The Heart and Soul
by Katherine Martin
"Celebrating Women of Courage and Vision" is the theme of Womenís History Month, March 2001.
For much of my life, I never thought about whether I
was courageous. Maybe more honestly, I didnít think I
was. As first a child and then a young woman, I admired
it when I saw it in others or heard about it or read
about it. Donít get me wrong, I would have my moments
of chutzpah. But courage. Thatís a big word. Powerful.
Intimidating. It's a word for heroes, for those who
brave the impossible, who live bigger than life.
Armed with my shallow definition and traveling as a
self-described "courage voyeur," I set out to
write Women of Courage, the first of my series of
books about people who dare. I began looking for courage
"warriors," wanting to vicariously feel that
rush of victory from challenges conquered against all
odds. I wanted to know what it was like to slay the
I interviewed women like Anita Roddick, the fiery
founder of The Body Shop, who makes a habit of stirring
up controversy in the name of human rights and
environmental preservation. And Barbara Trent, who
risked her life to make her Academy-award winning
documentary about what really happened during the U.S.
invasion of Panama. And Heather OíBrien who, at age
nineteen, went alone into Cambodian refugee camps to
bring out stories and was captured by the Khmer Rouge.
Listening to these women, I felt a rush of empowered
dignity. This is who we can be, what we can do.
Internally, I triumphed with them. Yes! If they can go
so boldly, take a stand so bravely, then I too can stand
up, maybe not risking my life, but risking being more
than I am now.
Over the months that followed, I interviewed bold and
defiant women whose triumphs have rippled across our
culture, like Sarah Weddington, who was twenty-six years
old when she argued Roe vs. Wade before the U.S.
Supreme Court. Like Senator Patty Murray, who was told
by a legislator that her voice didnít count because
she was "just a mom in running shoes" and rose
up to win a bid for the U.S. Senate. Like Judy Chicago,
who boldly stood the art world on its head and Dawn
Steel, the first woman to head a major motion picture
When I asked Polar explorer Ann Bancroft about
courage, she obliged me with a thrilling story about
taking the first all-womenís expedition to the South
Pole, but then said, "If Iím truthful, though, I
have to say that wasnít my moment of courage." What
on earth? "Let me tell you about being dyslexic
Ö" she began, telling me about how she had taken
a stand with an intimidating college counselor who was
trying to talk her out of getting a teaching credential
because her grades were poor. "Give it up,"
said the counselor, "Get your B.A., go on with your
life, be happy." To Ann, it was her defining moment
of courage, standing up to her advisor and saying,
"You donít understand, that B.A. means nothing to
me if I canít teach." As difficult as it was for
her, she prevailed in making her dream real by becoming
a teacher. Later, she said, "in the bitter cold at
the North Pole, I had the distinct thought, This is
not worse than school. When I was having a bad day
on the Arctic ice, thatís what I would dredge up in my
mind to keep me going: School was harder."
Courage has many faces and we lose much when we
dismiss it in ourselves, thinking we don't measure up to
the narrow definition of "conventional"
courage. "The way our culture is defining courage
is so ridiculous," says Mary Pipher, author of the
bestselling Reviving Ophelia about adolescent
girls and The Shelter of Each Other about
families. "Courage has become Raiders of the
Lost Ark, or riding in spaceships, killing people,
taking enormous physical risks. To me, the kind of
courage thatís really interesting is someone whose
spouse has Alzheimerís and yet manages to wake up
every morning and be cheerful with that person and
respectful of that person and find things to enjoy even
though their day is very, very difficult. That kind of
courage is really undervalued in our culture. We need to
redefine our dialogue about courage."
And thatís where my study took me. To a new
dialogue about courage. I spoke with Dana Reeve, who
talked about how life shifted cataclysmically after her
husband, Christopher was paralyzed in a riding accident.
And Marianne Williamson, who persevered in the face of
intense public scrutiny. And psychiatrist Dr. Judith
Orloff who grew up in fear and confusion as a result of
being psychic. And Barbara Brennan who left her life as
a NASA scientist to begin an internal exploration that
led her to create a revolutionary form of spiritual
medicine. And Salle Redfield, who spoke intimately about
her journey from "delicate southern magnolia
blossom" to empowered woman.
And then, I interviewed Isabel Allende. I had no idea
it would be the pivot point of my study. Isabel was
raised in Chile, a deeply patriarchal society, and as a
young woman was on the vanguard of a risky feminist
movement, becoming a recognized journalist and
television personality. And yet, when we sank into her
big white couch and I let the word "courage"
pass my lips, she, who had just sat down, got right back
up, saying "Yes, but Iím not a very courageous
person." And she walked across the room and briefly
busied herself at her desk. I waited for her to return,
wondering how a woman who had risked her life over and
over helping strangers reach safe houses and embassies
following the military coup that left her fatherís
cousin, Salvador Allende, brutally murdered and her
country in the throes of unspeakable atrocities - how
could it be that this woman would say, "Yes but Iím
not a very courageous person"?
