Most words have more than one meaning. Sometimes, though, that word becomes known more for its negative meaning than its good. Audacious is one of those words. When you hear audacious what first comes to mind? Is it someone who's reckless, disregards rules? Or is it someone who takes bold risks and is daring? As we prepared to introduce little ones to November's featured lady there was only one word that really described her: audacious, as in bold and daring. It's a perfect fit for this month's totally fearless female---Mae Jemison. Let's reclaim that word, shall we?
Mae Jemison. She is without a doubt one of the most inspiring, encouraging, and audacious ladies we've encountered. I'd wager that most people know Mae as the first black woman in space, but have you ever thought about how she got there? What launched her on her trajectory to space? It is the journey that she took to get to space that makes her audacious and made us want to celebrate her.
Growing up in Chicago, Mae spent hours lying on her back looking up at the stars. This is where her fascination with space began. That fascination was further stoked by her love of Star Trek. To her, Star Trek was a portrayal of what was possible in life---men and women of different ethnicities and skills coming together for the common good on equal footing. Seeing a woman who looked like her in the character of Lieutenant Uhura, Mae never thought that going to space wasn't possible. She just knew that one day she'd go to space. As a child, she confidently announced that one day she would be in space. Rather than chastise her dream, her family encouraged it and supported it. Her claim might have seemed negatively audacious, but it wasn't. It was bold and fearless. It was audacious in the positive.
That was Mae: a woman who knew what she wanted and didn't reasons why she couldn't do something. To her, everything was possible; the universe was open to her. She seemed to approach everything in life with a tenacity that didn't quit. After all, this was a woman who went to college at 16 years old to study chemical engineering. That in and of itself is audacious! Can you imagine going to college at 16? No way! But she did and she rocked it. Sure she was younger than her classmates and she's said as a woman of color she often felt ignored by her professors, but that motivated her to press on, go to medical school, and join the Peace Corps.
It was while working in the Peace Corps. that we saw one of the greatest examples of Mae's audacity. Try to picture this scene. At 26 Mae's working as a doctor in Sierra Leone. In her second week there one of the volunteers gets sick and is diagnosed by another doctor with malaria. Mae wasn't sold on the other doctor's diagnosis. The patient worsened, which convinced Mae that he had meningitis with life-threatening complications. They weren't able to treat him in Sierra Leone so Mae took it upon herself to order a military medical evacuation on an Air Force hospital plane based in Germany. Just to start the process cost $80,000. Mae's order was quickly called into question by the U.S. Embassy. They began to question whether or not she had the authority to make such a call. Mae's response? "Yet, after being up for 36 hours — familiar territory for a former Los Angeles County hospital intern — I was very calm and knew what the issues were. I patiently told them I didn't need anyone's permission or concurrence. By the time we reached the Air Force hospital in Germany, I had stayed up with that patient for 56 hours. Of course, he survived." Audacious. She was bold and took a professional risk to secure the patient's treatment. Sheesh. To have the presence of mind to not only question a colleague's diagnosis, but then stand up to the U.S. Embassy because you so believed in what you'd decided...audacious.
There are so many other examples of Mae's audacity as she made her way to space. Or heck, even after her space journey! This was a woman who knew since childhood that she would one day go to space and yet, resigned from NASA after only one mission to fulfill other dreams. She had so much more that she wanted to do. Since coming back to Earth, Mae has started her own company, is a college professor, and continues in her great passion, dance. Did you know Mae Jemison is an accomplished dancer!? She'd once thought about becoming a professional dancer. What can't she do!?
Mae Jemison's audaciousness has taken her far. It even took her boldly where no other astronaut had gone before--she once guest starred on her beloved Star Trek! She is such an incredible example for girls. She knew what she wanted to do in life and audaciously declared it, went after it, and did it. How can we raise our girls to be like Mae? Let's foster their dreams rather than minimize them; let's encourage them to use their voice and advocate for themselves; and let's continue to introduce them to fearless women who've made our world better. Mae saw herself in the crew of Star Trek. Sally Ride once famously said, "You can't be what you can't see." Let's show girls they can by showing them women who did.