We were fifth graders, enjoying four-square on the school playground. We were having a great time until a sixth-grade bully rolled his ball into our game. He stood at the basketball hoop and laughed, yelling: “Hey, losers, give my ball back!”
We returned the ball and resumed play. A few seconds later, his ball rolled into our game, again. We returned it, hoping he would stop. Then we heard his cruel cackle, as the ball barreled into our game a third time, hitting a girl in the head.
I picked up his ball and held it. He stared at me, but I didn’t budge. Then he started to close the distance between where he was and where we were playing.
“What are you doing, stupid-face?” he barked.
Okay. So we weren’t gifted with our insults in those days.
“I’m holding the ball because you’re just going to do it again,” I said.
The boys in line for our game began to back away, slowly. This included my recess boyfriend, which forever altered our budding relationship.
“You’re not holding my ball. You’re giving it back to me or I’ll kick your fat butt,” he hissed. He figured the fat butt reference would deter me. Want to unnerve a girl? Try the F word.
Then he moved closer, aggressively, shoving one kid down as he approached – fast. My heart was pounding, my mind was racing, but my fear was morphing into red hot anger.
“You want your ball?” I said. “Here you go.”
I heaved that ball as hard and as far as I could, across the playground. Some kids scattered. Others gathered around to watch. The bully grabbed my thumb and bent it backwards. At first I laughed but then it began to hurt like hell, so I took my free hand and punched him in the stomach!
He doubled over, and then a teacher grabbed both of us, and dragged us inside.
That was the moment. My inner Dame was born. Not because I got into a fight, but because I stood up to a bully. Are you getting the picture? Do you know what a Dame is?
She believes in herself. She refuses to be pushed around.
Dames on Screen…
I encountered my first television Dame as she sauntered down a staircase in The Big Valley. Miss Barbara Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, wielding the same power as Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright. She wore a dress most of the time, but she packed pistols and wore slacks when it made sense. This was a time when women were not portrayed with this kind of strength. They were supposed to die early in film – shame on you, Mr. Disney – or spend their talents keeping a clean house.
I can also thank the Wild West for my second encounter with a Dame. Doris Day was an amiable “Calamity Jane” and I fell in love with her – at least I did up until the movie turned her into an ordinary girl.
You know what I mean. Calamity Jane wanted to attract a man, so she put on dresses and hung gingham curtains.
I liked the Calamity that could shoot a drink out of a man’s hand and walk around in chaps, with attitude. That Calamity Jane was a Dame.
The Dame Within…
I have spent many of my work years surrounded by men. While the most attractive women captured their attention quickly, if I had a good idea and presented it with confidence, I was heard. Those in the room who tended to take my Dame and diminish her were, alas, women.
Few of us seem to be Dame-friendly. Are we afraid of how amazing we could actually be if we acted on our power?
I believe every woman on earth has that power – a Dame within. I wish our culture valued her. I wish more people could see her clearly. I wish we could see Hillary Clinton as the most traveled Secretary of State in history, rather than a woman with large calves.
Women are taught through commercials and reality shows that our true value lies in being pretty. Is our skin young looking? Does our hair shine? Are we thin enough? Do we wear the right clothing? Does our lipstick bring out our eyes?
Are we burying the strength, the self-assurance, and the humor of the Dame?
The most tragic part of squelching our inner Dame is that we begin to believe the message. Just as bad – we resent other women who own their Dame.
What Would Pippi Do…
However well coiffed the exterior, our inner Dame looks a lot like Astrid Lindgren’s wonderful fictional character, Pippi Longstocking.
Do you know Pippi? She’s her own woman, even though she’s a girl. She’s friendly but assertive, and so strong she can lift her horse overhead – one-handed! Most of my female colleagues adore Pippi Longstocking, yet I watch them in corporate meetings and I don’t see Pippi. I see the women in the television commercials who are worried about how they look, or if their words are perfect. They won’t contribute to vital discussion because they’re afraid of being wrong.
They play the nice girl, which robs the world of their valuable opinions.
That bully in fifth grade?
Pippi wouldn’t have put up with him. Going for gingham instead of being herself? That wouldn’t fly in Pippi’s world either.
Maybe we start wearing “WWPD?” bracelets, reminding ourselves to ask: What Would Pippi Do?
The Dame within us doesn’t apologize for being alive. She doesn’t live in defensive mode. She doesn’t wait around to get her feelings hurt. A Dame is all about action, allowing mistakes, pushing boundaries, moving forward, getting things done. A Dame knows how to laugh at herself, and doesn’t stay down when pushed.
She holds out her arms to embrace each day, and takes a swing when she knows it’s necessary.
And she’s certain, without a doubt, that there is nothin’ like a Dame.
© Donna Strother Highfill
Donna Strother Highfill is a change consultant, trainer, coach, writer, and humorist. She is the author of a book on change, Real People, Real Change, has published articles in several professional magazines, and contributes to a variety of blogs. Her humor site for women, Dame Nation, landed her a gig as a regular Huffington Post blogger. Follow Donna on Twitter at @DameDonna, visit her Facebook Fan Page, and connect with her on LinkedIn.
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