Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.
I’m a lady who’s about to be applying to graduate school for directing (and I wish more people had that opportunity, but that’s neither here nor there). Essentially, I have to distill my heart, intellect, life goals, vision, and work ethic into three perfectly written pages. I find that I’m always erring on the humble side, and even the thought of writing something about myself makes me stare blankly at the screen, sigh heavily, and then turn on Netflix to drown my sorrows in Parks & Rec. How can I get inspired? Or overcome the societal expectation to be so incredibly humble that I can write something meaningful?
…also feel free to re-write this letter. Did I mention writing things stresses me out?
Your question is a twisted skein. It is not mine to slice through, but I can separate the fibers. First, strategy – one of my strengths. After all, a tiny army does not take over an empire without a great strategic mind. The great weakness of the Aksumites was their false assumption. Because their line stretched back to the childhood of Time, they assumed it would continue to Time’s senility. It blinded them to my approach. The Aksumite princes did not seek help until the land was already mine.
Your strategy is also based on a false assumption. You don’t need to write with meaning. The meaning your readers will assign to your words is entirely out of your control. You need to write with specificity. The allure of inchoate dreams is timeless and the words that evoke them are worn by use until they are smooth as stones in the great Nile’s bed. The siren song of dreams needs no further aria and those evaluating your application need no ode to their profession.
You have one asset to deploy: you. What, specifically, would you do in your field if you could lay out your path? Not what title do you seek; all infantry dreams of mounted command. What would you do with command? What experience prepared you for it? What do you need to learn to get there? You can deploy yourself strategically, building your argument brick by brick, but do not undermine what you have and what you are with words of doubt and humility.
You face the problem of female leaders. Women are expected to be kind, communal and gentle. In most of the lands of history, a woman who pursues her own path faces social censure. For a leader, though, the opinions of others are the clay from which we shape our work. We cannot, as the artist or the fighter would, pursue our own path and ignore the opinions of others. We must use them. Humility may be desired in a compliant wife, but a leader should not encourage others to doubt her.
The core of the army I took to the heart of the Aksumite Empire was made of those stripped of their harvest and left to starve. I built upon their hate, yes, but I also shared their hardships until I earned their love. Once seated in the chair of rule, I instilled fear in those whose love I could not win. In fire and fallen stone, I shaped the dissenters’ fear to silence.
The other fiber in this tangled skein is fear of the unknown. You find comfort in retreating to a story without stakes because you are setting your course towards an unknown horizon. Every night of our trek, I lay staring into a black sky strewn with white sand, wondering what mad spirit had infected me to challenge the Empire of Time. I would swear to turn back, only to face the morning’s realization that my only path lay ahead of me. You seek change because you are unhappy where you are. Nothing your next steps bring could be worse than brackish discontent.
One word more, before I return to my shadows and silence. However you move through your field, you will need to find and be an ally. Some women believe no one will recognize they are women if they keep themselves away from other women. This does not work, though without the reflection of another woman’s experience, ignorance gives them the illusion of a world uninflected by gender. You need to find women who will advance you and you need to advance other women when you can.
I arrived in Mazaber to find a capital in disarray, but the royal family could overwhelm my force if they worked together. Masoba-Warq, daughter to the missing king and sister to the competing heirs, met with me and decided I was the best choice for her people. Though she had no desire to leave domestic life, she convinced her husband and favorite kin to support me while she stoked the fire of her brothers’ ire towards each other. Find those who will support you and treasure them. The women you help advance will become your hidden army. It’s just good strategy.
There are as many stories about Gudit as there are storytellers. What we know from Ethiopia’s oral tradition, later Ethiopian chroniclers, and outside sources (the records of traders, the Alexandrian church and Arabic historians) is that in the late 900s AD, a woman established the Zagwe dynasty that ruled for the next three hundred years. There are stories that have her coming from the north, south or the king’s own family. Some stories say she is pagan, some Christian, some from Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community. What emerges from the overlap of the stories is a woman who seized control during a time of chaos, set up a lasting order, and inspired the stories of many generations.
This column and the roundtable were influenced by the following version of the story: Gudit, the granddaughter of late Emperor Weden As Färé, was married to Zenobis, a prince of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish nation. When the Emperor Degne-Zan lead an army of conquest East and never returned, Gudit took over by force and guile – as well as assistance from within the royal household.
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