March is Women’s History Month, a time when all the women in our lives deserve to be celebrated and recognized. After years of oppression and societal pressure to be the perfect homemaker and wife, there have been billions of women who have defied social norms and changed the world. Despite the difficult times we are enduring right now, this is no better time to lift them up and encourage the next female generation of leaders.
Some of the most influential women in each of our lives come from very close to home: our female teachers. It is important to recognize that each of them has a story to tell, fears and passions and experiences that shaped them and brought them to where they are today. It is easy to see a person on the surface, but it is better to dig deeper.
I spoke with several of the female teachers at Ludlow High School to understand their individual lives better and share their wisdom. Girls grow up set on a different path than boys right off the bat; they are encouraged to play different sports, pursue different careers, and reactions to the same actions and personality traits will differ depending on gender. History teacher Leah Cook has experienced these double standards and spoke out against them.
“The most adversity I face is due to my strong personality,” Cook said. “That can come off as being too overbearing, or being bossy, whereas if it were a male teacher it would be being knowledgeable, right, and knowing your stuff.”
Cook added that these sentiments and unfair comparisons are not limited to a single profession: “I think female politicians especially also have to deal with that type of adversity. We’re constantly looked at in a different light just because we’re females.”
Another significant issue women face every day is the hyper-sexualization of their bodies and behavior. The obligation to hold a certain weight, the limbo where women must wear just enough makeup to not appear “lazy,” but not too much; then they’re seen as “trying too hard.” Women are shamed for loving their bodies and wanting to showcase it on their own terms, yet millions of lewd magazines are sold with the exact same type of pictures, for the benefit of the male gaze.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 1 in 6 American women have been sexually assaulted or raped. 82% of all juvenile victims are female, and 90% of adult rape victims are female. Countless numbers of rapists and sexual abusers walk free due to the discrediting of women. They are asked what they were wearing, what they had been drinking, and use the answers as leverage to let horrible people get away scot-free. Ludlow High School’s librarian, Jamison Hedin, was willing to share her personal experiences with me.
“I have definitely had sexual harassment situations at different points in my life, like one was in high school, from a teacher,” said Hedin. “And the kind of day-to-day street harassment that women get, like getting cat-called and getting groped on public transportation, has been more of my experiences.”
These intense scenarios are often discussed between women as common occurrences and regular events in daily life, but they should not be acknowledged and then disregarded. The voices of victims should be raised high, to ward off abusers and protect young girls from facing the same thing. The generation of young women growing up now deserve role models who are put on the same pedestals as men, and are not afraid to speak out for fear of being attacked or subdued.
I finally asked these women what advice they would give to the next generation of girls who must face the same set of challenges. The only difference is that every year, women become more and more empowered to use their voice, which is exactly what the world needs. Science teacher Kerry Valentine believes the best tool these girls can use is to be themselves, no matter what.
“Women always feel like they have to care about how people are going to respond, and how they look physically,” Valentine said. “I would say, don’t think about any of that stuff. You do you. Do what you love, do what feels right. Who cares what anyone else thinks? These are the people that are forging the way for women: people who are not afraid to speak up, and not afraid of what other people think when they do.”
Ms. Cook added her own philosophies regarding self-definition and power: “Strength to me is not just physical, it’s also mental strength, emotional strength. Being able to stick up for yourself and fight for what you believe in. It might be hard, but never give up,” she said. “I never did, I just kept fighting and fighting. When they said I couldn’t go to college and couldn’t afford it, when my family wasn’t supportive, I just kept fighting.”
Ms. Hedin believes that girls should always trust their instincts and stand up for themselves: “If something is happening to you and something feels off, say something. I didn’t in high school, and I think back to those moments and I wish that I had.”
Every woman has an impactful story to share. The influence of women has spread throughout all of our lives in the form of mothers, sisters, teachers, and friends. Men who wish to stand up for women’s rights should help elevate the female voices they have access to, but never speak over them as the leading authority. And as fellow women, the best thing we can do is inspire each other to keep going every day, never bring each other down, and find strength within ourselves.