When we launched the Official Future Female Leaders Book Club in April, we already had a few books in mind for the coming months. Keeping an eye on publishing calendars can be exhausting, but we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the new book by Senator Martha McSally, Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up. It’s self-help meets memoir as McSally teaches us life lessons in each chapter and infuses the book with examples from her own life, from losing her dad at a young age to serving in the Air Force to running for political office. 

Throughout, the reader not only feels inspired by McSally’s stories and lessons, but you feel like you’ve gotten to know the Senator and her warmth and confidence and drive. I sat down, virtually, with Senator McSally to talk about her book for the FFL Book Club and absolutely picked up on her tenacity and her exuberance in our conversation.

I first wanted to ask McSally about why she wrote a book now. She’s in her first term as a Senator and running in a special election this fall, but she previously served in the House before. As McSally pointed out, this isn’t a memoir. It’s something much better in that, because McSally isn’t trying to brag about herself, she’s trying to use her experiences to help others, and she said that was a driving factor behind writing the book–and it’s even more relevant in times of pandemic! We could all use a few lessons in never giving up right about now. 

“It’s been in my heart,” McSally told me,”and it’s been in the works for a long time. I just feel like I’ve had some unique experiences. Not everyone who reads it is going to fly a fighter jet or meet the Secretary of Defense, but I share through my experiences–which are hopefully inspiring and entertaining–that there are common elements as humans that we can all relate to. Overcoming fear, dealing with grief, overcoming adversity, finding your resilience.”

As you read Dare to Fly, you’ll see that each chapter has a “lesson” tied to it that McSally explores through her own experiences and thoughts. Some of these chapters include

  • “Make Someone Proud”

  • “Do The Next Right Thing”

  • “Trust Your Wingmen”

  • “Tap the Misery Database”

And more. I love a good theme throughout a book, and McSally expertly tied these chapters together as a whole but also let them stand on their own to teach lessons we can all come back to again and again. I asked McSally what were the hardest chapters to write, and which were the most fun. 

McSally, who lost her dad, talked about the pain in writing those chapters about him and what his loss meant to her, but even through that pain she was able to reconnect with his memory and the memories others had of him in meaningful ways. And for the fun chapters, she loved revisiting the pranks she and peers took part of and remembering the camaraderie she felt so often. 

“I learned more about my Dad through it all, and you know, that inspired me even more,” McSally said. “Going back and thinking about all the pranks we played when I was at the Air Force Academy and that whole journey, there was a lot of laughter.”

Another topic that McSally touches on in the book is gender based discrimination–what she experienced in the military and what many women experience in the civilian world as well. As young women, we can often feel stifled by sexist environments and afraid to speak up, but McSally had some great insight into why it’s so important that we do stand up against this discrimination. 

“Don’t walk by a problem,” she said. “I felt that conviction to step up, but I struggled with it. So my first encouragement is that if you see something that’s wrong and it bothers you, don’t walk by the problem, whatever that is. Then, what I learned throughout this journey, if you think something is wrong, figure out where it’s written down. Is it law or is it policy? Find it in writing. There’s a lot of folklore out there, especially in bureaucracy…The right thing to do is always the right thing to do. When you’re making decisions in the moment, what is the next right thing to do is always the guide for me.” 

On the topic of gender-based discrimination, I wanted to ask McSally about how, based on her own experiences and the experience of other women, we can reform the military reporting system both to help survivors feel comfortable making reports but also to hold perpetrators accountable. McSally had some unique insight, saying: 

“Within our military, and within civilian society, the best thing we can do is anything to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place. Especially within the military, it’s not just the 50 year old commander barking to the 20 year old, it’s what are the 20 year olds going to do on a Friday night in order to be good wingmen to each other to ensure that the risks stay low and that somebody isn’t being preyed upon, that they aren’t facilitators out there trying to set up a situation where a crime can occur,” McSally said. 

“When someone chooses to report it [assault], I fully believe the full responsibility needs to stay within the chain of command. There are some people that advocate it all needs to be taken away, and some outside entity needs to address these issues. It’s hard to explain to people who were never in the military, but when you’re a commander, and I’ve been a commander, you tell people to go put their lives on the line. You put them in a position where they may give their life for our freedom. And you can dictate where they go and how they go and when they go, and you can put them in jail, you could take away their paycheck. You have a responsibility that is unlike anything in civilian society, and you’re responsible for that we call good order and discipline of your unit. You’re responsible for the culture in your unit. You’re responsible for the honor in your unit. And so commanders need to be more responsible, not less responsible in order to prevent these things and, if reported, to ensure investigations, treatment, and justice, when these crimes happen. We still have a long way to go.”

I also wanted to ask McSally about how she thought her time in the Air Force shaped her life in Congress, especially since we’ve seen a surge in veterans running successfully for political office in recent years. 

“The only reason I am serving here now is because I had the core values of being a veteran–country before self,” McSally told me. “It’s part of our culture as veterans that if you’re complaining about something you better be willing to do something about it. That’s what propelled me to step up and run…this is a continuation of my service.” 

“I think my experience as a woman in the military and some of the challenges I had actually helped me. I had to, as a young woman in uniform, figure out how to grow thick skin for myself where I didn’t take everything so personally when I was dealing with unfair denigration and hostility. But I had to find that balance of having thick skin and not losing your humanity,” she said. “If I stayed up all night tossing and turning about what they said about me and then I got up the next day to go fly a training mission I would probably make mistakes on that, because I’m sleep deprived, because I’ve been focusing on what they said about me. And I know they’re not thinking of me at that moment in time.” 

Finally, I wanted to talk to McSally about her own reading, as we all read the words she has written. She admits she wasn’t a huge reader growing up except when it came to school competitions and getting homework done, but now, she reads a few books at a time–mostly non-fiction and leadership books. 

“Even with my crazy life and the intensity of my life, I had to read. It’s a part of what grounds me. I never thought I would be this way, but I am lately, I am in the middle of several books,” she said. “Right now I’m working through a book on gratitude.” 

Speaking of gratitude, we’re so grateful for Senator McSally for taking time out of her busy schedule to chat with us and we wish her luck in her special election this November.

Get your copy of Dare to Fly by Senator Martha McSally here.

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Aryssa D
FFL Cabinet Member