and sustaining a support network of women friends and colleagues, and of being an advocate for other women in every room and for every opportunity. Now I’m ready to join a global community of women and girls stepping into our power, redefining it by how we use it and share it. It’s time—prime time—for the good we can do by becoming more dangerous together.
After all, when we’re watching The Handmaid’s Tale on television as the last abortion clinic is removed in the state of Louisiana; and when reproductive rights and access to health care are under threat in many places, including my home state of Georgia, which passed legislation in 2019 that will make it one of the most restrictive places in the United States to end an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy; when extraordinary numbers of refugees are roaming the world without a safe place to call home; when political extremism, racism, and sexism are on the rise in all corners of the world; and when protections for our mother earth are being dismantled by climate-deniers, we need bold responses and brave women willing to speak up, to show up, and to embrace our collective power.
I am encouraged, even in this time of fears about the future, by the many women and girls embracing bigger risks to confront a growing number of global challenges. I’m privileged to know many as friends, and as I set about to share my journey to becoming more dangerous, I asked some of them about their journeys, and have included their responses in the book.
To the many more women warriors on the front lines of change, innovating, defending, protecting, and problem solving, you, too, strengthen my belief that when we come together as a global women’s community, extend our admiration for each other, sustain our advocacy for each other; when we march together, protest, and rise together; when we dance, sing, laugh, and take risks together, we can and do move forward toward a more equal and just world.
This is a future we have the power, the responsibility, and the opportunity to create, and if it means becoming more dangerous to do so—and I believe that it does—my purpose in sharing my stories is to inspire you to become more dangerous, too.
But it was too late. The New York City cabbie peeled off in the driving rainstorm, taking with him the purse I’d left on the seat. The purse with all my identification, maxed-out credit cards, and the cash I’d only just borrowed to pay my rent.
The signs were clear: time to give up, pack up, and head back to Georgia.
My big break had finally come—I’d been assigned a story for LOOK magazine on Chinatown’s hidden gang wars—but I’d just found out it wasn’t going to be published because the magazine was bankrupt. And so was I. The dream of a big-city journalism career that inspired me to jump at the opportunity to leave my secure job as a college teacher and move to New York City was fading fast.
I was twenty-seven years old, a single mother with a five-year-old son, and no prospects for a new job. Well, except one. I had a tentative connection to television through a political reporter from WNBC-TV named Gabe Pressman. Gabe is the one who had delivered the news to me that LOOK was going out of business.
“Magazines are dying,” he’d observed on the early morning call to tell me I was unemployed. “Maybe you ought to try television. We need writers, and I hear the station is looking for women, too.”
Within days after the farewell Bloody Marys were passed around at LOOK’s offices and television crews had come to cover the closing party—for me, more like a wake—Gabe came through for me, setting up a meeting with WNBC’s news director.
“Any television experience?” the news director asked without smiling. I’d been sitting outside his office all day, and out of pity or his promise to Gabe, he finally motioned me in.
“No, but I know how to tell a story,” I said, hastily handing him a photocopy of the Chinatown story.
He glanced at the provocative title, read a few paragraphs, and asked, “Can you do this story for television?”
“YES” was my answer, although I had no idea what that meant.
I was back in Chinatown the next day, with a full television news crew who had to show me how to hold the microphone when doing an interview, how to do a stand-up on camera, even how to pretend to be listening during the cutaways, another new term I filed away for future use, as I was hopeful I would be doing this again.
The story got almost three minutes, an eternity in television news, and I was hooked! Immediate gratification. No waiting for publishing dates. The story was seen by a much larger number of people than would have read it in a magazine, and I had produced and reported it for NBC News—with a lot of help, of course. My total time on camera was less than thirty seconds, but former colleagues at LOOK called to congratulate me on landing a new job—and career—so quickly.
I waited for the next assignment.
What I got instead was this advice from the news director: 1) become a blonde, 2) lose some weight, and 3) find a small town somewhere and learn the business. “You don’t start in New York,” I was told with a distinct note of finality.
So I made the rounds to every TV station that took my call or request for an interview.
“Already got a brunette; would you become a blonde?”
“Just not ethnic enough… we need twofers… woman and minority.”
“You’re too young to be credible.”
“Too old” (at twenty-seven!). “Too inexperienced.” “Too educated”—painful to hear as I was still paying off my student loans for my graduate degrees.
