“An inspiring, empowering clarion call and guide to become the heroines we were meant to be.”—Debra Messing, actor and activist
A soul-shaking wake-up call to the oppressive structures that keep women in their place—and a radical approach to fighting back
You were born with massive reservoirs of strength, confidence, and creativity. But oppressive structures that keep you “in your place”—that is, silent, weak, and complacent—have cut you off you from your natural gifts and pitted women against one another. Following the timeless wisdom of the heroine's journey, Becoming Heroines invites you to recover your inner power and unleash it as a force for change in the world.
For decades, Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin has been the go-to mentor for women who’ve wasted years playing by traditional rules. Now, she’ll show you how to break away from that which no longer serves you, starting by healing the painful memories that hold you back from living to your fullest capacity. You’ll learn how to confront any internalized bias contributing to systems of oppression. And joining with the growing revolution, you’ll be inspired to lend your voice to those repairing the wounds of history in order to build a future of freedom and justice for all.
At once deeply heartfelt and galvanizing, Becoming Heroines is an empowering call to recover your rightful role as the heroine of your own life. For any woman ready to rise from the ashes of trauma and grief, live out her values more radically, and lead us all to a better world, the journey begins.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Word on the Lens of This Book
This book is a book about the excavation and embodiment of the heroic feminine energy that lives within all of us. While specifically directed at cis and trans women and non-binary folx, this book includes lessons for the heroine that lives within each of us, and its tools concern the means by which the heroine has been buried by white supremacist patriarchy, and thereby impacts all of us, regardless of gender identity.
Throughout the book, I specifically address women (cis and trans) and non-binary folx in the context of my work at the Gaia Project for Women's Leadership. However, it is my hope that this work resonates with and benefits all gender identities, and encompasses a telling of the path of the heroine that meets each reader where the heroine resides within her, him, or them.
The use of the terms "woman" or "women" is intended herein to include all those who resonate with femme energy, regardless of gender identity, and to be inclusive to the greatest degree possible. While our language is inherently coded by the structures this book seeks to undermine and revolve, my aim has been to have intent and impact merge throughout for the inclusion and benefit of all.
As well, I write this book as a white cisgender able-bodied woman, straight-presenting while bending in the direction of bisexuality on the spectrum of sexual orientation, raised in a class trajectory that went from working to middle to upper-middle class over the course of my upbringing, highly educated, and bearing other significant stamps of privilege. I cannot claim to speak for those outside my realm of experience, but I do share within the book the stories and experiences of my clients across the spectrums of diversities that they represent.
At this moment in our collective history, this book seeks to confront in part the fact that white women urgently need to reconcile with our internalized racism and sexism, and our complicity in systems that perpetrate hate. I am relentless in my demand for that work and accountability. We are too late in confronting our complicity, and we are too often part of the problem rather than the solution. As a result, there are parts of this book that speak particularly to white women in stark terms on the work left to be done. I do not, in these portions of the book and in speaking explicitly to the ways in which white women need to confront our complicity with systems of oppression, mean to negate in any way whatsoever the incredible work of Black, brown, and Indigenous heroines on the path-past, present, and future-nor their lived experiences and critical role as heroines in all the revolutionary work currently under way. It is my hope that I have adequately conveyed my belief that we must all walk arm in arm, while following the lead of women of color if we are to achieve real change and real redress for historic harm, and as we work to build a better world for all. Where the teachings of specific Black, brown, and Indigenous women, men, and non-binary folx have impacted my work, I have done my best to name them and to give all credit where it is (long over)due.
Lastly, there are doubtless places in this book at which, through the lens of history, my words will appear outdated and wrong, where I will have to be accountable once again for blind spots in my own thinking, and for which I will owe amends and apologies. We are living right now in a portal of transformation that is so rapid that this book has already had many lives and many incarnations and at each stage has been revised over and over to become more inclusive and, I hope, more reflective of my ever-growing awareness of the work ahead. I have done my best throughout this book to write from an anti-racist and anti-bias lens, from the moral and ethical principles by which I live my own life, and to all those across every spectrum of diversity with whom I walk on this beautiful and difficult path toward creating freedom and justice, and with love, for all.
