I had the tremendous pleasure of attending the 2017 National Women’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Seneca Falls, New York. While I anticipated crossing paths with at least a few women of influence, I was not expecting to come face to face with someone as noteworthy as Gloria Steinem.
After the ceremony, she was swarmed by women just as eager as I was to seize the opportunity to meet her and thank her and request an autograph or photo with her, and she graciously made time for every single one. When it was finally my turn, I was so stricken with awe and gratitude that I could hardly utter a word (something that rarely happens to this long-time communication professor).
There were several periods in my life when I hated that I was born female. In my early teens, once I recognized that my darker features, prematurely curvaceous figure, and broad shoulders did not seem to meet the soft, petite standards of beauty that society had upheld for me and that most of my friends so clearly embodied, I began a dangerous segue into years of compulsive dieting and disordered eating. In my late teens, although I had not yet fully grasped the meaning of the word “objectification,” I felt an inexplicable discomfort when boys and men would comment about (or worse, grab at) my body. By my mid-20s, having studied feminism and cosmopolitanism in college, I finally had a framework by which I could understand the infuriating harassment and manipulation that surrounded me virtually everywhere I went.
As I stood in that crowd, waiting for my few seconds the role model I’d read about and taught some of my college students about — this leader who’d given me such hope that my experience as a woman could one day be different — I came to two overwhelming realizations.
First, I no longer feel the way I once felt. I’m not angry for being who I am or going through what I’ve had to go through. I’m not afraid of being seen. There is still much to be done in the realm of social change, but I’m committed to doing what I can from a place of courage and compassion rather than fear or burden. I want to build bridges, not a wall around myself.
Second, I saw my purpose with unmistakable clarity, having dissolved the lingering shadows about not being (insert any adjective here) enough to support other women. Most of the honorees on that stage did not come from famous, wealthy, or otherwise elevated backgrounds. They weren’t seeking recognition. They were “ordinary,” down-to-earth women who saw a void and stepped in to fill it.
So if I could go back and reclaim that moment, I would have said this:
It is an HONOR to stand in the presence of someone I so deeply admire. Your legacy has played an integral role in helping me heal and grow stronger as a woman, as a human being. I want to thank you for standing up to oppression and harsh criticism to make the road a little easier for my generation, and for consistently modeling what true self-acceptance looks like.
I overheard her tell several others before me that their gravitas was unnecessary, that she was just another person. If only those who rail against her (or anyone who dares to challenge the status quo so loudly) could remember the same thing. No one has all the answers. It’s the questions they’re raising that hold the power.
Jill Ennis, M.S., is a teacher and transformational coach on a mission to support smart, talented women who are tired of feeling blasé about their lives to harness their inner brilliance and move joyfully toward their goals.
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