When Emma McIlroy, Wildfang CEO, asked me to be a part of this event, she said this first Free Speech event was on the topic, The F-Word, feminism. But, she quickly added, I could talk about anything I wanted.
So as I sat down to think about it, I got a little distracted. Because Emma wrote to me, “I’m asking 6 of Portland’s most badass women to talk about the F-Word, and would love you to be one of them.”
Badass? Am I a badass, I asked her?
Yes, she wrote back. You are.
Well, if Emma McIlroy says you’re a badass, well, then you are a badass.
But I still was unsure. What is a badass? How does one become one? How did I become one? And how can I be one if I don’t even feel like one? Apparently, being a badass is a new meme. And badass women are everywhere. They even have their own Twitter account.
But does being a feminist mean you’re badass? So it got me thinking about my own badassness, or more accurately, my lack thereof.
When I was about 4 years old, every day I went across the street to play with my friend, Laura Gumpers. And every day, after about a half hour, Laura would hit me and take my toy. I would cry, and come running home. Every day. Same thing: I went. We played. She hit. Took my toy. I cried. Ran home.
And then one day my mother had to go away and we had a babysitter for a while. A large, imposing woman named Mary came to stay. The first day after Mary came, I went across the street to play with Laura. As predicted, within a half hour, she hit me, took my toy, and I ran home crying. The next day again, the same thing happened. But on the third day after Mary had arrived, the same thing — almost — happened. I went across the street. Laura hit me. I cried, and ran …… up the steps to my front door. But I never got in the house.
I couldn’t. Because there was Mary, standing in the doorway, arms folded across her very ample chest, blocking my way.
She loomed over me, and peering down with a fierce, dark scowl on her face she said, “I don’t raise babies. No child of mine is going to be a baby. You go right back across the street and hit her back. And I’m not letting you into this house until you do.”
Several difficult thoughts crossed my mind right then.
First of all, I wasn’t her child and I wanted to object to being called her child. Even at four, I had a sense of justice. If I wanted to be a wimp, that was my right. And she wasn’t my mother. Of course, though, being such a talented wimp, I didn’t voice it. I just thought it. After all, if I couldn’t stand up to Laura Gumpers, how the hell would I be able to stand up to Mary?
The next thought that came was “Oh shit. I’m screwed.” Of course, not those words, not at 4 years old. That’s now how I, nor anyone spoke in 1963. But that sentiment raced through me, and I felt a rising panic because I had to do something I couldn’t. I had to face a fear. To get back into my house, I had to do something mind-mindbogglingly uncomfortable, something that up until then I had never done: fight back. There I was, developing this perfectly good habit, this nice neural pathway of avoiding conflict, not defending myself, and running home for comfort. It was a pretty good gig. And if it wasn’t for Mary, I could have just continued to build that habit highway that would take me through the rest of my life.
So, right then and there, I took a deep breath, and ran like a crazy person across the street. I banged on the door and Laura’s mother let me. She smiled at me, no doubt thinking to herself, “Oh how nice. Julie came back to play.” I shot past her, and ran into the room where Laura was playing. Laura looked up, and smiled. Like her mother, she was probably thinking, “Oh good, Julie came back,” having no memory of hitting me. I ran up to Laura, and without saying a word, just hauled off and whacked her. I turned around, ran out the door, across the street, and back into my house. Throwing myself at Mary’s feet, panting, I said, “I did it.”
Now, this story seems to be taking a conventional arc: I was a very phobic kid who learned, with the help of Mary and Laura Gumpers, to confront her fears.
Well, what’s true is that I was a phobic kid. I was scared of everything: elevators, strangers, big dogs, being up in the night, crowds, Laura Gumpers, and car rides.
But here’s the twist. I’m still phobic. Well, maybe not phobic. But afraid. Fearful. Almost every single day, I have to do things that make me afraid.
So that’s my F word: Fear.
The funny thing is, a big part of my work is public speaking — which, by the way, is the number one fear most people have, even more than death! Tim Urban, a writer, blogger, and very funny guy, talks about preparing for his Ted Talk, and recounts this Seinfeld joke:
According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
So, yes, I do a lot of public speaking. I also facilitate groups, and coach people and teams in conflict, where things can get tense and difficult, people can get angry and cranky, and I get scared. Every day. No matter how much experience I have, the feeling of fear doesn’t subside.
