I’m lucky to be surrounded by successful women, including founders, CEOs, nonprofit and social impact leaders. When I started thinking about women I wanted to interview for my book, “Female Firebrands: Stories and Techniques to Ignite Change, Take Control, and Succeed in the Workplace,” I quickly jotted down 25 names before pausing to define what being a firebrand means to me. After deciding on 13 women to feature in the book, I created my own definition of firebrand; one that defined them, and the one that I aspire to myself.
The dictionary definition of a firebrand is “someone who kindles mischief or inflames passions.” The word drew me in because of its spark. Even if you don’t know the exact meaning, you can picture just the kind of woman it describes. Firebrands are successful in a way that goes far beyond professional or financial achievements. A female firebrand is an inspiring woman, who is mission-driven and cares about the future of all women and girls. Firebrands work and live with purpose. They’re fierce, vocal advocates for other women.
It’s an unfortunate reality that women have to deal with obstacles at work that most men don’t. This includes but is not limited to being interrupted, talked over, underpromoted, being held to higher standards, and being the target of “little indignities,” ranging from cat calls on the way to work to sexual harassment and assault. Each of the 13 firebrands had to overcome her own challenges. They all had at least one #MeToo story. These women and others I know have been plagued by intangible feedback. Comments like, you’re too:
This is feedback men don’t get, that women hear all the time. It’s not actionable and sets up double standards that are virtually impossible to navigate. Women are often told to be more aggressive and less assertive. What does that even mean? Men who are aggressive are seen as leaders, whereas women who are aggressive are seen as threatening. Despite all of this, firebrands show us how to be resilient, and are masters of creating their own future. Take Fran Dunaway, who founded TomboyX along with her wife, Naomi.
When I first spoke to Fran, she was walking her labradoodle Maggie, navigating other dogs and loud lawn mowers during the course of our call. As Fran tells it, she started TomboyX because she wanted a cool shirt. Since she couldn’t find what she was after, she designed her own. As the brand evolved, it became about making people feel comfortable in their own skin, regardless of gender, identity, body type, or sexual orientation.
Fran describes the ethos of TomboyX: “We think you’re cool the way you are, so own it. Be who you are unapologetically all day, every day. The TomboyX brand is on the pulse of a cultural change. It’s not a trend, it’s a new way of thinking and living and being in the world. A lot of that is around women’s empowerment, but also societal norms around gender.”
Fran is too persistent to suffer from impostor syndrome, but she’s dealt with her share of hurdles. She describes coming out as a lesbian at the age of 21. “I was delighted because I was like, ‘Oh! That’s what’s wrong with me. I mean, what’s right with me.’” While many people embraced her new found identity, it took some time for her family from the deep South to come around. Eventually they did, and today her mom is her biggest supporter.
In college, Fran was plagued by sexist professors. “I can think of two professors in college — one who chased me around his desk and another would grade my paper in red ink and put hearts and arrows through it.” Yuk. At a conference not long ago, Fran overheard an older man make a lewd comment about a young assistant. She reached out to the young woman asking if she was OK and if she needed support or wanted help making a complaint. Fran wasn’t going to let that kind of behavior go unnoticed, like it has for so long.
Fran believes that wealth is a promising path to power for women. “I think the real way to gender parity is women gaining more wealth, because that’s where the power is. I’m on board for generating wealth and then paying it forward and finding ways to help other women do the same.”
Is Fran too edgy, too authentic, too much? Or is she a female firebrand? I’ll let you be the judge.
Fran Dunaway was named to the 2020 Top Women in Retail list by the Women in Retail Leadership Circle (WIRLC) and its sister brand, Total Retail. Click here to download the free resource. WIRLC members can access the resource here.