It was three months after my TV debut, after a long string of “not quite right” rejections and waitressing for cash, that I was watching the red taillights of that NYC taxi flicker in the downpour as it disappeared down the street with my rent money in the back seat.
Dejected and drenched and fighting tears, I told my five-year-old son, Mark, “Time to pack up and head back to Georgia.” Then the phone rang.
“Hello, this is Rabbi Goldberg. I got in the taxi after you, and I have your bag. Your number was inside. Would you like me to return it now?”
Within a half hour, there he stood, handing over my small, black bag with the borrowed money and with it, the chance to keep moving forward—at least for another month. When I tried to explain how meaningful his act of kindness was, he took my hands and said, “Well, Patricia, at some point in everyone’s life, they need a rabbi, and tonight, you got yours.”
I got something else that night, too. I had experienced the singular goodness of another human being whose gift of showing up at my door, giving me back my bag, and restoring hope and possibilities inspired me to make a silent promise to be someone else’s rabbi, mentor, sponsor, and advocate.
Each time I have had that opportunity in the many decades since that stormy, life-defining encounter, I remember my promise and think of Rabbi Goldberg with deep gratitude.
IT’S BECOME ALMOST a cliché that life journeys begin with grandmother stories, and as I referenced in the preface, so does mine. My mother and I spent my earliest years about eighty miles west of Savannah, Georgia, with my grandparents on that small farm without electricity or indoor plumbing. My father was overseas in the army during World War II.
I have warm and wonderful memories of those first three years with a doting grandfather who would feed me homemade biscuits and sing me back to sleep and a grandmother whose long, raven-black hair I loved to brush as she told me stories next to the pot-bellied stove that provided heat in the kitchen, where we spent most of our time. She had only finished sixth grade and had never lived anywhere but small tenant farms, but her stories seemed to come from deep in her memory and contained special meanings for me. One story stands out in my memory, a story that I later found exists in many forms in many cultures.
Her version went something like this:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was always running and falling. She would run in the fields through the cotton and tobacco, falling among the rows. But one day, the running girl found herself outside the fields: no cotton or tobacco, only high mountains.
A beautiful horse galloped by with a friendly boy on his back, a boy with a feather in his hair. He offered her a ride.
They rode and rode through green fields and flowers and women sitting in circles around small fires.
When they came to the end of their journey, the boy turned to her.
“I will grant you one wish,” the boy said. “What will it be?”
The running girl said, “I want to be able to run far and wide and never fall.”
“That wish,” the young brave said, “I cannot give you, because there will be times when falling is your only way forward. You must run on rough ground, through barriers sometimes, and you will take wrong turns and become lost, and you will fall. You must fall. And from time to time, you will.
It’s in the falls that you will learn to breathe, to recover, to get up, and to continue moving forward.
No matter how often I stumbled or fell, which was often, as I seemed always to be in a hurry as a child, and even now, I would hear Grandmother comforting me with that familiar line adapted from the story: “Falling on your face is at least a forward movement.” I never thought of slowing down or stopping—that was never her advice. She just gave me unconditional love through the falls and the failures—something it would take me nearly a half century to find again.
My grandmother had to hide her American Indian heritage—which her papers, discovered when she passed, indicated was Creek-Cherokee. There was little information about her family, but it’s likely that her mother, like many other Creek and Cherokee women in the Southeast who were landowners in those matrilineal cultures, had married a white farmer to avoid extradition by the US government’s 1838 Supreme Court decision—a decision that forced relocation of the American Indian communities in the South to newly formed reservations in the West. Because so many died on what was truly a death march, history refers to this movement as the Trail of Tears.
I knew none of this until my grandmother’s death, and however distant this connection to her heritage, the discovery of my grandmother’s background led to a personal interest in the history of the American Indian nations, an interest that would play a big role later during my years of working with Ted Turner and Robert Redford. I also believe that my grandmother’s legacy of storytelling as well as her personal strength and resilience gave me an early portrait of what a woman could do and be, even with very limited resources. Imagine how pleased I was to discover that my grandmother’s native language, which I never heard her speak, has no gender pronouns, no hes or shes to distinguish what is male or female.
One day, a tall, dark-haired he appeared in the yard, a stranger dressed in a green army uniform. My grandmother hugged him, clearly overjoyed. Granddaddy said, “Patsy, honey, this is your father! Go welcome him home!”