So, when I saw that Emma put me in this illustrious group of badass women, and asked me to talk about feminism, I thought: how can I be a badass and fearful? And how does feminism and fear fit together? Can I be a fearful feminist?
Because when I first encountered feminism, what I saw was fearlessness.
Feminism looked a lot like fearlessness when I saw it in the late 70s. I went to a very progressive college, during the heyday of second wave feminism. Which, incidentally, meant nothing to me at the time. Second wave? I didn’t know from waves. I was a naïve young woman coming from a small town in Connecticut, and all I knew was that I was surrounded by the most audacious, gutsy, and powerful women I had ever seen. They spoke loudly. They changed their own spark plugs. They wore overalls without anything underneath. They challenged professors and the administration. They could find their own cervix with a speculum! They played shirts vs. skins basketball in the gym! They walked around campus like they owned it.
Nothing prepared me for that. I had come from a relatively small town where it was all very conventional girl and guy stuff: Friday night football games, drinking beer, jocks and cheerleaders and driving to the pizza place in Steve’s old Datsun. It’s like I had gone to high school in a John Cougar Mellencamp song.
And now, I felt like had landed on Mars.
It’s fair to say feminism changed my life. At least those feminist women did. They radically and unequivocally changed my life. Feminism changed everything in my consciousness about what I could do, and who I could be. It blasted away, or at least began to blast away at the limits I had set for myself, and the world had set for me. And so I became a bolder, more audacious person. I took enormous risks, I changed myself. And that phobic kid? That little girl who ran home from Laura Gumpers? I had no more use for her. I felt liberated.
But not really. I wasn’t really liberated.
I didn’t really get rid of my fears. I just pretended not to have them. And while I did great things, I also did stupid, foolish things. I took chances on things that only by the grace of God didn’t harm me, or get me in serious, serious trouble.
Fearless can be foolhardy. Fearless can be dangerous. In my struggle to be a feminist, I threw off everything that I felt was inhibiting, even, dangerously at times, my common sense and better judgment.
Caroline Paul, a true badass who was a firefighter wrote a piece of the New York Times a couple of months ago, Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?
As a firefighter, she said she got a lot of stupid questions. You’re probably thinking she got a lot of stupid questions from men, challenging her right to be a firefighter. But that’s not the question that annoyed her off the most. The question that annoyed her was the one from women who asked, “Weren’t you scared?”
Damn right I’m scared she’d say. I’m running into a building on fire. Who wouldn’t be scared? But it’s my job. It’s what I do. Do we ask men, are you scared? Maybe, but not as much.
Fear is normal, she wrote. Fear is common sense. Fear is what you’re supposed to feel, running into a burning building.
Fear is what you feel when you’re living life right, when you’re at pushing yourself to do things that are on your path of development. It’s a calculated fear.
To be alive we do things that scare us, things that are inherently scary and dangerous. Something is wrong if your everyday life doesn’t scare you. Facing a fear is doing what life asks you to do. Start a new business selling tomboy clothing? Terrifying! Confronting Laura Gumpers or bullies? Scary!
Fear is a good thing. We need fear. Fear is a warning system. It’s hardwired in us. While some fears we confront, others are to be obeyed. They alert us to something really bad. I’m afraid to walk down a dark alley in a big city by myself at 3 am. Do I need to confront that fear to be fearless? No.
The problem with being fearless is that we lose our discernment. At 19, trying to be a badass feminist, I didn’t differentiate between fears. I brought no discernment to it. I thought that anything I was afraid of I had to confront. Hitchhike alone across the country? Petrifying. And seriously stupid. Drive a combine for the Jolly Green Giant company in eastern Washington–on the night shift? Scary. But kinda fun. Move to a foreign country and figure out the language, how to make money, and where to live later? Frightening, but ultimately worth it.
Some choices were great, and I’m glad I took them. Some were incredibly stupid, and I was just lucky to get out alive. But at the time, I didn’t assess. I didn’t discern, and I should have. I just thought, if it’s frightening, it’s meant to be done.
So, what I’ve learned is that fear is part of who I am. It’s not a problem, not something to stop me, but also not something to overturn. Like Caroline Paul, I learned to rush into my burning buildings, but smartly, with caution, and not all of them. Just the ones that lie on my path, the ones that I choose to surmount.