archives, wisdom

(B)Leading from My Uterus: A Lesson in Leadership in a White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy.


Last week, I was a panelist at a leadership conference on the seven streams of influence in society.

In typical fashion, I had very little time to prepare, and thus very little understanding of what the event would entail beyond a vague understanding I was supposed to represent leadership in the field of education. I’m becoming less and less sure education represents the work I actually do, as most of my work focuses on dismantling institutional and ideological oppression.

Education may be our best or only vehicle through which to pursue this, but certainly not in traditional schooling. But I digress.

Just getting to the conference venue, albeit an hour late, was an exemplary illustration of blitzkrieg-style household leadership, in which three children ages 10 and under had to be fed, dressed, packed, kissed, and sent out into the world. I arrived to the conference shortly before the panel discussion began and only slightly worse for the wear.

While I didn’t have time to prepare remarks per se, I did make the time to read the very detailed notes from the organizer about when and how long to speak. Introduction: 1-2 minutes; First Question: 1 minute; Second Question: 1-2 minutes. The event was meant to condense the broad scope of leadership work to short, succinct, Successories-style soundbites, followed by Q&A with the audience.

This was not a typical academic or activist venue for me, as most of the people in attendance, as far as I could tell, hailed from the corporate world. I started to strategize rhetorical devices then and there that could have some currency with them.

Once all the panelists had taken their seats, I realized that among the people representing the seven streams of influence, I was the only woman.

There I was, seated front and center, flanked on either side by successful white men — men who were 10, 20, 30 years my senior, men who almost certainly weren’t schlepping children to school only moments before or reading their very detailed panel instructions in the car in the parking lot outside the conference. The moderator then suggested we start with ladies first and gestured in my direction.

In my mind, I corrected him, “Don’t you mean, lady first? It’s just me up here.” But as the politics of politeness dictate, I smiled benignly and proceeded to try to convey the extraordinarily complex, dialectical, difficult nature of my work in 90 seconds, careful not to drop words that might out my radical ideologies, like hegemony or oppression or white supremacy or… politics.

Because in these spaces, there is a tacit understanding that we not mention politics explicitly because we (i.e. those of us in attendance) are all generally protected by those politics.

So I used coded language and sliding signifiers and business-y words like innovation, excellence and growth to communicate a deep conviction that we have to launch a radical reeducation campaign in society or else the encroaching fascism we can all smell in the air will asphyxiate us all.

I finished my introduction in a less-than-graceful way, but still coming in somewhere shy of two minutes. Then I passed the mic to a Republican state senator, appropriately seated to my right. He started to talk. And he kept talking. On and on, completely disregarding the time limit. Somewhere approaching the nine-minute mark, he passed the mic to his right.

And again, the panelist started talking without regard for the very detailed instructions that stated we were to keep our responses to 1-2 minutes. Every single panelist thereafter took his time, expatiating about his particular leadership approach, punctuated with abundant references to how “blessed” they all are in their lives and work.

Somewhere midway through the lengthy leader introductions, I realized I was bleeding. Front and center and bloody on this leadership panel. I didn’t move. I crossed my legs tighter. I was wearing a black skirt, so it was fine. But the marginalization already so apparent in my intellectual work and gendered body was brilliantly embellished by this unexpected visitation.

In truth, I probably have little to contribute to the well-ordered rationality by which most people define leadership. My fellow panelists articulated coherent, structured platforms for leadership that don’t even remotely resemble my own approach, which my beloved friend Rachel described as “ad hoc.”

We don’t have the privilege of time or space or security or resources that would allow us to forward such an orderly leadership paradigm. It’s a work that is constantly evolving and contextual — it’s dynamic, fluid, reactive, terrifying, urgent, and necessary.

My leadership more often resembles insurrection than direction. Because the very nature of this work is to upset paradigms and to reimage possibilities for ourselves and for democracy.

My timely menstrual interruption came like an anatomy lesson on leadership: feminist politics infused with blood. It articulated better than I could have a leadership platform based in the understanding that we don’t have control over timing or circumstances. We have to always situate this work in the body and in the body politic. We have to let things die and let them go.

We have to remember our blood won’t kill us. We have to always be willing to regenerate — start over again and again — because this work is cyclical, not linear. We have to be willing to make a mess. We have to have a reverence for this work and a faith we can gestate things we may never see. When you are visited by blood as often as I am, you call yourself a warrior. I call myself blessed.

Because blessed, etymologically speaking, means to make hallowed with blood. It means to mark something with your blood. Blessed. This work has blessed me. And I’ve blessed it back. I lead with that blessing. And so for you, out there, doing important, invisible, exhausting, impossible work, here’s my master class on leadership. Bless you all.

(B)Leading from My Uterus:  Leadership in a White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy

Lesson One: They are not going to like you. And if they do, it’s just because they don’t know you very well. Give them some time, they will come to revile you, too. You’re too messy. You’re disorderly and irrational and offensive. It’s okay. Love yourself harder.

Lesson Two: You were never meant to win. If you do, rest assured you have compromised some once-nonnegotiable conviction. Reassess. Come back home to yourself. And when you fail, don’t take it personally. Your losses are worthy of celebration. They are signs of victory. You tried something. Progress will always be partial.

Lesson Three: You’re going to be tired. Nobody cares. Because either they don’t understand or value what you’re doing, or because they’re bone-tired too. Keep working. Take naps. Drink coffee. This is a marathon.

Lesson Four: Be wary of alliances. Our common ground has eroded so far, there are few places we can forge meaningful alliances with confidence we are working for the same goal of unconditional liberation for all peoples. It will be lonely. Keep a few close friends. Get a dog.

Lesson Five: You will make a mess. There’s no way to keep this work clean. If you try to, you’re not doing it right. Let it get messy. Don’t try to clean it up. There’s no time to go back and fix it. Learn from it. Bring your stains along with you. Onward.

Lesson Six: It will break your heart. You’ll do it because you care so deeply, and the imperfection and contradiction and invalidation of this work will feel unbearable most of the time. Develop a dark sense of humor. Laugh about it with people who understand. Relish in good cups of coffee and clever memes and warm sunlight and colorful autumn days. Your heart matters too.

Lesson Seven: Do it anyway. It won’t feel like a deep affirming sense of victory. There’s no certification of completion. You’ll wonder if it matters. You’ll wonder if it’s working. You’ll wonder if it’s safe. You’ll wonder if it’s worth it. Do it anyway. It’s worth it. We need you.


Laura Kalmes is a feminist and anti-racist theorist, activist, cultural critic, educator, writer, and mother. She has a Doctorate of Philosophy in education from the University of Wisconsin. Her work focuses on reimagining and mobilizing education, not as traditional schooling, but as a lifelong endeavor to reshape our selves and our political, social, economic, and cultural landscape into something more just, equitable, and inclusive. You could contact Laura via Facebook.


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