My father approached and tried to hug me, but I turned away, and even today, I can remember feeling sad while everyone else, especially my mother, seemed so happy about this stranger’s presence. Each time he would reach for me and say, “Come, hug Daddy,” I would run to the more familiar arms of my grandfather or grandmother.
It was not an easy homecoming. A few days later, in spite of my tears and begging to stay, we left the farm in his borrowed ’45 Ford and headed for Fort Stewart outside of Savannah, Georgia, where this man who said he was my father would continue his military service.
FOR THE NEXT several years, we moved to a succession of army bases, averaging one or more moves a year. Mother soon tired of the moving, but I thrived on being the new girl at school and in the neighborhood, making new friends fast because no sooner were they made than we would move again. Finally, Mother convinced my father to leave active military service, and they decided to settle in Swainsboro, Georgia, a small town just thirty miles from my grandparents’ farm.
Swainsboro (population then and now around five thousand) was once called “The Crossroads of the South” because the north-south and east-west national highways actually crossed there. When Interstate 15 was built to connect Atlanta and Savannah, bypassing Swainsboro altogether, there were even fewer reasons to visit a town that had once been named Paris. The Swains family, who had a lot of influence in the town’s early days, had thought that Paris sounded “too foreign” and changed the name. What didn’t change for me from the beginning was the feeling that I didn’t belong there.
Except once a year, when the excitement of the annual Pine Tree Festival parade suspended my complaints about small-town boredom. I would arrive early for the best spot along the parade route, and as the high-school band approached, trying to play in tune and march in step, and accomplishing neither, my heart raced, anticipating the colorful floats to follow. I fell in love with parades and their disruption of routine, their movement forward—although in the case of this parade, the forward movement was transiting the ten blocks from the county courthouse to the city limits sign. From that first parade encounter, I had a strong urge to be in parades, not just standing on the sidelines, watching them—and life—pass by. I couldn’t have articulated why at that age, but I must have realized that being an observer, even to something as transitory as a parade, just wasn’t enough. Not for me. Then or now.
To get into the Pine Tree Festival parade, I entered the beauty pageant for Pine Tree Festival queen as soon as I was old enough—fifteen—and I won! I was delighted at the time, but looking back, winning a beauty pageant at such a young age wasn’t such a good move. It seemed to set me apart from the other girls my age, and I spent a lot of the rest of my high-school years battling the beauty-queen stereotype and all that it meant in the South of the fifties, where being pretty was valued much more than being smart.
I felt pretty in the royal-blue, off-the-shoulder, full-skirted evening gown based on a photo of a former Miss America’s gown that my mother had stayed up night after night sewing for me to wear on the big day of my ride in the parade as Miss Pine Tree Festival. The skirt was so large that it took five heavily starched crinolines (please google crinolines if born after 1960) to hold it up in a huge circle.
Suddenly, the tractor driving the float jerked to a stop, and the abrupt jolt threw me off my pine-box throne. I fell forward on my face, my royal-blue evening gown skirt falling forward too, like a deflated balloon.
Laughter floated up from the crowd in the streets, and I was mortified. The first face I saw when once again upright was, of course, my grandmother, who was visiting for the big day. At the end of the parade, as she helped me dismount from my throne, she whispered, “Well, honey, at least falling on your face is a forward movement.”
I wanted to laugh, or at least smile conspiratorially, but I was too sad. The magic of the day had faded, and the Pine Tree Festival queen’s parade ride felt shorter that day, and the town felt smaller, a phenomenon that I’ve observed other times when the reality didn’t quite live up to the expectations.
I WAS DETERMINED to get past the expectations of what was possible for a young girl who was told she was pretty enough to get by without money or connections—past the emotional scars of a mother who displayed my pageant trophies as if they could have been hers. And they could have been, had she not abandoned her own dreams to marry my father. While I struggled with the tension between what I valued in myself and what my mother wanted me to become, I lived in fear of my father, whose silent anger hung like a heavy cloud over our house. My brother, who was born when I was seven, was too young to be my confidant, and his relationship with our parents always seemed easier than mine.
School was always my happy place. I loved learning and my report card reflected my determination to be as close to number one in every subject as I could. Straight As meant I might qualify for a college scholarship, and I intended to go to college, even though my parents had not gone beyond high school and only three in their large farm families had gone to college.
