Women of Distinction

Some of the student organizers and the “Women of Distinction” honorees.

Recently, I was honored to receive recognition from the amazing organization American Association of University Women, NASPA and NCCWSL with a “Women of Distinction” award. There were six of honorees, and we all gathered in Washington, DC. The honorees were: Michelle Martin, of NPR, Maggie Williams, former chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, Allison Cohen, President of Alta Bicycle Share, Noorjahan Akbar, Co-Founder, Young Women for Change and Sandra Fluke, Women’s Health Care Advocate. It was so great to realize that people of all ages enjoy one’s work, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting  the students. I also had great fun meeting and chatting with the other honorees. A particular thrill for me was to have dinner with Lilly Ledbetter, who was their key-note speaker for the next day.  Below is the transcript of my remarks after I was warmly introduced by Standford University Student Ellen Thuy Le.

“Thank you so much for this—it is quite an honor to receive, and to be in the company of such wonderful, amazing women.
Normally when I give a talk, I use cartoons—I love making people laugh, and the best way I know how to do that is with my drawings. However, for now, I will have to cope without my cartoon support system.  However, I do want to talk about something that I have drawn about. It’s something that is not particularly visible, and it’s not something you can put on my resume.
A resume is not something cartoonists use very often, but I have one. Writing your first one is tough, I remember. Do I put the Yurt-building experience from college on there? Grilling burgers at the café?  Getting into The New Yorker, publishing books—these were all hurdles and were challenging.  But the one hurdle that was perhaps the most difficult and not as visible, is one I

Honorees: Michelle Martin, myself, Noorjahan Akbar, Allison Cohen, Maggie Williams (not in photo, Sandra Fluke)

think many of you may understand and recognize as something you feel you want to overcome.
Fear. Not the classic fear of failure–I’m talking about a type of fear that is more

Some of the wonderful students who wanted to have a photo with me. I am so honored!

typical of women.  Fear of being wrong.  I used to call it being shy, but that’s a vague word and an easy out.
It’s being afraid of not following the rules, doing the right thing, not offending anyone, making nice, being sweet, thoughtful. Of course those are all important things to be at times. But sometimes, as women, we take it too far.  The other day, I was thinking about what to talk to you about and I remembered something in my childhood that I thought illustrates what I’m saying. It is a family anecdote that has been around for decades.  My sister, who is two years older than me, was something of a rebel. And to describe this, my parents always said that when she took piano lessons at an early age, it didn’t work because she got into an argument with the teacher about where middle c was.
Okay, we all know that on a piano, there is a definitive middle c key. It’s true that it is not really arguable.  However, the notion that my sister would even argue with a teacher was outrageous to everyone. And I picked up on that as a little girl. Don’t challenge authority, it gets you into trouble—because my sister did get in a lot of trouble for a lot of things. She was difficult, she was branded as so, and some of that label was definitely justified.  As I look back on this, as difficult as she was for everyone around her, I admire her spunk. Back then,  little girls were not supposed to have spunk, we were supposed to be agreeable. I think some of this is still true.

Some of the wonderful students who wanted to have a photo taken with me. I am so honored!

This is one reason why more women aren’t humorists. In order to do comedy, you have to take  chances and have confidence. Any fear in there, and it’s ruined. I went into cartooning because I loved to make people laugh. But I did not want to do it in person. It was too scary. I turned to drawing humor.
Humor relies on the rules of a culture. It takes what we know and twists it, takes what we know and creates the unexpected. That’s why we laugh. Like arguing about middle c—it’s funny, its outrageous, it’s unexpected –particularly from a girl.  That’s why I think

My student escort for the evening, Ellen Thuy Le, who gave me a warm and funny introduction at the ceremony

that if we use humor, it will have great impact.  We can use humor to challenge the rules….and ultimately change them.
And it’s important to not only laugh at the stupid things in our culture, but to laugh at ourselves. It is one of the great ways to grow. Laugh at your mistakes and then go make more.  I made plenty of mistakes that never saw the light of day—I took risks on paper, in the solitude of my studio (some of them my editor saw, and he must think I’m crazy).  What I regret is that at an early age, I did not take risks in public. I urge you to do so, and don’t wait until you are 40, like I did. Take the risks now, and believe in yourself as you take those risks.  Find your inner spunk.

So I have some rules for you to follow:
1. don’t follow rules, except these.
2. don’t give up.
3. find and listen to your voice.
4. speak up. Use the voice that you have found.

Me with the amazing activist, Lilly Ledbetter

When I was your age, I wanted to change the world. As it turns out,  I didn’t. But what I discovered is that if you hold onto that feeling, and take it one step at a time, eventually, you just might.”



About Liza Donnelly

Cartoonist and writer and live drawer for The New Yorker, CBS News. Speaker for TED and others. Books: Women On Men, http://www.narrativemagazine.com/store/book/women-men
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2 Responses to Women of Distinction

  1. Rob Husberg says:

    Okay, Liza — you are among friends here, so you can admit it — you have been cloned, right? There is no other way to explain how you can do all that you do, and still manage to find time to draw. At least I finally figured it out. (Very good talk, by the way!)

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