The Most

Woman in the World


Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Journalist, best-selling author, Law & Order junkie

The Most

Woman in the World

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a journalist and the author of two best-selling books: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, about a young woman who ran her own business under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, which follows a unit of women in the U.S. army. She is a CNN contributor who has written about child brides for the Council on Foreign Relations, where she is a senior fellow. She also did a two-part series on child and forced marriage in the United States for the PBS NewsHour. Here, she shares lessons on toughness, rejection, and “getting it done.”

ON UPBRINGING: I grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland, raised by my mother, my godmother, and neighbors. It was this community of single moms in the same condominium complex. I was an only child, and my mom and her friends jokingly called themselves the “Mothers Club.” It was like one family. We would always be at each other’s houses or at the playground or barbecuing out in the courtyard.

Everybody I grew up with had at least one job. Most people had two. My mother worked at the phone company during the day, and a couple nights a week she sold Tupperware.

When so many people around you are working constantly and making it clear that education is the key to not having a life like theirs, it instills in you how hard it is to be poor. People who haven’t grown up that way don’t know how to say that comfortably, but it’s awful. I remember seeing my mom writing down numbers on the backs of envelopes, trying to figure out how she would make the math work. Everything was on an installment plan. I used to joke that we were the queens of the Marshall’s layaway window. From early on, I was very focused, and I knew that everyone was sacrificing so that I could have a life that was different.

My mom got sick and passed when I was 13, so I went to live with my grandmother. She was very hands-off. She’d been in the Women’s Army Corps, and then she’d landed in the film business completely by accident and stayed there for over 40 years. She had this very unapologetic world view, and her take on parenting was, “Get it done, and let me know if you need anything.” She was always herself—more so than anyone I've ever known—and she was an amazing inspiration to me. My grandmother was incredibly tough, and my mother was incredibly strong. I think those are different things.

When so many people around you are working constantly, it instills in you how hard it is to be poor. I remember seeing my mom writing down numbers on the backs of envelopes, trying to figure out how she would make the math work. 

ON CAREER BEGINNINGS: I wanted to study journalism because I remember watching Nightline at our condo in Greenbelt and thinking, “This looks like the best job anyone could have.” My mother was a news hound, so we always had C-SPAN on, and she watched news on a loop on Sunday mornings. I had the sense that connecting people to the wider world, and telling stories that removed the differences between people, was a noble thing to do. When I got out of school, there were no jobs. I sent out probably 400 resumes and cover letters, agonizing. Not a single bite. I had an internship lined up and they called and said, “We unionized over the summer; we can’t hire you.” Finally, my father’s ex-girlfriend’s friend had a fiancé at the time who was working at a production company, and they were kind enough to give me a job.

ON THINKING BIGGER: I was a kid who hadn’t really traveled or seen much of the world. Then a friend told me about the Fulbright scholarship, and I decided to apply. Another friend said to me, “That’s not for people like us. That’s for fancy people who go to Princeton and Yale.” I said, “The worst they can do is tell me no.” When I got the Fulbright letter, I felt like it was a window into a whole different world. But from a personal standpoint, it was a difficult decision, because my grandmother was very sick. At the same time, I was also working at ABC, and was on track to cover the presidential campaign and be an off-air reporter, which was my dream. So I went to my grandmother and said, “First of all, I finally got my dream job, and second of all, you’re sick. I can’t leave.” My grandmother, who was still smoking despite her cancer, looked at me between drags and said, “First of all, no one turns down a Fulbright. And second of all, McDonald’s is always hiring. I’m done with this conversation; this is boring.” So I went.

ON BEING UNCOMFORTABLE: Applying to business school was challenging. I was working all the time, and then I would come back home and study all night. I’d sit on my couch from 7:00-11:30 p.m. with a big pack of cotton candy bubble gum, doing GMAT problems. Then, after I got in, I had no idea what people were talking about for the first six months I was there. People were using nouns that were verbs and verbs that were nouns. I called a friend and said, “I just made the biggest professional mistake of my life.” But if you want an interesting career and to do different things, you have to have a ton of uncomfortable experiences.

Talk about terrified—my second TED talk (on Ashley's War) was probably the most nervous I have ever been. The night before, I was pacing in my hotel room, telling myself, “You are not going to choke. All the people you grew up with did not sacrifice for you to be choking in a hotel room at 9:59PM. You better get it together.” I was still nervous that morning, and then, right before I spoke, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda were on. They were so nervous, I think they were drinking hard liquor. All of a sudden I wasn’t nervous because I thought, “Those two are so incredibly brilliant, and if these veteran public figures are nervous, then it’s okay for me to be nervous.” Then I was fine.

I was pacing in my hotel room, telling myself, 'You are not going to choke. All the people you grew up with did not sacrifice for you to be choking in a hotel room at 9:59PM. You better get it together.'

 

ON HEARING “NO”: It’s a complete myth that people have these brilliant careers without any missteps. To me, being unstoppable means that of course you’ll have setbacks and failures; it’s whether you let them get to you that matters. It all comes back to the people who raised me. I never expected things to be easy, and I never expect the first time to work or be 100% smooth sailing. It’s much more important that you believe in something. Then you just have to convince the rest of the world. You only need one yes.

When I was trying to sell my book The Dressmaker, I got this email from a very big literary agent who said, “I’ve read what you sent me. You’ve made a career of exceeding expectations and defying odds, but I really don’t see anything here that suggests a book. Anything at all.” It was devastating. I still have the email. One day I’ll frame it. I allowed myself one night of feeling sad about it and watched Law and Order.

I woke up the next day and went about the work of finding another agent. I realized the universe works the way it’s supposed to, because I love the agent I have now. You can let yourself have a moment of feeling like a failure and then you get back up.

ON FINDING STORIES: I tell stories that I feel I’m uniquely positioned to tell. If anybody could tell it, it would not be as interesting. Many of my best stories took years of getting access to people and gaining their trust. In some ways, I feel like I had the privilege of being chosen. The Dressmaker was a book about a girl whose business supported her family under the Taliban. So many times we see stories of women as victims, and here were young women who took care of themselves at a time when the whole world had forgotten about them. It was the same when I worked on the PBS NewsHour series about forced and child marriage in America. No one thinks child marriage happens in America—I didn’t. Everyone says, “It’s so awful that this is happening in South Asia.” Well, it’s also happening in the South Bronx. It’s happening in southern California. So you feel this urgency to help share that story. You just think, “People have to know this.”

I really do feel like a happy warrior most days. I love the work I get to do. Of course, there are moments of enormous frustration. Look at the numbers. A story with one or more female characters in it becomes a "women’s story." A story with no women in it is just a story. We continue to see half the population as a special interest group, and it’s not. It’s preposterous.

ON AN AVERAGE DAY: My day probably has 23 parts in it. In some ways, that’s not much different from the women I grew up with; my mom’s day started at 5:00AM when she would get me ready for daycare and try to get herself to work on time. Then she’d work all day, go pick me up from daycare, and try to take night classes to finish her degree. Many women’s days have 12 chapters in them, and mine is no different—it just involves more airplanes, privilege, and a ton of support.

There are moments of enormous frustration. Look at the numbers. A story with one or more female characters in it becomes a 'women’s story.' A story with no women in it is just a story.


I tell stories that I feel I’m uniquely positioned to tell. If anybody could tell it, it would not be as interesting.


Share this post. We dare you.


Want to meet other Remarkable Women?

Read More

Hi there! Anything we can help with?