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“Becoming a Dangerous Woman”: Media Legend Pat Mitchell on Embracing Risk to Change the World

StoryDecember 24, 2019
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Media legend Pat Mitchell is the author of a new book, “Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World.” In it, she shares her life story, rising from her grandparents’ small cotton farm with no electricity to become the first woman president of PBS, CNN Productions and the Paley Center for Media. Mitchell includes in her book the voices of other “dangerous” women: Stacey Abrams, Ai-jen Poo, Ava DuVernay, Mary Robinson, Abigail Disney, Christine Schuler Deschryver, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Zoya, Monique Wilson, Laura Flanders, Jacqueline Novogratz, Sandi Toksvig, Ruth Ann Harnisch and Meagan Fallone. Pat Mitchell speaks with us from Atlanta, Georgia. “Our single most dangerous act, actually, is preparing each other, supporting each other, showing up for each other, sponsoring, mentoring, championing each other,” Mitchell says. “We are living in dangerous times, and such times require of us to become more dangerous to meet those challenges.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with media legend Pat Mitchell, who joined Jane Fonda at the Fire Drill Friday protest in Washington, D.C., and was arrested there with her, along with more than 140 others. Pat Mitchell was the first woman president of PBS, of CNN Productions and the Paley Center for Media. She is chair of the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center. She tells her story in her new book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. Mitchell also includes the voices of other, what she calls, “dangerous” women, like Stacey Abrams, domestic worker activist Ai-jen Poo, Ava DuVernay, Mary Robinson and many others. Pat Mitchell says these women aren’t dangerous to the world, but to the existing power structure. She writes being dangerous, quote, “doesn’t mean being feared but being fearless.” For more, Pat Mitchell joins us from Atlanta, Georgia.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Pat. It’s great to have you with us. I’m glad you’re out of jail. Talk about why you were arrested on Friday.

PAT MITCHELL: Good morning, Amy. What a privilege that was to participate in Fire Drill Friday. I admire, as you have seen and everyone has heard this morning, for so many reasons, Jane Fonda’s willingness to put her body on the line and to ask the rest of us to join her in moving out of our comfort zone and doing something brave and bold and important to show how committed we all are to this emergency. So, for me, it was a privilege.

And additionally, I got to share it with my granddaughters — four of them, actually — two of them underage, so they didn’t get to stand in the civil disobedience action, but they participated in all the rest of it. And they had said to me that they wanted that for their holiday experience, because it was the experiences that mattered most to them, not gifts or presents, and, afterwards, described what they heard and experienced as a great gift in their lives. These are 13-year-old young girls. It gives me great hope about what that end of the age spectrum is doing to be more dangerously effective. And then I was arrested with my 21-year-old granddaughter. So we shared this experience of feeling we were doing our part, making a difference, taking a stand, showing up.

AMY GOODMAN: Being dangerous women, which, of course, is the title of your book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman. Talk about why you decided to write this and what dangerous women mean to you.

PAT MITCHELL: The book began as a mentoring memoir. I am committed to mentoring women all over the world, engaged in several programs to do that, believe so strongly that that is our single most dangerous act, actually, is preparing each other, supporting each other, showing up for each other, sponsoring, mentoring, championing each other. So it began in that way.

And as I wrote about my life and work, I saw the connections to so many of the challenges still being faced, so many of the barriers still raised for girls and women to achieve their fullest potential. And along the way, as the times became more and more dangerous, as we saw a rise in violence against women and girls, certainly the climate emergency, racism, sexism all on the rise, climate deniers in power, it became more and more clear to me that a different level of activism and commitment was needed, a different level of risk taking was needed.

And as I looked around the world and saw the Gretas of the world at one end of the age spectrum and the Jane Fondas at the other, all stepping forward, taking the risk to change the world, to make a difference, that is when I decided I was willing, at nearly 77, to do that, to step forward and declare myself a dangerous woman. And then, as I begin to talk to friends from all different parts of the world, all different sectors of work and life, I discovered a lot of other women saying the same thing. We are living in dangerous times. And such times require of us to become more dangerous to meet those challenges.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Mitchell, you have broken so many barriers. I was actually wondering if PBS or CNN got in touch with you after you got arrested on Friday, as you were the first woman head of — woman president of PBS and of CNN Productions, the Paley Center for Media. So, you’ve broken through so many glass ceilings. Talk about where you came from.

PAT MITCHELL: Well, my life began in an unlikely place: a small cotton and peanut farm in South Georgia with no indoor plumbing or electricity. We had one big pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. That’s where my mother and I lived together while my dad was in World War II. But I had this amazing grandmother, who told me great stories and ignited a curiosity. So, that curiosity, I think, really drove me to take some early risk, Amy, because I didn’t want my life defined by the limitations that I saw everywhere and experienced as a girl growing up in the rural South in the 1950s. And so, it took risk taking, and it took mentors. I got very lucky in having an eighth grade teacher who saw me, believed in my potential and helped me get a scholarship to college.

