My Grandma Wanted to Be President: A Reflection on Women, Voice, and Leadership

As a voice coach I support many women leaders in finding their voices, speaking their truth with conviction, claiming their power, and fully expressing their gifts.

Most of the women I coach are privileged. They have education, financial resources, political clout, and more choices than our grandmothers or many of our sisters near and far could imagine. They hold positions of power and influence as executives, physicians, educators, activists, consultants, authors, speakers, bankers, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

Despite their varied professional backgrounds, the challenges they name in reclaiming their voices are strikingly similar — fear of reprisal, paralyzing perfectionism, creeping what they imagine will happen if they speak up, woman after woman has said, “I’ll be killed.” Do you find that surprising?

I used to, but then I began considering the reasons why I heard it again and again.

Women’s voices have been violently suppressed in this world for a very long time. Many are still being silenced, both by external systems and through our own internalized oppression. In this country, the most fundamental right of citizenship – the right to vote – was granted to women only very recently.

My grandmother, Norma Mershon Mathis, was just graduating high school when women won the vote in this country. My grandmother! I grew up knowing her.

Grandma Norma loved politics for her entire adult life. She was in her glory as the Iowa governor’s executive secretary in the 1950’s. She thrived on the intellectual stimulation, strategizing, discussion, and hobnobbing at the glamorous gatherings. Her job – and her great joy in it — was tragically cut short when the governor she worked for was killed in an automobile accident.Mother - Norma Mershon Mathis

She continued to participate in politics after that, running for the Iowa House of Representatives when she was well into her 60’s. I recall seeing her campaign flyers all over my grandparents’ house. I felt intrigued and proud that she was running for office. She lost the race. Soon after that her health began to fail. I’ve often said that Grandma would have run for president if she had been born a few decades later.

I tell my women clients this story frequently as a way to help them discover the shared roots of our fear. I also tell them this: When any woman finds her voice, it opens the way for other women to do the same. I invite my clients to be courageous not only on their own behalf, but on behalf of all of their sisters around the world who have less opportunity to speak their minds and express their gifts:

The women who have no say over whom they will marry or how many children they will have.
The women who cannot own property or earn a living.
The women who are bought and sold.
The women whose lives are taken up with sheer survival in the midst of war, racism, poverty, and oppression.

When we explore this larger context of women’s voices together, their hesitation and timidity falls away. Their eyes begin shining with courage and determination. They open up and give voice to whatever is inside them. That sound echoes around the world, awakening the possibility for another woman somewhere, someday to do the same.

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About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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One Response to My Grandma Wanted to Be President: A Reflection on Women, Voice, and Leadership

  1. Wow, thanks for this! Grandma Norma – who knew?

    I just finished reading “Illuminations” by Mary Sharratt, about what might have been Hildegard von Bingen’s life – it’s a novel based on what we know of her life. Deals with this theme… worth reading.

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