Monica Huckabay, who works at an emergency response company in Texas, stopped straightening her natural hair day after day. And she stopped letting bigoted comments slide at the office.
Rachel Zentner, a therapist in Wisconsin, started being more honest with the people in her life — about her own eating disorder, her alcoholism, her relationship problems.
The women don’t know each other, but they share something in common: The changes they made in their lives were inspired, at least in part, by Glennon Doyle, the former Christian parenting blogger turned feminist icon. They are part of the latest chapter of the Doyle story, the one where women who watched with fascination as she hit the eject button on her old life start questioning the confines of their own.
You remember Doyle’s story, right? Her viral blog posts about parenting young children and finding her place within Christianity were turned into a best-selling essay collection. Which was followed up by another bestseller about how she learned that her husband had been cheating on her and how they struggled to save the marriage. Which was published just as Doyle was separating from the aforementioned husband after falling madly in love with soccer legend Abby Wambach, to whom she is now married.
Doyle regrets none of it. She opened her most recent book, “Untamed,” with an essay about a conversation she imagines having with a cheetah named Tabitha she encounters at a zoo. “Something’s off about my life,” Doyle imagines the cheetah saying, lamenting her cage and fantasizing about “fence-less, wide-open savannas” — then chiding herself for doing so, saying: “I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist.”
“Tabitha, you are not crazy,” Doyle imagines herself responding. “You are a goddamn cheetah.”
Doyle thought the book was doomed when it published in March 2020, as the pandemic was changing people’s lives in all the wrong ways. As it turned out, a period of interminable lockdowns — which proved uniquely disruptive and burdensome for women — had plenty of people in the mood to imagine themselves as cheetahs accelerating across a distant plain. Doyle’s book sold more than 2 million copies. (Actress Sarah Paulson is slated to play Doyle in a television adaptation, which is being developed by J.J. Abrams’s production company.)
Then, in May 2021, Doyle launched a podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things,” featuring conversations with her sister, Amanda Doyle — a quick-witted former lawyer with two little kids and a degree in gender studies. “Since everyone has their own podcast, I felt, like, embarrassed to even entertain the idea of starting a podcast,” Glennon Doyle told The Washington Post in a Zoom interview from the home she and Wambach share outside of Los Angeles.
Still, she was eager to continue the conversations “Untamed” had started and was increasingly convinced that social media is a toxic, polarizing environment in which to do that. So she went ahead with it.
“Our hypothesis here is that we can make life for ourselves and you just a teeny smidge easier by talking about hard things,” Doyle said on a recent episode. She has talked about her own depression and alcoholism, her control issues, her eating disorder and her trouble forming close friendships. About her fury at patriarchal norms. About how enraged she is at the industrial complex that keeps women laser-focused and ever insecure about their physical appearance — and how, despite that awareness, she is still terrified to appear on television without makeup.
Wambach sat in as a guest for an early episode and then kept coming back, offering optimism and stories of her own struggles with addiction and self-acceptance. Together they talked about orgasms (real and fake), fun (or their lack of it), how to know when it’s time to quit something and the pressure of modern parenthood. In one episode Amanda Doyle unpacked a simmering resentment familiar to most moms who find themselves in a position of carrying an outsize share of domestic and emotional labor. Women responded in droves, most of them saying “same here.”
By the end of the year, “We Can Do Hard Things,” which is produced by Audacy’s Cadence13, had been named Apple’s most popular new podcast. It routinely shows up among the top 20 podcasts on the Apple charts.
“Where we live we have a little walking path, and women will be walking past us and they’ll go, ‘We’re listening to you right now.’ It’s just so unbelievable,” says Wambach, who has joined the podcast as a third host, to The Post. “I don’t think people even remember I played soccer.”
Fans have gotten together on text message chains and in WhatsApp communities and Facebook groups, where they compare photos of their cheetah tattoos and tell each other hard things about their own lives.
“I have so many life regrets,” one woman wrote to members of a Facebook group inspired by Doyle. “I did what ‘the Good girl’ should do, and didn’t think for myself. … I find myself almost 50, incredibly sorrowful for the life I never lived, yet terrified to make decisions for a future because I don’t even know who I am to myself.”
“Babies are a gift,” wrote another. “I am mad at myself for getting pregnant [and] I am mad for not wanting to be pregnant.”
“My skin crawls when he touches me, date night was SO awkward, and romantically/emotionally/physically, it’s just not there for me anymore,” wrote a third. “How do you know when to leave?!?”
Alyson Weaver, a 37-year-old who works in college administration, formed a “pod squad” of fellow Austin residents as devoted to Doyle’s podcast as she was. The goal was to replicate what the three podcast hosts seem to have with each other: “fellow human women discussing things you don’t feel comfortable talking to your own friends about, or even your own family.” Weaver’s pod squad, which meets twice a month, is now 14 members strong, including a handful of men.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” poet Muriel Rukeyser once asked in a poem. In the next line, she answered: “The world would split open.”
