By Sophia Harrison
As a young woman growing up in the 21st century, I have spent way too much time struggling with the notion of whether or not a woman’s ability to show emotion, compassion, and humility should be considered a weakness or a strength. Modern stereotypes would like me to believe that caring too much means I am “emotional,” and that holding my ground and standing up for myself may come across as too “cold.” Through high school and even today, I have been self-conscious about the way people in my professional life perceive me, men especially. In recent years, however, women making national headlines have guided me to think otherwise.
In high school, I struggled with the label of “feminist” before I fully understood what it meant. From a young age, I was concerned about women’s hyper-sexualization and our under-representation in the workforce, but those were not issues that were addressed in any of my classes. I was also scared that if I came across as too liberal-minded, the teachers and peers at my preppy, Catholic high school wouldn’t like me and I wouldn’t fit in. While today I have no problem advocating for women’s’ rights and speaking up about politics, back then I didn’t know how to talk about gender equality issues with my friends. I was especially disheartened in 2016, when the highly-publicized Brock Turner sexual assault case did not end in a longer sentence, and when women across the country had to watch Donald Trump call Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a presidential debate. It seemed like society was okay with openly disrespecting and talking about women in condescending ways.
In my junior year Ethics course, we were assigned to watch the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, and I finally gained a clear understanding of the underlying issue that had bothered me for so long. Miss Representation seeks to expose how the mainstream media’s unrealistic portrayals and standards for women contribute to women’s under-representation in influential positions. Watching this film was not a shock, sadly. Rather, it was a relief to see the stereotypes about women be called out. This helped me believe that gender stereotypes could be confronted, rather than something I had to either internalize or ignore.
When I started college at University of California at Berkeley three years ago, I finally found a community that matched my values and passion for women’s’ empowerment. I gained three roommates from different parts of the country, joined a sorority, and was surrounded by empowering friendships that made me proud to embrace my identity as a feminist for the first time in my life. To my surprise, I was shocked by the example set by the women in my sorority, who were unapologetic about their sexuality, intelligence, and creativity. In particular, they gave me a platform to talk about my sexuality, what a healthy relationship should look like, how to negotiate a fair salary, and the reality of sexual assault on college campuses — all topics that I’d previously believed to be taboo or inappropriate to talk about in public.
I knew I’d found a safe environment my freshman year, when a senior in my sorority spearheaded a campaign called #RedefineMine. The campaign’s mission is to use social media posts of selfies along with an empowering quotations in order to change campus norms about rape culture and body-shaming. Watching and participating in this smaller-scale campus revolution helped me gain confidence and realize how my view of femininity had already evolved so much over the course of just a few months since high school. It also showed me that confidence in my identity can be expressed in many ways, and that mainstream media does not have to dictate the way I view my role in society.
Today, I continue to find inspiration for women’s empowerment through politics, art, and pop-culture. I believe that the way women are portrayed in the media is shifting to reflect the current political landscapes. Last summer, for the first time in history, there were 10 female candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign, participating in the Democratic debates and bringing women’s issues to the forefront. Similarly, the women’s national soccer team made headlines when they went undefeated to win the 2019 Fifa World Cup. At the same time, the team members embarked on a legal battle for pay equal to the men’s team. The women’s team successes on the field emphasized that they were just as good —if not better —than the men’s team, and that they deserved a salary to match. Finally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been fascinating to watch the response on the part of countries with female leaders, such as New Zealand, which implemented safe and effective procedures to reduce the spread of this highly contagious and politicized disease. A recent study found that countries led by women, like New Zealand, were more likely to take a stricter approach to the pandemic, leading to more efficient lockdowns, more successful re-openings, and an overall fewer number of cases.
Understanding my role in this society that perpetrates harmful stereotypes in the media will always be a work in progress. The fact that I feel more comfortable in female spaces is a testament to the healthy relationships with which I’ve surrounded myself and the importance of women supporting women. It is, however, also a testament to my generation, a symbol of the progress our society has made, and a reminder that there is still both work to be done and opportunities to do better. While I once viewed my quietness as a weakness and my body-type as a flawed by-product of my gender, I am learning that these are characteristics that can contribute to the making of female leaders. More than anything, I am learning that, for me, female empowerment means less about comparing myself to women in the media and more about finding inspiration in the women around me, whether that may be my peers, friends, or even national leaders.
Sophia Harrison is a senior at University of California, Berkeley, majoring in Public Health and minoring in Public Policy. Sophia worked at the NWHN during the Summer of 2019 as the Health Policy intern, and her interests lie in the realm of women’s health and reproductive rights.