I had big plans but no idea how I was going to implement them… until Miss Shirley Roundtree swept into my eighth-grade English class at Swainsboro High School wearing a full-skirted dress that swayed as rhythmically as Loretta Young’s did during her dramatic descent down the staircase every Sunday night on The Loretta Young Show. Miss Roundtree was beautiful by anybody’s standard, with shining dark hair that was perfectly coiffed, bright red lipstick that I soon learned was her signature, and gorgeously coordinated outfits.
Beyond Miss Roundtree’s stylishness, however, I loved the way she commanded respect, clearly the boss from the moment she set foot in the classroom. I didn’t just want to look like her; I wanted to be her.
I didn’t have any other role models, so I pursued Miss Roundtree after class, day after day, with endless questions: “How can I get into college? What do I need to do to make that possible? Can you help me get a scholarship?”
“If you could do anything you wanted, what career would you choose?” she asked one day, realizing that I was not going to stop asking her questions.
“I want to be an actress—like Vivien Leigh!” I said, thanks to annual showings of Gone with the Wind at the one movie theatre in town.
- Named one of the "Most Powerful Women in Hollywood" by Hollywood Reporter
- "Becoming a Dangerous Woman illuminates the paths strong leaders take to tackle challenges and gain wisdom. By curating and amplifying the voices of women who have defied categorization, Pat Mitchell delivers a work that will encourage other women to find their dangerous sides."—Stacey Abrams
- "For decades, Pat Mitchell has been on the media frontlines as an uncompromising force for good. She has used her platform to document injustices in a societal system plagued by sexism, racism, and economic inequalities. To the powers that be who are allowing human rights abuses to be exploited and overlooked, Pat Mitchell is a very dangerous woman indeed. Pat Mitchell makes being a dangerous woman a badge of honor, one that should be worn with pride."—Thandie Newton
- "Pat has been the connector, the spark plug, and the strategist behind more important women's events and forums than seems possible."—Jane Fonda
- "Pat is that most rare of leaders, one who is trusted by the decision makers as they now exist, and also by the future decision makers hoping to expand what exists."—Gloria Steinem
- "I've witnessed what a force of nature Pat Mitchell becomes when she believes in something. And, fortunately for all of us, she believes in making our world better. As a passionate advocate, producer, and mentor, her commitment to empowering and inspiring women and girls through telling their stories is changing hearts and minds. I am glad to both know and work with her, and to watch her impact grow."—Robert Redford
- "I can think of no woman who does more to move other women forward. From creating and providing platforms for women to share their voices, to making sure women are hired on the job, to insisting women are front and center in the media, to sharing, mentoring, networking, and always highlighting the best in us. Her life and being are a true lesson in sisterhood."—Eve Ensler
- "With wit, moxie, and infectious curiosity about the world, Pat Mitchell reminds us that to traverse the road to self-actualization, one must court a little danger along the way. Becoming a Dangerous Woman is a tour de force worthy of every nightstand."—Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia Law School and UCLA
"Becoming a Dangerous Woman is an irresistible handbook for women who want to be powerful and show up for other women--the way Pat Mitchell has her whole life. May it inspire the dangerous woman in all of us."
—Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Workers Alliance and author of The Age of Dignity
- "Dangerous women are the antidote to dangerous times. Thank you, Pat Mitchell, for your courageous work and enduring leadership-you inspire us all to put aside our fears so we can do the work needed to fix our broken world."—Jessica Zitter, M.D., author of Extreme Measures
- "Her impressive bio doesn't do her justice."—Forbes
"This book is riveting history lesson, case study in fierce feminist leadership, truly useful advice from a trusted girlfriend, and radical call-to-action all rolled into one page-turning package. I inhaled Pat's life story, in large part, because I was blown away by her unshakable honesty--about power struggles at work, about men and money, about sex and violence. Apparently there's no time for fear or bullshit in your 70s. I can't wait."
—Courtney E. Martin, author of The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream
- "The life and times of award-winning journalist and producer Pat Mitchell is an inspiration for all who wish to see positive change in the world . . . Pat is a tour de force whose continued advocacy for access and equal opportunities for women is to be applauded." —Deborah Calmeyer, founder and CEO of Roar Africa
- "If you listen to Pat Mitchell and remain uninspired, it may be time for an undertaker."—Jacqueline Cutler, MediaVillage
"Mitchell's notion of the benefits of being dangerous becomes a life philosophy that others can follow."
- "Engrossing . . . Mitchell tells a remarkable story of perseverance that will inspire any reader."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- On Sale
- Oct 8, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Seal Press