A must-read: patmitchell's memoir details her extraordinary journey of determination, to rise and carve new paths forward, the fearless trailblazing that only a dangerous woman could manage. BecomingaDangerousWoman
WMC Women Under Siege editor, Frances Nguyen interviews Women's Media Center Board Chair, Pat Mitchell, on her new book: Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World.
Pat Mitchell on “Becoming a Dangerous Woman”Pat Mitchell, Women's Media Center Board Chair and author of "Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World" (Photo: Bruce Katz)Pat Mitchell is a woman in motion. Throughout her life, she has dutifully followed her grandmother’s words: “Falling on your face is at least a forward movement.” And though there have been many times when she has stumbled, it is more accurate to characterize her journey — from Swainsboro, Georgia, all the way to the upper echelons of a cutthroat media landscape — by her extraordinary determination to rise and carve new paths forward, the fearless trailblazing that only a dangerous woman could manage. Her groundbreaking career has encompassed being an Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated producer, president of CNN Productions, the first woman president and CEO of PBS and the Paley Center for Media, and co-chair of the Women’s Media Center. Mitchell launched
TEDWomen in 2010 and is its editorial director, curator, and host. Pat Mitchell’s tour de force memoir, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World, details her inspiring life of movement, through male-dominated spaces, territories yet uncharted by women, and her deep interior world.
Women’s Media Center: This book details a deeply vulnerable journey through both your personal and professional life. What was it like for you to write it?I began four years ago when the Rockefeller Foundation president offered me a writing residency at Bellagio, encouraging me to extend my global mentoring and women’s leadership work by sharing my own stories from life and work. That residency was a great head start, but when I returned, I found it hard to put aside my highly engaged life [even] to write about it. It was especially hard to look reflectively backward, as I’m always been someone determined to keep moving forward.
But when I returned to the book, two years after Bellagio, I found that the challenges, barriers, and concerns that were part of my stories were still present, and that reflecting on my lessons learned had relevance for women at any age, many of whom, I believe, are facing similar challenges — and even rollbacks of hard-earned rights and freedoms for which my generation fought.
Writing a book was more a challenge of focusing my time, but when I did focus, I loved the process of storytelling. That is how women have survived for generations — by sharing our stories. Already from your early life, it appears that you were destined to leave the roost. You seemed so divorced from your surroundings. How did you start making your way from small-town Georgia?
My dreams were different from the expectations for a girl growing up in rural South Georgia in the fifties. And then, beginning in college, two great social justice movements became a big part of my life: the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. [From there], my dreams got bigger and bolder, enough to take the leap to leave the South and move to New York to make my way — through some tough times and disappointments — into broadcast journalism and a career in television.
It was partly a matter of timing: Television networks were being incentivized to hire women, and I had to learn quickly how to navigate being the first or only woman; how to prove I could report the same stories as my male colleagues; how to cope with the power plays of sexual harassment (widespread at this time but never reported); and doing the same work (or more) and being paid less — all familiar stories for women today.
And how did you navigate this new frontier, especially as the first or only woman?I saw the opportunity to use the power of television for women — to use our power to tell more women’s stories, produce programs about women, and, most importantly, to form alliances across the “protect your own turf” scarcity fears that tried to keep us separate and competing with — rather than supporting — one another. I focused most of my next twenty years in television to doing all of that.
When I became a leader, transitioning to executive, I felt prepared to own my power and use and share it with other women.There are so many instances throughout your life when you really took a leap of faith without the promise of a soft place to land. Do you see yourself as brave? Or, how you would describe your journey and decision-making process?
I don’t remember having a process for risk evaluation when I left my job, launched a new show, [and eventually] went to a war zone. I was often given one by those who discouraged me from doing so, but reflecting now on how I made those decisions, [I think] that taking risks is closely tied to — and interconnected with — fear and curiosity: fear that if I didn’t take risks, I might stand still or go backward, and my intense curiosity about everything.
Journalism was actually the perfect career for me: Every story was a new world, a new idea, new people, and new experiences. My risk-taking is about being “in it”: being engaged and following my curiosity and passions. You can’t be dangerous from the sidelines.
Threaded throughout the book are your struggles with shame and perfection. What has it been like for you to step into your own space with your imperfections?This is an ongoing evolution, but one thing I have fully embraced is that I believe, as women, we can change the nature of power — which is now largely defined by negative use and abuse — and transform it by using it to collectively problem-solve and support each other, something I’m witnessing through my Connected Women Leaders initiative. That’s the biggest lever we have for true forward movement, toward true equality.
At this point in your life, do you still find it a challenge to own your accomplishments?Yes. It’s still a character weakness, and promoting this book has definitely challenged me to face this and transform it. During one of the hiatuses from writing, I confessed to a friend that writing a memoir felt too much like bragging to me. She said, “It isn’t bragging if you did it.”
That unlocked something; it made me face the remnants of that imposter syndrome — something I hear from many very successful women — that we fear we really aren’t as good as everyone thinks. I got past that one, and now I’m working on accepting praise with total gratitude.
You examine, contend with, and set boundaries throughout the book. Where are you now with setting boundaries in your life? I’m still working on this one, and I credit my good friend Carole Black with helping me set boundaries for whom I spend time with, whom I work with, and what causes I support. Carole says the world can be divided into “fountains and drains,” that people are usually one or the other: Either they are positive energy, flowing upward and thinking forward, or they pull the energy, the momentum, downward, into a spiraling drain. I have set boundaries around drains, and I am loving the time I spend with the fountains in my life.
You dedicate the last chapter of the book to “Playing It Forward,” in which you give advice on mentoring. What have you learned from being a mentor that you might not have expected to learn going into it?I learned that you don’t choose mentors because you want to
be them; you choose them because you can learn from them. Mentors are not substitute mothers or protectors or providers, but they are coaches and advocates.Given how much of your life has been characterized by forward movement, are you appreciating stillness at all these days?
I have failed retirement (seeing it more as a “re-wiring”), and I have failed to benefit from meditation. I draw my energy from my curiosity — from being engaged in doing something that matters, from meeting new people, going new places, learning, and doing. In the book, I quote a favorite poem, which sums up my approach to life:
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.
— George Bernard Shaw
For now, though, I’m not passing it on because I am still living and dancing in its dangerous light. Read more: Women's Media Center »
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