We know what happened when Glennon Doyle told the truth about her life. What happens as the women who follow her do the same?
“I struggle with people-pleasing and perfectionism and wanting to fit in,” says Monica Huckabay, the wavy-haired Texas woman.
She started listening to “We Can Do Hard Things” and was impressed by the bravery of the hosts. The 54-year-old started to feel a little braver herself. When a colleague said something hurtful or racist, she spoke up — something she never would have done in the past “because it makes them uncomfortable,” says Huckabay, who is Hispanic. “And women always try to make people feel comfortable, even at their own expense.”
Those colleagues don’t ask Huckabay to join them for lunch anymore, she says, but “it’s so worth it. I feel more myself than I ever have in my life.”
Abby Mercer, the 39-year-old Indiana nonprofit executive, came to Doyle’s work by way of “Untamed,” which she read on a plane when she was newly divorced.
“I was a different Abby before getting on the plane than I was getting off it,” she says. “It gave me permission to do what I want to do.”
She let go of friendships that “had substantially more withdrawals then deposits.” She stopped trying to fit into a conservative brand of Christianity that didn’t seem to want her. She decorated her house with rainbows and sometimes jokingly refers to herself as a “baby gay” or a “late bloomer.”
These days, Mercer listens to Doyle’s twice-weekly podcast religiously. “I can recall so many times on my commute home bawling my eyes out and screaming, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening,’ ” she says. “It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to talk about and no one ever talks about.”
This is, of course, the whole idea. “Sometimes the most idiosyncratic, personal and individual things turned out to be the thing that makes people take a deep breath and be like, ‘Oh, my God, yes. Why aren’t we talking about that?’ ” Amanda Doyle told The Post from a coffee shop near her home in Falls Church. “What is the thing that you’re actually thinking about as you’re going about your day? We’re saying all the things out loud that you feel like you’re not allowed to say.”
Rachel Zentner, the Wisconsin therapist, struggled with that, at first. The podcast cut too close to home. The hosts are always inviting listeners to call and email them, so Zentner left a few voice mails expressing her discomfort hearing them talk openly about subjects she had long kept hidden. “I felt a weird betrayal,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, you weren’t supposed to talk about the eating disorder stuff because that was going to be a secret for us forever.’ ”
Attempts to speak her own truth would often make Zentner’s body physically shake. But she’s trying, in conversations with her friends and clients and, especially, her daughters. She doesn’t want them to internalize the same message she did. “That I was supposed to make my body small,” she says. “I was supposed to make my opinions small.”
Because Doyle started out writing largely about parenting, she was pigeonholed for years as a “mommy blogger.” But Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, a sociology professor at Valencia College who studies gender and media, says Doyle has long since ascended to more rarefied heights.
“If we’re going to put her in the lineup of books that have changed women’s lives — Betty Friedan, Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem — she fits there,” Trier-Bieniek says. “But she’s learned from where their misses were. She’s figured out that you can’t tell your story without also talking about your flaws, or where you don’t know something, or where you’ve made your epic failures.” Doyle is conscious of her privilege as a cisgender White woman, for example, and “does a great job at saying ‘I have a seat at the table, and I’m going to bring up as many diverse voices as I can, and I’m going to let them speak, and I’m going to listen.’ ”
Trier-Bieniek thinks of Doyle’s podcast as akin to the sewing circles women held at the turn of the 20th century, where women who had gathered ostensibly to do their stitching would trade stories and scheme about getting the right to vote. Doyle’s gift is her ability to articulate women’s internal experiences. She and her co-hosts talk about menopause and self-care and knowing when it’s time to quit a job or a relationship, but Trier-Bieniek sees something deeper happening: “What she’s doing,” says the professor, “is saying, ‘Guess what? You don’t have to sit in that seat just because that’s where someone says you should go. You can step outside.’ ”
So, if an acutely personal conversation on the podcast about female sexual function leaves listeners fired up about science’s lack of attention to the matter, that’s very much by design.
“Truth-telling, for me, is always tied to making women feel less alone, making women understand there’s not anything wrong with them,” Doyle says.
“If 98 percent of the women just realize there’s nothing wrong with them and take a deep breath, that’s enough for me. But if a few of them are also like, ‘Wait a minute’ — and start to go to the polls and start to march, start to organize — that’s one of the end goals.”
Zentner, the therapist, is down for revolution. But for her the impact of Doyle’s work is more immediate, more intimate.
“These days,” she says, “I shake a little bit less. I get a little bit less sick when I tell the truth.”