• Our Words Matter

Dame Lesley Max gives us insight into what makes her a dangerous woman


March 8th is International Women's Day #IWD2020, a day we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, while also marking a call to action for accelerating gender equality. This year, after listening to Pat Mitchell's podcast "dangerous times call for dangerous woman" [click here to listen], Our Words Matter talked to a number of women who might call themselves 'dangerous' - women who embrace risk for the sake of advancing good, even if it's dangerous.



Each of us have our own way of describing what being a dangerous woman means. What does it mean to you?

I think a dangerous woman, in this context, is a woman who is serious about her commitment to her ideals, principles and purposes and will not be easily deflected or deterred.


In what way would you describe yourself as a dangerous woman?

I guess I’m a dangerous woman in the sense that I am indeed committed to certain ideals, principles and purposes and I am not easily deflected or deterred, though sometimes obstacles take much time and great energy to circumvent!



Pat Mitchell talks about dutifully following her own grandmother’s words: “Falling on your face is at least falling forwards.” What are the words you have always lived by and why?

My mother, who loved Shakespeare, would often speak the lines “To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Man in the sense of person, of course! But there are two statements of rabbinical wisdom, 2000 years old, that motivate me. One, from Rabbi Hillel: “If you are not for yourself, who will be for you? If you are for yourself alone, what are you? And if not now, when?” The other is from Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This last injunction keeps me both moving forward, yet understanding that there are limits to what I can achieve.



In her book, Pat talks about how as a global community of women, we are at an intersection where the risks are bigger but so are the opportunities to lead toward a more just world. What opportunities, and risks, do you see yourself taking that will lead to positive change for future generations?

The opportunities I have taken and will continue to take are those which make for a brighter future for children, young people and their families, especially those who are disadvantaged. I continue to look for ways that we can reach even more than the few thousand we reach every year, creating opportunity through education, mentoring and guidance. The risks? That we achieve less than we wish. That we are unable to reach more people with a philanthropic attitude, especially younger people. That we are unable to persuade governments to invest where we know positive change can be made.



The word ‘power’ takes on different dimensions depending on the lens you look through. Bella Abzug predicted that in the 21st century, women will change the nature of power rather than the power changing the nature of women. Ideally, how would you see women using and sharing their power and what impact do you see this having?

I think it is time for women to reconsider and reinvest in their most significant power of all, the power to help shape the characters, personalities and futures of their children. If this vital, elemental function is side-lined, gains in the boardrooms will be rather hollow. And here I take a risk, in expressing strongly held views that are not the flavour of the day. Dangerous.



We currently live in a very divisive and divided world. To mend our global community, we need innovative and creative solutions to challenging issues. What issue, or issues, concern you the most and what will it take to solve it.

Long interest in history, politics and human behaviour have led me to a conviction that some of the most truly dangerous (in the literal sense) men in the world have been raised in an atmosphere of brutality, usually from a brutal male in the role of father. This was the case with Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and countless other tyrants. The most essential task facing all of us, as women, as human beings, is the nurture of children so that they become responsible, empathetic individuals.


Dame Lesley Max is the co-founder and trustee of Great Potentials Foundation. She is patron of Family Help Trust, the National Council of Women, and Teach First NZ and was a founding supporter of the Brainwave Trust.

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