The Importance of Inspiring Young Women
By Betsy Macdonnell ’18 (reprinted from Just Another People Person)
The first time sexism revealed itself in my life, I was six years old. In Kindergarden, it was playground tradition for the boys to play kickball at lunch. From a young age, I was rather confident, and I didn’t think twice about joining the game. I stepped into the line to play when one of my male classmates turned to me and said, “you can’t play kickball, you’re a girl.” At the time I was shocked, and annoyed, but mostly because I just wanted to play with the boys. With the help of my female classmates, I eventually convinced the boys to let me join.
Flash forward 11 years. Although feminism was still a strong belief of mine, it had been a while since I had been able to act on that belief. I was frustrated. I wanted to make a difference. It was in the spring of my Grade 11 year that these wishes were granted. I was approached by one of my teacher’s about the opportunity to attend the inaugural “Trailblazers & Pathmakers—Women’s Empowerment Conference” at the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite in Toronto. I was immediately hooked. This would finally be my chance to make a difference. The conference was an amazing experience. I came away from it more inspired than ever, but I still wasn’t sure how I was going to make a difference. I had all these ideas swimming around in my head, but I had no idea how to turn them into a reality.
It was two weeks later when the same teacher approached me to tell me that we would be hosting the second “Trailblazers & Pathmakers” conference at my school during the fall of my grade 12 year. He asked me if I would be willing to help plan the event. Naturally I said yes, and for the past six months, I have spent most of my free time planning this conference. From centre pieces to programs, we planned it all. It was a long process, but the day finally came. This past Tuesday, we finally hosted the conference.
The morning of the conference, my alarm went off early. Too early. I dragged my jittery body out of bed and got to work making myself presentable. As I left my house I couldn’t help but admire how peaceful the morning was. I took a moment to acknowledge how excited I was feeling, but also how nervous I was.
Running an event is similar to planning a wedding. As the event planner, you notice every tiny detail, every little slip up. As over 100 hundred women, from 11 different high schools filed into our decorated gym, I was hypersensitive to the flow of the day. I watched as young women and adult women alike transitioned into their seats. I couldn’t believe the event was finally coming together.
The morning started with drumming by two indigenous women from Curve Lake, a nearby First Nation. The drumming set the tone for the morning, honouring both the land we stood on and the women that came before us. As the morning panels were coming to a start, I found myself getting increasingly anxious. I had volunteered to co-moderate the second round of panels, a job I had no experience in. Although I knew the program inside and out, I had my doubts about my own abilities. The first round of panelist spoke about three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, Good Health and Well-being and Quality Education. The two panelists speaking for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions reminded us that we are never too young to make a change and that we need to put the “act” in activism. The panelists speaking for Good Health and Well-being drew the audience’s attention to how women can hurt other women’s mental health. One of the strongest points, however, was brought up by panelist Ariel O’Neill, when she explained to the audience that the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for “uterus,” and that male doctors are often less likely to treat women as they view them to be hysterical. I looked around the crowded gym at this moment and saw the eyes of the women around me. They were engaged. They cared. I watched as they began to scribble down notes, facts and ideas from the presentation. I watched as young women became inspired.
LCS Dancers perform Rise Up by Andra Day
Following a short break, and a stunning dance performance, it was time for the second round of panels. These panelists were speaking about three different United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Responsible Consumption and Production, No Poverty and Gender Equality. I would be announcing each of these panelists and making sure that their speeches stayed timely. As I stepped up to the podium to make my first introduction, all of the nerves slipped away. The eyes of the women before me weren’t judgemental, instead they were curious and friendly. It’s hard to be nervous when your audience is so receptive. It was halfway through the panels that I noticed one of my panelists was not sitting at the front where the other speakers were sitting. I scanned the audience in desperation and quickly found her in the audience. At this time the official moderator of the event, Betsy McGregor, slipped me a note reading, “You learn so much on this job.” I couldn’t help but giggle over this insignificant hiccup.
Rounding out the morning of speakers were both our eldest and our youngest panelist, at ages 80 and 16. Both of these women are people I admire greatly, and it was with pride I was able to introduce them. Our eldest panelist, Rosemary Ganley, is a firecracker of a lady, with an exceptional legacy. On a more personal note, she taught my father in grade nine English, a connection that immediately made me feel close to her. Rosemary gave an impassioned speech on how important it was to get out and make your voice heard. As she introduced our youngest panelist, Kaia Douglas, she was overcome with emotion. To see how passionate Rosemary is about these issues makes me want to get involved further. Kaia finished the morning by speaking about the importance of listening to the opinions of young people, especially young women. She reminded us that we are all capable of making a change, no matter our age or gender.
After lunch, we were tasked with presenting our ideas school by school to the Lieutenant Governor through a Skype call. Sitting in the Chapel, I watched as all 11 schools shared what they had learned, and what initiatives they hoped to bring back to their school. Each group shared something different, whether it be a fact, an idea, or a perspective. For me, this was one of the highlights of the morning. I realized listening to these girls that this conference had truly made a difference. When the girls from Lakefield went up and presented, I was overwhelmed with pride. These young women had grown over the course of the morning. The had gone from students to activists. They had been inspired.
The morning came to a close with the two women from Curve Lake once again drumming. This time, we all held hands. All 110 women followed as the drummer spiraled through the centre of the gym. As the drumming ended we ended up in a large circle. We smiled and we were silent as we took in this moment where we could be connected for one last time. When the drumming stopped, we were instructed to run to the centre of the circle. The silence broke as we all ran in, laughing and screaming. 110 women who were empowered and inspired. I watched as new friends hugged, and colleagues praised one another. I finally was overcome with emotion and burst into tears. I had finally made a difference.
In the few days since the conference, it’s been hard to figure out how to express such an event in words. There was an aura in that room that is indescribable. It was like watching someone grow up before your eyes. As I was breaking down the gym where the conference was held, I was told by a staff member that I was glowing. As evident as it was on the outside, the event rekindled a fire within me. I was reminded that I am never too young to make a change.
A special thank you to Simon Spivey for all of the pictures!