Pat Mitchell first declared herself a dangerous woman in a 2017 meeting called by Eve Ensler, activist and playwright of The Vagina Monologues. But Mitchell has been dangerous — shaking up the media landscape over the course of a multi-decade career while tirelessly advocating for women and girls — since she first began working in journalism and television in the 1960s.
The October release of her memoir, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World, added “author” to Mitchell’s prolific list of titles and accomplishments. Mitchell will discuss and read from Becoming a Dangerous Woman at 7:30 p.m. November 6 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center Book Festival.
A Georgia native, author and media mogul, Mitchell was the first female CEO of both PBS and CNN Productions. She is now the editorial director of TEDWomen and chair the boards for both the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center. She is also a trustee of the VDAY Movement — an international effort to end violence against women and girls.
Mitchell was an active participant in marches during both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, and she traveled as a war correspondent to Sarajevo and El Salvador, documenting women on the front lines who risked their lives to fight for peace. When TV executives told her to stay away from women’s stories, she relentlessly sought them out, hosting the groundbreaking Emmy Award-winning Woman to Woman at a time when discussing “women’s issues” on TV was seen as a financial liability.
In Becoming a Dangerous Woman, Mitchell candidly reveals what it was like growing up as a girl in the ’50s in a small South Georgia town, her dreams about leaving that town and her rise through the ranks of television to become a history-making executive. It’s a master class in defying the odds, telling the truth and going with your gut. And it’s truly inspiring evidence that when women work together, share their stories and support each other, they can change the world.
Mitchell spoke to ArtsATL about her career in television, her activism and why she decided to write a book about her experiences.
ArtsATL: You begin the book at a meeting you were invited to in 2017 by Eve Ensler — a meeting whose guests included Jane Fonda and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It was here you first decided to declare yourself a “dangerous woman.” Did calling yourself dangerous at this meeting come first, or was it the result of writing the memoir? Was it the moniker or the memoir that happened first?
Pat Mitchell: That is such an interesting question. The memoir started five years ago, and it was at the suggestion of a friend of mine who knew that I was leaving the Paley Center [for Media], and she said, “You just need to go away somewhere and start to recapture those things in your life that you think will mentor other women.” So I called it a “memoir to mentor,” and I spent 30 days in a great writing residency and came back with a full dump of memories.
But then I just couldn’t get myself to the point where I thought the stories had enough value to spend a lot of time continuing to write. I was so much more interested in, as I say, living my life. I had a hard time going into a room and closing the door. And so I put it aside. Then in 2017 at that meeting that Eve convened — the dangerous declaration had nothing to do with [the] book. It was just something that came to me, sitting there with all these people that I felt were clearly dangerous and really ready to do the work no matter how scary or daunting it might be. And honestly, Jane [Fonda’s] book, Prime Time, had a lot to do with my thinking too because she had talked about how older women have the potential to be the most powerful population on Earth. I think that was in my head too.
ArtsATL: And what does it mean to be a dangerous woman?
Mitchell: Well, I certainly wasn’t dangerous at the beginning of my career. I was as cowed by the challenges as any of us who were trying to make our way in the world. But I did make some dangerous decisions. I left network jobs; I went to become a war correspondent. Looking back on it, I can say that I took some really big risks, and I was willing to do that and able to do that because I got that early faith in myself that came from my grandmother and my eighth grade English teacher. They really gave me confidence that I could do it.
I say in the book that I left my last CEO job because I realized I was ready to take more risks than my job would allow me to do. And I had also spent a lot of time with women who were living in real danger. So I had to separate that life, and those women out on those front lines, from how I was seeing dangerous in my life. So how was I seeing it? Certainly being more fearless, braver and bolder, but those are easy words. Where it really had meaning for me was in realizing that being dangerous also meant speaking the truth when it was not a good thing, when you knew you were going to upset people, and it would be safer not to.
And then the biggest danger [women] pose to the status quo is working together, supporting each other, advocating for each other. That part of being dangerous is, for me, the most important part because I think it’s our biggest lever[age] for change.
ArtsATL: You include really great interviews in the book with other dangerous women, such as Stacey Abrams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Christiane Amanpour and Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland. Why was it so important to you to include the stories and accomplishments of these other women?
Mitchell: It was important to me as a driving passion for all my work. Going back to the 70s when everyone said stay away from women’s stories, I deliberately went that way because it felt to me that the power of media was not being used for women. So, telling other women’s stories is a passion, and it’s something that I believe changes the world.