Section One: Recognition
I'm scrolling back more than ten years now-to a late Thursday evening when I was on my way out of work. I was the most senior woman associate in the litigation department of my Wall Street law firm. I walked through the security door for our grand offices with views over all of Manhattan, and out to the elevator bank on the thirty-fifth floor. There, I ran into Leonard, one of the senior partners.
Squat and with a gray beard, Leonard had been with the firm for something like forty years. I didn't know Leonard all that well. A few weeks prior, I'd been the second chair on a 350-million-dollar case he'd brought in-one where another senior woman and I ran the trial, while he sat in the first row and watched. I hadn't worked with him before that case.
As with many of the senior partners in the firm, however, there were stories about Leonard that floated around the office-tales of his affair with a female partner in litigation a decade earlier-an affair that, after a scandalous karaoke event at the firm Christmas party where he sang "I've Got You Babe" to his lover in front of his wife, had resulted in that female partner's transfer to another division. This seemed to not have touched Leonard's career at all. There were tales of his wife's (fairly understandable) instability, including an event where she screamed "Fuck you!" at her husband in the middle of a celebratory dinner for an entire trial team of lawyers, and then stormed out of the restaurant. And then there was the more general fact that Leonard didn't seem to do much but sit in his office for about five or six hours a day and collect a massive salary and partnership draw, while the more junior members of the firm struggled with eighty-hour weeks and 3 a.m. emails.
In contrast to the workload of Leonard and many of the senior partners at the firm, mine was merciless in both hours and commitment. My perfectionism as a lawyer had been well honed over more than a dozen years of litigation and trial work. Along the way, I'd gained a reputation for certain skill sets-for the ability to precisely, relentlessly, and with stealthy questioning tear witnesses apart under oath; for writing briefs that won the hardest motions; and for a courtroom presence that opposing attorneys underestimated at their peril. Partners in other divisions came to me to write pivotal motions in critical cases, against folks, for instance, like a certain high-profile New York real estate investor whose casinos in Atlantic City were in their third bankruptcy.
But I wasn't just invested in how I looked on paper. In my rare spare time, I tore through every book I could find on women's leadership, and did my best to put it all into practice. I was a networking fiend, a builder of alliances, and focused on growing my practice. I'd worked so hard in and on my career that I didn't finally decide to get married and think about starting a family until I was thirty-eight.
My work, in other words, was the aim and the dominant focus of my life.
Happiness was a different story. For a number of years preceding that fateful night at the elevator bank, I'd had the distinct sensation of beating my head against a brick wall, every single day. I'd put myself through law school, worked every day of my life since the age of fifteen, and checked every box presented to me as a metric of success-from taking on a triple major from a top tier college as an undergrad to wooing a major investment bank to my law firm as a potential client. Along the way, I'd immersed myself in feminist theory and cultural studies, and a love of activism that led me from organizing protests as a teenager to trying massive human rights cases pro bono in corporate law.
Despite all this understanding and awareness, despite all this hard work, I'd never been able to overcome what felt like a foot on the head of my success that I couldn't name. I spent years as a lawyer questing for the magic bullet that would finally get me the ease of ascension I saw in the careers of my male colleagues. When that failed, as it always did, I focused on being so good at the job that I couldn't be ignored (or so I thought). Overworking numbed the pain, and the dangling carrot of partnership kept me going.
So committed I was to this path that by the time I ran into Leonard at the elevator bank on that fateful Thursday night, I hadn't lost a case or a motion in three years.
And that particular night felt like a good night. My guard
was down. The case I'd team-tried on behalf of Leonard's client a couple of weeks before had resulted in total victory. A few days after that, I'd won a pivotal motion in a major case. And that very day, minutes before heading to the elevator bank, I'd learned a judge had dismissed a case against my client based on a brief I'd written.
As we waited for the elevator to arrive, Leonard turned to me and said, "So how are you doing today?"