And then I came of age at exactly the same time that two great civil disobedience, social justice movements were happening: civil rights for African Americans and the women’s movement. And both clearly defined for me a pathway forward. It led to many different times and some failures, some mistakes, some wrong turns. And I wanted to share all of those as a way of encouraging other women who may be growing up in similar circumstances, are certainly recognizing how many women around the world are living with ever-present dangers, every day, at work, at home, in their communities, honoring that work I had seen, lives I had witnessed, through my work as a journalist for many, many, many years and, more recently, in the last 20 years, my work as an activist. I had seen those women taking risks, being brave, and I wanted to share, any way that I could, experiences in my life that might encourage all of us to do the same, to support each other. That’s our single biggest dangerous lever for change.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the program, nationally syndicated talk show, that you hosted. This is a 1983 clip of Woman to Woman.

PAT MITCHELL: Do you avoid elevators, high places, crowds? Do you sometimes feel like a prisoner in your own home? If so, you could be phobic. Such fears can interfere with your life and become paralyzing phobias. I’m Pat Mitchell. Today on Woman to Woman, we’ll hear surprising truth about phobias and how you can overcome them. …

Maybe it’s time we wage some psychological warfare against the mythologies about phobias. And one of them is, is that phobics are not nuts or neurotics. Secondly, phobias are not funny. There’s nothing very amusing about being terrified. And, third, phobia can be cured. We can get help. And we recommend that you do that by getting in touch with the Phobia Society of America in Washington, D.C. And also remember that, woman to woman, we can always help each other.

AMY GOODMAN: “Always help each other,” Pat, you always ended your shows by saying, and taking on very serious issues, from this issue around phobia to a very brave revelation in this book, Pat, that you talk about dealing with in the midst of hosting this show, Woman to Woman. And that’s the issue of incest and sexual abuse. Can you talk about what you confronted and also what it meant to go public?

PAT MITCHELL: This was a very difficult revelation, as all survivors of any kind of abuse can testify. And it was a memory of a childhood abuse that I had buried very deeply, which is true of many survivors, so deeply that I really didn’t have any conscious memory of incidents in my childhood in which it had occurred. And hosting a Woman to Woman program with incest survivors, the memories came flooding back, which I’m told by the therapist who helped me that this often happens. You never know quite when the trigger will be, but it almost always happens. It’s very rare that a survivor can go through an entire life and not confront the trauma. How be it, most incest survivors, or many of them, do end up being highly successful people. It’s all part of the perfection syndrome, in many ways, that many people have written about.

But that started a recovery process. And gratefully, for me, I had wonderful help, and I did recover. And I was able to recognize the signs in my life that had been — that showed the effect and the impact of that early lack of unconditional love, which is one of the legacies that you take away from family abuse. But recovering it, still I did not, you know, become an active person on that, except when I joined V-Day with Eve Ensler and became a member of her original board and the work to end violence, all kinds of violence, everywhere. I began to deal with a lot of incest survivors, a lot of rape survivors, a lot of survivors of all kinds of sexual assault. And that has become a very driving passion in my life, working with those women, along with Eve and the V-Day activists.

Writing the book, I hadn’t intended, however, to share that particular part of my life, except that as I began to tell the truth about a lot of things, about failures, professionally, personally, that it felt important. And then, witnessing what had happened in the last 10 years or more in this country, seeing more and more survivors come forward, and many, many of them not believed, most recently in the Supreme Court hearings that we witnessed, it felt important to share it. So I did.

It does leave one with a sense of vulnerability, which all survivors feel. But it also felt to me that had my generation been a lot more upfront about the #MeToo incidences that we all experienced, something I shared, as well — we all knew it was going on. We knew we were being paid less than our male colleagues. We knew the sexual harassment was real. But we didn’t speak up, because we were in our silos. We were told to protect our turf, not to trust each other, not to build alliedships. And that kept us silent.

So, trying now to do whatever I can to break that silence, to make it safer for survivors to come forward and to get the help they need, and to show up in ways that are necessary to help each other. So, yes, I ended every Woman to Woman program with that message, that, woman to woman, we can and do help each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Pat, final message to young people, older people, as well — I mean, you have Greta Thunberg inspiring Jane Fonda, and you go to join Jane and over a hundred other people to be arrested last Friday — on what that kind of feminist solidarity means?

PAT MITCHELL: It means everything to me. I say my women friends are my source of renewable energy, Amy. And I witnessed that deep bond with my granddaughters, all the way to the women, over 100, that I had the privilege to interview in a series I have, and now the women that I work with all over the world.

And if I might just say one brief thing about the climate movement worldwide, gathering together some 35 global women leaders recently, they were not climate experts, not one of them. They came from all different kinds of work and background, from —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

PAT MITCHELL: That they together drafted a Declaration on Climate Justice, which 700 world leaders have signed.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and post it online at, including some of the women that you feature in your new book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World.

Our Christmas special, we remember Toni Morrison. And then, on Thursday, Michael Moore joins us for the hour. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Happy Holidays!

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