Recently, I've been declaring to anyone who would listen that I am a dangerous woman.
Now, declaring that boldly like this still feels a bit dangerous, but it also feels right. At this time in my life, about to be 77, I have —
I love when you're applauded for your age —
but I'll take it.
About to be 77, I realize that I have nothing left to prove, less to lose, and I'm more impatient about everything. The true, slow pace towards equality, the rise in sexism, racism, violence against women and girls ... And I'm angry, too, at the climate deniers who are stealing the future from our children and grandchildren. Friends, we are living in dangerous times. And such times call for all of us to be more dangerous.
Now, what do I mean by this? I don't mean being feared. It's not that kind of dangerous. But I do mean being more fearless. I mean speaking the truth when silence is a lot safer. I mean speaking up in rooms for those who aren't present, especially those rooms where decisions are made about our lives and our bodies. We need to be in those rooms, showing up for one another, challenging the cultural construct that encourages us, especially women and girls, to compete, compare, criticize. We have to end this. And speaking out against the policies and the politics that divide us and diminish our collective power as a global community of women, and the men and the allies who stand with us.
Becoming dangerous also means embracing whatever risks are necessary to create a world where women and girls are safe in their homes and at work, where all voices are represented and respected, all votes counted, the planet protected.
And this is all possible. Because we're ready for this. We're better prepared than any generation ever before us, better resourced, better connected. In many parts of the world, we're living longer than ever. Women over 65 are among the fastest-growing populations on earth, with the potential for becoming the most powerful, too. Now —
What a change this represents. Postmenopausal women like me, not that long ago, were considered useless or crazy. We were valued for caregiving and grandmothering — and I really love that part. But we were pushed aside and expected to retire to our rocking chairs. Women on the dangerous side of 60 are not retiring. We are rewiring —
taking all that we know and have done — and that is a lot — to redefine what age looks like, can do, can accomplish. But becoming dangerous isn't about becoming a certain age, because at each end of the age spectrum, brave women and girls are stepping up, taking the risk to create change.
I became a risk-taker early in my life's journey. I had to, or have my life defined by the limitations for a girl growing up in the rural South, with no money, no connections, no influence. But what wasn't limited was my curiosity about the world beyond my small town, beyond the small minds of a still-segregated South, a world that I glimpsed in the newsreels at the one movie theater in town, and a world that got a lot closer to me when I met Miss Shirley Rountree, my eighth-grade English teacher.
From the minute she walked into the classroom, her high heels clicking, she was a woman in charge, with perfect hair, signature red lips, colorfully coordinated, head to toe. I wanted to be her. Gratefully, she became my first mentor and helped me become me.
With her support, I got a scholarship to college — the first in my family — and landed at a big state university, right in the middle of two great social justice movements: civil rights for African Americans and equal rights for women. I joined both with enthusiasm, only to discover that my newfound activism and my fermenting feminism would often be in direct conflict with my deeply embedded need to please and be popular.
In my first job as a college teacher, I broke the rules, and I encouraged students to join me in the protest marches. And when I found out that my male colleague with the same experience and education was being paid more than me, I mounted a personal protest. When my raise was denied, with the excuse that he had a family to support, so did I as a single mom. But I dropped my protest to keep my job.
Today, millions of women are making this compromise, staying in their jobs without equal pay for equal work.
And as one of the first women on television in the '70s, I was warned that focusing on women's stories would limit my career opportunities, and maybe it did. But I got to produce and host breakthrough programming for women, while at the same time, remaining silent about sexual harassment and listening to consultants who were hired to advise me about my appearance. "Become a blonde." I did. "Lower your voice." I tried. "Lower your necklines." I didn't.
But I did wear those ugly anchor suits with those scarves that look something like men's ties. And later, in the power positions in media, often as the first or only woman, aware of being judged through that gender lens, I struggled from time to time to find the right balance between being a leader for women and not being entirely defined as a woman leader. But today, I'm proud to be known as a woman leader.
