Women of achievement walk through thorn patches

MEMPHIS – When Fawn Germer’s publisher decided – after Sept. 11 – to scratch all scheduled book tours, the brand-new author simply got in her car and created her own tour.

After all, Fawn’s book was about women overcoming challenges, most of them more daunting than driving cross-country to hawk a good read. Fawn’s book, “Hard Won Wisdom,” includes interviews with powerful women from Linda Chavez-Thompson to Jocelyn Elders to Jane Goodall, more than 50 females who have at least one thing in common. They certainly didn’t scramble out of beds of roses to reach their current lofty positions.

I caught up with Fawn in Memphis She had finished a book signing and a TV interview and just had time for lunch before pointing her car toward Atlanta. She looked perfect and professional but related how the automatic faucet in the service-station restroom had given her an unintended shower before the TV appointment.

It was OK. One thing she’s learned while interviewing female presidents and Nobel Prize winners, actresses and athletes: Perfection’s not necessary. “People like people who bite their nails,” she says.

A seasoned investigative reporter, Fawn has fought her own corporate battles in newsrooms. She once searched for a book that would tell her the secret to survival and provide female mentors. To use an overused phrase, a network. She found books offering advice on what to wear – never red or purple, no open-toed shoes – and how to talk and act. But none of them addressed the fundamental question many women ask themselves daily: Is it me who is crazy or everyone else?

Women with big names and long stories talked to her. White House reporter Helen Thomas kept on talking until 2 a.m. Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) bared her soul to Fawn and then said: “I feel like I just got out of therapy.”

Along the way Fawn learned that Cokie Roberts thinks she has “crummy hair.” And that comedian Margaret Cho bottomed out after her sitcom failed. Sarah Weddington, the attorney who won the landmark Roe v. Wade, related a story an emergency-room nurse once told her: “Women will be brought into the emergency room having been in an accident or shot or whatever, and they’ll say, I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to shave my legs this morning.”’

Always apologizing. That’s a female trait. Gaining self-esteem seemed to be the first rung in every successful woman’s ladder. All Fawn’s subjects approached the dilemma differently. Margaret Cho’s deliverance came as an epiphany: “One day, I wondered what I would think if I was somebody at one of my shows watching me perform. I started to realize that, if I wasn’t me, I would like me.”

Fawn addresses failure, both how to avoid it and how to accept it. She interviewed Shannon Faulkner, first woman cadet at the Citadel who bailed out after six days. The conclusion from that story: Failure is hardly the horror we expect.

Fawn’s reporting for the book reminded me of lyrics from the old Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want; you get what you need.”

She tried to interview Sally Ride and got nowhere. Instead, she ended up talking to Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, whose insights contributed mightily to the book: “All the big deal about being the first American woman to walk in space was nice, but my first space walk would have been my first space walk, regardless of how many women had done it before me. … Do what feels right and look for the flash.”

Fawn has done the hard work of reporting, and now all that the rest of us have to do is read the book. It’s like having a Rolodex full of accomplished women at our fingertips. They talk to us in personal terms about perspective, self-loathing, the jealousy of other women, playing with the Old Boys’ Club and criticism.

If I have any criticism of this book, it’s that it ended. Fawn fixes that.

“I’m working on a sequel,” she says, sprinting off to Atlanta for the rest of her self-styled book tour.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s regional mailing address is Rural Route 5, Iuka, MS. 38852.

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