Also, as I interviewed these women about their journeys, I began to see dangerousness in different lights because each of them had their own approach to it. But none of them shied away from the word. And what I felt was evolving was a collective narrative about what [being dangerous] can mean — not just my experiences or how I was defining it in my life but the way other women were defining it too.
ArtsATL: You grew up in a small town in South Georgia with no money or connections and went on to a life of prolific accomplishment in the media industry. Were all these things dreams that you had for yourself as a child? Do you see your life now as a manifestation of the dreams that you had when you were growing up?
Mitchell: Not in specific detail. The one dream that I had from very early on was that I just wanted to be somewhere else. I always felt that I didn’t really fit in or belong in that small town. I didn’t want to be any of the things that were expected of a girl in the 50s. I didn’t want to live the life I saw my mother and other women living. But I wasn’t very specific about how I saw my life evolving. So like a lot of women, I just sort of followed my curiosity, my passion. Then after going into television, I began to see it all as something that was evolving as a dream — having the power, the privilege, the platform, whatever you want to call it. I had it in media, the power to do what I really wanted to do, which was support other women and their dreams.
ArtsATL: Do you think that being a Southern woman helped at all in your success?
Mitchell: I think it actually was a barrier. When I got that [early] job at Look Magazine as a researcher, the executive editor said to me, “I just love that Southern drawl. Do you think of yourself as Scarlett or Melanie?” You know, the two characters from Gone with the Wind? There was this thing about Southern girls that was equated, certainly in the late 60s and 70s, with submissiveness, being quiet, nice and pretty. I had to overcome those stereotypes constantly.
ArtsATL: Right. And ironically, you write about being galvanized in your activism during this time — in the 60s and 70s. You became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement.
Mitchell: I threw myself right in the middle of the Civil Rights marches. I got arrested in Athens when I was teaching, and they had to let me go because if they gave me a felony charge, they’d have to fire me. And here I am going back to get arrested again next weekend with my friend Jane [Fonda] — or I’m assuming we’ll get arrested. They arrest her every Friday. She’s doing these protest marches in Washington called Fire Drill Friday, and every Friday there’s a different group of people protesting. This next Friday is the Women’s March again, and so I’m certainly going to support her.
But yes. I remember Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who was the first African American student at the University of Georgia, telling me [about marching], “You don’t have to do this. It really could be dangerous.” But I didn’t feel the danger [for me]. I felt it more for her.
Somebody asked me the other day, “What do you fear?” And I realized that I’ve not operated from a position of fear very often. I went to Sarajevo without even knowing where I was going. I went to the Middle East having never been there before, [and] El Salvador, where I really did come close to getting injured. But I didn’t think of those things as reasons to be afraid.
ArtsATL: So what are you afraid of?
Mitchell: When you say you’re dangerous, people expect you not to have any fears. But I do. You can’t be human and not have fear.
I think what I fear the most is not being relevant, not being able to be engaged, not being in the middle of something that matters. That terrifies me, which is why I live my life the way I have. I haven’t thought, “Oh, is that a risky thing to do, to join the marches or go off to a war zone?” I just said, “Is this a way I can make a difference?”
ArtsATL: Do you see any cultural similarities between the things you were fighting for in the 60s and 70s and what we’re all up against now?
Mitchell: Yes, and it worries me so greatly. We have had, in the last five years, more rollbacks on the freedoms and rights that we fought for. I mean, everywhere you look, there’s greater acts of injustice, racism and sexism. And then you add nationalism to that. I’m especially worried about women, this generation of young women who had never lived in those dark ages where they had no access to reproductive health or reproductive choice.
The people who buy the book at these book signings and who stand and talk to me the longest are the young women. They are the ones who are struggling. They thought those battles were over — and not just reproductive health. We are no closer to equal pay for equal work. We’ve been lobbying and fighting for that since 1967.
But what keeps me from getting really pessimistic is that I am seeing this global community of women starting to emerge again and reach out to one another.
ArtsATL: You mentioned earlier this idea that older women are in a particularly apt position to be dangerous to the status quo. Why do you think older women are so well-situated to be “dangerous” change makers?
Mitchell: I think that’s because we’ve seen a lot, we’ve done a lot, and we don’t have to prove ourselves as much anymore. We have more time, and we’re healthier and more active than any generation who ever lived before us. And then let’s not forget we have media’s power in our hands now. So we could connect as a global community. And I sort of go with Jane on this, that women over 50, there’ll be one billion of us around the world. And if those one billion women decided they were going to end war and violence against women, and change the representation of power, I think it would happen.