Isabelís is a life of courage. Not a moment
or an event, not a single strike but a series of events,
an accumulation of dared moments. You see it etched in
her discipline, her candor, her vulnerability, and yet
her unassailable confidence. It comes from the courage
to constantly stretch into places demanding an
uncompromised presence. Courage is magnificent in this
way. It changes us - gives us presence, makes us humble.
I saw it in woman after woman. Talking with Isabel, I
was struck by how emotionally available and authentic
she remained in the ever more glaring light of fame.
Courageous people tend to be this way, as though they
have no time for pretense. "If you ask me what has
been the most difficult moment in my life," Isabel
said, "the moment that has required the most
strength and courage, I would say it was the illness and
death of my daughter, Paula." In that moment, I saw
that courage had a far deeper reach than I had ever
"So many of the models of courage we've had,
ones that are still taught to boys and girls, are about
going out to slay the dragon, to kill," says Riane
Eisler. "It's a courage that's born out of fear,
anger, and hate. But there's this other kind of courage.
Itís the courage to risk your life, not in war, not in
battle, not out of fear . . . but out of love and a
sense of injustice that has to be challenged. It takes
far more courage to challenge unjust authority without
violence than it takes to kill all the monsters in all
the stories told to children about the meaning of
Riane had the audacity and the guts Ė the courage -
to challenge the gods of history and culture in her
groundbreaking book The Chalice and the Blade.
Her audacity to take on "our most hallowed and
sanctified norms" is borne out of her love for
humanity and her flagless will to right injustices
flowing from the far and near past.
Challenging tradition can be risky, as Rita Dove
learned when she became the youngest and first black
Poet Laureate. "At first, I thought I hadnít done
anything courageous in my life," she said.
"But then, I realized that so many women do things
that I view as brave without consciously setting out to
be courageous. It made me rethink what I had asked of
myself as Poet Laureate, the places and times when I had
held my breath and jumped. Courage has nothing to do
with our determination to be great. It has to do with
what we decide in that moment when we are called upon to
Often, in the telling of their stories, people tap
into a part of themselves theyíve ignored and are
moved to tears. "It made me really uncomfortable,
," said one, "because it brought up all this
unfinished business with my family and I had to go back
to them and work out some things that we hadnít
resolve." Another said, "It was more arduous
and painful than I expected. Traveling back, if only in
my mind, was like scraping off layers from a nightmare I
wasnít eager to revisit. This story is entirely true
which, to me, is what makes it so scary." Often the
tears come when we acknowledge our goodness, our
strength, and the gift we provide others when we live
our lives with courage.
I am honored that people speak so vulnerably and
openly with me and my life is bigger and broader for
being immersed in their lives. I havenít scaled any
mountains. I havenít slain any dragons. But I honor
myself more as a woman. I am more authentic. I am
willing to be strong, to seek out places where Iím
nervous or afraid and purposefully go there, knowing how
much I gain by so doing, not only for myself but for my
husband, my son, those around me. I am finding my true
voice, less afraid to make mistakes, more eager to see
what Iím made of, inspired to seek new challenge and
to not settle for mediocrity.
In the end, courage can be a fragile, vulnerable
thing, a quiet moment. It can be a deep look into our
souls, a stillness with our divinity. It can be found in
the exhalation of love. In the speaking of truth. In
forgiving and the making of peace. It is not only about
climbing unscaleable mountains, crossing unfordable
rivers, flying to unreasonable heights. Even in the most
bold and daring acts, courage is a matter of the heart.
And, more than anything, this work brings me home to my
heart and home to myself as a woman. I continue to
explore the heart, the mind, and the spirit of courage
and to honor its many faces. To look into the eyes of
the very soul of courage reminds us of who we are in all
our magnificence. And in remembering, we become more.
© Copyright 2001 Katherine Martin.
Katherine Martin is a champion of the human spirit. She has been a magazine writer and editor, award winning screenwriter, author of two critically acclaimed books and is presently a columnist for
For the past six years, Katherine has immersed herself in the rich tapestry of human courage. Interviewing hundreds of people from all walks of life, Katherine has been inspired and moved by her discoveries. Women of Courage is the first in the People Who Dare Series.
Katherine speaks across the country, has produced sold out theatrical performances of her work and is producing stories for television. Her message inspires us all - that courage is a matter of the heart.
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