As an activist, advocate, feminist and as a newly declared dangerous woman, I'm caring less what others say and saying more clearly what I think and feel. And let me be clear: I acknowledge my privilege in being able to do that, to speak my truth. And to stand here today with this opportunity to talk to you about women and power — note I did not say "empowered." I don't think we're waiting to be empowered. I think we have power.
What we need are more opportunities to claim it, to use it, to share it.
And yes, I know — there are women with power who don't use it well or wisely and who don't share it. I've heard, as I'm sure you have, those stories that begin with, "The worst boss I ever had was a woman ... " And we could all name women leaders who have not made us proud.
But we can change all of that with a simple but brilliant idea that I first heard from a risk-taking, dangerous congresswoman from New York named Bella Abzug. Bella said, "In the 21st century, women will change the nature of power rather than power changing the nature of women." From the moment I heard that —
I thought, "This is our call to action. This is our biggest opportunity."
And as a journalist and an activist, I've seen this idea in action, documenting the stories of women on both sides in long-term conflicts, coming together and defying the official power to form alliances and find their own ways to ending violence in their communities. And as an activist, I've traveled to places where it's dangerous to be born a woman, like eastern Congo, where a war is being waged on the bodies of women. There, at a healing and leadership center called City of Joy, brave Congolese women are transforming pain into power by training survivors of sexual assault to return to their villages as leaders. And at recent climate summits, I've observed women climate leaders working behinds the scenes, out of the public spotlight, making sure that the negotiations toward global climate agreement continue to move forward.
So as we move forward in our lives and work and we have more power and influence, let's change the nature of power by dismantling some of the barriers that remain for those who follow by advocating and agitating for fairer and truer and more equal representation in every room and at every table.
Now, be warned: if you advocate for a woman for an open position or promotion, you could be challenged with, "You're playing the women's card" or "the race card" if advocating for a woman of color. I've had this experience, as I'm sure you have. "Are you running an affirmative action program here at PBS?" asked one of my board members when, as a new president, I announced my first hires as five qualified women. Now, my affirmative action had been to ask that the search firm bring me a candidate list that included the names of women and people of color who just happened to be, in my judgment, the best candidates for the position as well. I say, dangerous women and our allies: it's time to play the women's card, play the race card, play all our cards.
Not to win the power game, but to lead to better outcomes for everyone.
And it's time, too, to discard that scarcity theory, the one that says, there's only room for one of us at the top, so protect your turf, don't make friends or allies. Changing the nature of power transforms "protect your turf" into "share your turf," it encourages coalitions, it builds alliances, it strengthens and sustains friendships. My women friends are my source of renewable energy.
So are my mentors, my champions, my supporters, my sponsors, and all of the ways that we can and do show up for each other. We can become our sources of renewable power for each other.
And along the way, we need to take better care of ourselves, and here, I am not the best role model. I don't meditate. I don't exercise regularly. But I do live aerobically.
Because I believe we can't be dangerous from the sidelines, and there's just too much to be done.
So let's use all our power. How about the power of money? Let's allocate more of our philanthropic dollars, our campaign donations, our investment funds, to increase economic and political equity. And let's leverage the power of media and technology that we have in our hands, quite literally, to elevate each other's stories and ideas; to practice civility; to seek the truth, which is diminishing and is threatening free and open societies.
Yes, we have all that we need to move our communities forward. And the best thing we have, and what we must remember, is to be there for each other. We will move forward together, willing now to take more risk, to be more fearless, to speak up, speak out and show up for one another.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote that he believed in his opinion that his life belonged to the community, that the harder he worked, the more he lived and that he wanted to be thoroughly used up when he died. He went on to write, "Life is no brief candle to me but a splendid torch that I have got hold of for a moment before passing to future generations." I, too, do not view my life as a brief candle, although I am burning it at both ends.
And I do want it, and me, to be thoroughly used up when I die.
But at this point in my life's journey, I am not passing my torch. I am holding it higher than ever, boldly, brilliantly, inviting you to join me in its dangerous light.