All brave women say the same thing. They absolutely, resolutely, categorically do not think they are brave.
I have asked lots of brave women where they find the courage to be brave and they all look at me with the same slightly irritable, awkward expression, “I’m not brave; she is.” Or he is. Or anyone else at all is – just not them. War correspondents Janine di Giovanni of Newsweek and Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News have both said it to me. When I’ve commented on the fact they’ve reported from some of the most dangerous places in the world, and that I think that’s incredibly brave, they’ve been dismissive. Laura Bates has repeatedly told me that she isn’t the brave one for setting up Everyday Sexism, a social media movement that was fundamental to reigniting feminism in this country for which she faces abuse on a daily basis.
Author and journalist Joanna Connors brushed me off with the same embarrassment just last week. When I was interviewing her about tracking down her rapist and writing a book about the experience, I told to her I thought that it was an incredibly “brave” thing to do. “I’m not brave,” she said. “[The rapist’s] sisters are the braves one”. I smiled. “That’s what all brave women say”.
To my mind there is something inherently brave about being a woman... The bravery to walk home late at night, despite that flicker of fear permanently fluttering in your stomach. The bravery to look in the mirror without hearing the media tell us we’re too old or fat or irrelevant
So why are brave women so reluctant to call themselves brave? Why are they so quick to dismiss their achievements? Why do women never allow themselves to be the hero of their own stories? American journalist Rebecca Traister told me recently that women are meant to be selfless, literally without selves, serving husbands, children, community and god above all else. And as a result, if we’re duty bound to everyone but ourselves, how can we be the hero?
And on the rare occasion a woman does try to be the hero she’s met with resistance, sexism and cynicism. Two words: Hillary Clinton. How impossibly brave do you have to be to be a sixtysomething woman running for President in the era of internet misogyny? And in light of Traister’s comments, it’s no surprise that Hillary has to soften the shock of a woman being brave, stepping into a spotlight and building a campaign all about herself, by pitching herself as a mother, grandmother, wife, ultimately, a carer. She might be the closest we’ve ever got to a woman President – an indisputable hero – but nobody panic, she’s still a wife, a mother, a grandmother. She’s still primarily defined by the other people in her life.
I never feel brave enough. That is why it’s alway my first question to the women who I think are brave. After two glasses of wine, I’ll tell anyone who is listening that I wish I was braver. But the more I look for bravery in myself and other women, the more I see it.
To my mind there is something inherently brave about being a woman; an everyday, quiet, stoic bravery that we all silently express. The bravery to walk home late at night, despite that flicker of fear permanently fluttering in your stomach. The bravery to look in the mirror without hearing the media tell us we’re too old or fat or irrelevant. The bravery to walk away from undeserving, abusive men, however long that might take. The bravery to face a system that is stacked against us, with unequal pay, junior doctors’ contracts that marginalise us and the dismantling of services that helps the most vulnerable of us. The bravery to give birth, to become a step-parent or an aunt. The bravery to live in a world where men running for the American presidency can express blatant misogyny. The bravery to live in a country where two women die every week at the hands of a current or former partner. Women, by the very virtue of being women, have to be brave just to get through the day.
Earlier this year, standing in line to get my book signed, I finally got to ask my hero, Gloria Steinem, how to be brave. She should know, right? She started the women’s lib movement, for Christ’s sake! She tried to take power back from men! How much braver can you get?! Nervously, I asked. She paused. “Well, we’re social creatures. And we take courage from each other. Other women will help you feel brave, just like you’ll help them.”
In the movies, bravery is the heroic act of a lone wolf. A man – normally with great arms – will do something dangerous and important and brave to help others. And he, and he alone, will be the hero.
But in the everyday story of women’s bravery, it’s not one simple act. It’s a million decisions and carefully chosen words that we use to bravely navigate the hurdles we face. And we do it together. We make each other feel brave. We give each other courage . Gloria, of course, was right. I know bravery is built after a good conversation with my best friend. It’s not just a question of support; it’s somehow her plus me equals a third thing. And that third thing is courage.
Joanna Connors finished telling me about her book and then mentioned that she was interested in the idea of bravery. We spoke about women’s reluctance to consider themselves brave, even when they are, just like her. “I guess from now on I’ll make the effort to say I was one of the heroes in my book,” she smiles.
I think one of the reasons women won’t say they are brave is because they so culturally trained to recognise the plight of others. But like Connors – not to mention Bowie – said: we can [all] be heroes.