The bell dinged the elevator's arrival. I smiled at him as we boarded.
"We won the motion in that 10(b)(5) case today. That's three wins in a week. Feels pretty good."
Leonard barely smiled, and said nothing. When the elevator reached the ground floor, we stepped off and said goodnight.
It could have been any other bit of small talk, on any other night, with any other lawyer.
It was not that-but something very different.
A few days later, I was called into the office of the managing partner for the litigation division. Leonard had reported something "deeply troubling" to the partnership in a meeting that morning, and the managing partner wanted to ask me about it. Flummoxed, I asked what he meant.
"You've been accused of taking credit for the work of others," the managing partner said, point blank.
The room tilted a bit and I remember the brief sense that everything was a pale shade of green. My head spun. I racked my memory for possible events that could have been misinterpreted to fit this description. None came to mind.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said as firmly as I could muster, my face getting hot. "And I would never do that. That's just not my style."
"That's surprising, because Leonard reported that you took credit for three victories in cases that other people worked on."
My stomach turned. "When does he think I did this?"
The managing partner stared at me from across the desk. "A few nights ago," he said, "in a conversation by the elevator bank."
My jaw dropped. He kept going.
"Elizabeth, I want to make something clear to you. This has raised a concern within the partnership as to whether you are too concerned with your own ambition, and perhaps don't understand your place within the department. Your work here is in service to the partners' clients, as a team player and at their discretion, not to benefit yourself or your own aims.
"I'm making a note of this for purposes of your annual review. We'll discuss how this event will impact your promotion potential at that time."
I was dumbstruck. I fumbled through a response about how I hadn't taken credit for anything-how I'd just remarked in passing that it felt good to be a part of three wins in a week, that it was just a passing conversation, small talk at the end of the night, and that I certainly would never discount the team effort on any case.
"That's not how Leonard reported it," he said. "Please consider what we've discussed and get back to work."
Six months later, the event at the elevator bank came up again in my promotion discussion, as well as in my salary and bonus review. I was offered a pittance of a bonus, and within a few weeks, the nearly all-male partnership committee decided that I just wasn't a good fit for the "team player mentality" required for promotion at the firm. (A coda: a male associate with six years less experience than I, a perpetually enormous ego, and a notorious reputation for inflating his billable hours got promoted in my stead.)
Where were the women, you may be wondering. In my department, there were two female equity partners. One was known for backing up the firm on everything, even policies that adversely impacted her own gender. She'd tell stories on panels about how exceptionally well treated she'd been during her maternity leave because she had performed, in her view, exceptionally, no matter how others complained that they were forced to work through their leave, and forced to work full-time hours thereafter even while being paid part-time. She had chaired the women's issues committee at the firm for a period of time. And whenever she was in the room, junior women held their tongues, afraid to discuss the truth of their experiences at the firm for fear that their tales of mistreatment would make their way to senior leadership, and then be held against them. The only other female equity partner was largely absent, both as an advocate and as a role model. She kept her head down, she did her work, and she didn't align herself with the concerns or needs of other women in the firm. In short, and in very typical ways that will be unpacked later on in this book, both were agents in preserving the status quo, rather than furthering change. I, like all the other younger women attorneys in the firm, was on my own.
Shortly after my bonus announcement and a few days before Christmas, I was advised that my career at the firm was likely over, though there was a nice severance package waiting for me as long as I agreed not to sue the firm for discrimination. I took the severance and walked away. I told only one person that I was pregnant by the time I left-the head of my department. In my exit interview, he thanked me for not raising that fact in my severance negotiations. Three days later, I learned that sometime during that last week at the firm, I'd had a silent miscarriage.
A lot has happened in the years since-growth, change, motherhood, newfound wisdom, and new work. But a residue remains from this series of events. What clings to me from those last, brutal days of full-time law practice, what hovers around me like an odor I can't entirely eliminate, is what I felt to be a total and complete powerlessness-that decisions were being made that would forever change the course of my life, simply because those with power decided that I did not, and should not, belong in their corridors.