At a recent Minnesota Farmers Union Women’s Conference, guest speaker Karen Clark asked each woman to name how she leads. Some spoke about being behind the scenes, others about collaboration and listening. When it was my turn, I said, “To be a woman leader, you have to be a badass. It is also good to have diplomacy skills, though I was born without the diplomacy gene.”
The next day, at a monthly women’s circle in southern Minnesota, I spoke about an epiphany I had that morning. My realization was that I wasn’t so much a leader, but the person in front of the leader: a bulldozer.
One of my colleagues gleefully added “trailblazer” to my description. But that didn’t feel quite right. The idea of a trailblazer, for me, has sparkle, swiftness, fire — maybe a machete or two — and an idea of where one is blazing the trail to.
The difference between that and a bulldozer is the sheer physicality of it: strength of will, determination, willingness to be out front, clearing, speaking truths others do not dare, shielding, sledging the earth, pushing boulders and boundaries aside, making roads slowly, monotonously, grindingly.
Bulldozers are extremely important. Yet we are not impenetrable, indestructible, or infallible. We are human. We pave a way for others to be their best selves, and are often the ones taking hits. We need to be supported physically, spiritually, economically and, especially, emotionally.
We’ve all seen it. Maybe even done it. Walked away from the bulldozers as they are destroying, making mistakes and enemies, while laying out bare hard truths. Destruction, however, is often what enables something new and beautiful to grow.
We have many women who push against patriarchy, fight for change, and speak their truth. They all need our support, protection, and encouragement as they break down barriers, prejudices, and oppression.
How does one become a bulldozer? In my case, I think it was an independent spirit, stubbornness, and sense of adventure. My mother told me that when I was two, as the rest of the family was painting the barn on our new farm, I walked up the winding quarter-mile-long driveway and across the road to my neighbors. This was the first of many adventures I would have, including a one-way ticket to Europe, the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995, and living in Cuba.
I think being a bulldozer is also about the ability to push on boundaries and expectations. At age 10, I decided to play the drums. A small thing, but it was 1972 and we lived in central South Dakota. Perhaps I wanted to play drums because my oldest brother did, or more likely it was because I was driven to do something girls didn’t normally do. I’ve been banging a drum in some way ever since.
On our farm, gender roles were sometimes blurred, sometimes non-existent, sometimes oppressive. We all hauled bales, pitched hay, cleaned the hog barn, and picked rock. The women also did the laundry, cooked, gardened, and butchered chickens.
Our farm was amidst the beautiful, stark, open, wind- swept prairie. It is a landscape that forces exposed inhabitants to turn vulnerability into strength. A daily confrontation with weather, perpetual wind, prices, accidents, life/death, or any myriad happenstance can be a rough reality. Facing that reality creates people who are brutally honest.
Rural life can be like that. There is no place to hide. It also can be somewhat of a romanticized bubble. It is easy to get lost in the minutia of small-town living — the things that teach rural people how to be a community.
It is where one learns what it means to be a neighbor, to close ranks, to build a wall — and to come to the aid, feed, and in other ways be a community. One of the women in a film I made spoke about urbanites moving to the Black Hills area. She said, “We need to give them ‘leaning-up-against- the-truck-and-talking’ lessons.”
A bulldozer is more conspicuous on a country road than in the middle of a traffic jam. My bulldozing is aimed at climate change, white supremacy, patriarchy, racism, sexism, and indifference.
Someone once told me that research shows the people most likely to be fierce supporters and activists are women from lower incomes, women of color, and rural women.
It is imperative to learn from rural communities, immigrants, communities of color, and others who have fought oppression. We must build supportive structures around bulldozers — a wall that doesn’t separate us, but holds us.
How do we do that? Ask a bulldozer what she needs.
Teresa Konechne makes art, film, rituals, and trouble. Learn more at workinghandsproductions.com