I listened with interest as Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers kicked off the Independent Women’s Forum’s annual Summit (and 25th anniversary). In a completely unstructured fireside chat on the state of feminism, the conversation was authentic and nothing short of inspiring. No topic was off limits or too taboo to mention, and the duo fearlessly tore through each one in machine gun fire succession.

A key theme running through the conversation was one of unbridled female power, the ability to make choices, and to understand that one’s choices have consequences.  The pair bemoaned the tendency toward female victimhood at the expense of developing personal risk management tools (my words). They also lamented the notion of “safe spaces,” which they said run the risk of limiting a generation’s ability to deal with tough issues in the real world. In a word, their presentation was empowering. It reinforced what I have always believed: we have the power to choose, to change, to do, to be, and to become…but we have to take responsibility for ourselves.

Their discussion also brought to mind the work I am currently doing with young women to help them develop greater self-awareness and tackle personal obstacles. The focus is on how to find meaning, how to develop and use tools to counter fear and self-doubt, how to boost your confidence, and how to keep perfectionist tendencies at bay in favor of a mindset focused on continuous growth and personal improvement. All these topics are — at their core — about taking action and responsibility for yourself, and not allowing circumstances alone to dictate an outcome or your future. As the Board Co-Chair of non-profit Running Start, where we work to encourage young women to see their potential as future candidates for elected office, these themes have never been more important. Recognizing the obstacles we often put in our own path is an important part of helping young women see opportunities they might otherwise have missed. That’s important as they determine their own definition of success.  

I grew up an only child in a rural farming and ranching community in Texas. My family was neither rich nor political, and I was raised with a very practical view of work that needed to be done.  Both my parents helped me see the value of hard work and perseverance, and taught me that confidence comes from accomplishment. They also helped me see that failure and setbacks must be put into context and framed as “learning experiences” so that they don’t become obstacles to future effort and risk taking. They forced me to be tough, to pick myself back up and keep going even when things got difficult. Giving up just wasn’t presented as an option, in spite of whatever fear I might have felt.

As I’ve thought about this and studied the literature around roadblocks women often erect that can impact their confidence and potentially their personal aspirations, I’m struck by a particular thread that reinforced what I heard from Camille and Christina, and that has been true in my own life.

We can choose to allow the external world to get us down. We can choose to shrink into a puddle of self-doubt when someone criticizes us. We can stop trying because someone told us we couldn’t do a job as well as a man. We can choose to quit when we fail. We can choose to be so offended by someone’s comments about us that we stop pushing forward. We can limit our dreams and our ambitions because someone hurt our feelings or made us cry. Or, we can chose to take control and develop the tools we need to counter the external garbage and bullies who try to intimidate and stop us. It’s the difference between accepting victimhood and powerlessness, or throwing those notions into the fire and burning them once and for all. Thank you Camille and Christina for this important reminder!