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How a Woman I’ve Never Met Helps Me When I’m Down

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tressful doesn’t even begin to describe the past month of my life. I was overwhelmed by seemingly unfixable problems, comparing my trials to others’ successes and withdrawing from life and loved ones in response. All of it was beginning to affect my work as a freelancer — work I once loved. To persevere through the thick of it — the absolute worst parts — I relied on my favorite coping mechanism: living by proxy. When I’m stressed or going through a bout of depression, I strap on an imaginary vest filled with the qualities of women I admire and use it as the vehicle I need to carry me through the day. I draw strength from the excellence of Black women past and present. Gloria Richardson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Erica Garner, Beyoncé…the list I refer to is long, but my go-to is Florynce Kennedy.

Kennedy was a radical Black feminist who fought for intersectional feminism, civil rights and a woman’s right to choose. Her accomplishments are endless. She was a lawyer and one of the first Black women to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1951. In 1969, she organized an attorneys’ rally that laid the groundwork for legalized abortion in New York state.

She was one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women, and in 1971, she left it to found the Feminist Party, a faction of the Democratic Party that would later nominate Rep. Shirley Chisholm for the U.S. presidency in 1972. (Chisholm became the first Black woman to run for president and the first Black candidate to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.) Florynce also defended 21 Black Panthers accused of conspiracy in 1969; in 1971, they were acquitted.

Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

When I live with Florynce Kennedy in mind, I run through her accomplishments and try to channel the kind of persistence she must have needed to confidently stand in her purpose. As I lace up my shoes for the day, I think about Gloria Steinem’s description of Kennedy’s pace: “energetic, nonstop, and generous-hearted.” I consider Kennedy’s signature cowboy hat and the middle finger she so often accessorized it with. “Sweetie, if you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up space,” as she often said, is a quote I repeat to myself on the days I need the push to live as dynamically as Florynce did.

Florynce Kennedy was a Black woman who was audaciously self-assured and embraced the challenge of progress instead of kowtowing to the demands of the culture. A prime example of her unapologetic confidence (a confidence I’m still learning at 25) is her interview on her own talk show, The Florynce Kennedy Show, in February 1985. In the interview, Florynce raves about the quantity of love she holds for herself while acknowledging both her physical and emotional flaws. She states: “I am absolutely my favorite person. And I think if narcissism lives, it lives it me. I really, really think I’m great.”

With her unparalleled air of confidence in tow, she used her voice, law degree and flair to ease the burden for women everywhere — which brings me to my final point: “Living by proxy” is not about becoming perfect or magically erasing my problems. It’s about using the blueprint left behind by my proxy to make the adversity bearable; it’s about stockpiling my proxy’s idiosyncrasies into a war chest that will get me through the bleak times. Kennedy’s commitment to authenticity, for instance, makes shrinking myself less possible; her being labeled “radicalism’s rudest mouth” by People in 1975 inspires me to speak truth to power and makes my voice perceptible. When I live with Florynce “Flo” Kennedy in mind, I become my own “narcissist” in a metaphorical cowboy hat and pink shades. I channel her confidence, fearlessness and sense of self, and, as if by magic, I feel emboldened.

Florynce Kennedy as my frequent proxy helps me to shed the weight of other people’s judgment, to live for myself. Her tenacity is exactly what I hope to carry through my own life. The actions she took and the beliefs she fought for inspire me to take action, no matter how small. Each time I channel Florynce Kennedy, I’m preparing myself to leave the world a little better than I found it.

Who do you channel when you need a push?

Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

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