This year has been full of so many great opportunities for me, but one of the most important, life-altering events was my trip to the Oakton Community College Women’s Conference. The theme was “Who’s Afraid of Feminism?” and on the car ride there, I admit I was a little afraid. I, along with three other WGS students had been invited to present a panel at the conference. A panel is a group of like-minded individuals with a common theme in their research. We had all done papers about how film effected and influenced the behaviors of children and adolescents. At a conference, a panel talks about their different research, how it is applicable to the theme of the conference, and usually there is a Q and A session afterwards. I hadn’t really done a lot of public speaking as an adult, and I felt like the small parts in high school plays I had fumbled my way through were in no way preparation for the cool, academic crowd of feminists I was expecting. The only thing that distracted me from the cacophony of doubt in my head was the great conversation only road trips can foster.
From Louisville to Chicago is 5 long hours of driving. Before we got in the car three of the four riders were pretty much strangers. Our only common thread was my professor, the one who had convinced us all to write these papers and submit an application to the panel. She’s also the one who got me interested in WGS in the first place, and the one who told me to start a blog. So I guess you could say I trust her opinion pretty well at this point. She was as smart as ever to put the three of us together, we hit it off instantly! The conversation flowed generously and the ride flew by. It was a new experience for me to be surrounded by people I could talk about these things with, and I was thrilled! Starting with the conversations that we had in that car ride, I began to shape a new vision for what my life could include. A community of people who understood when I rolled my eyes at pop songs and didn’t laugh at sexist jokes. People who also picked apart popular movies, analyzing and loathing the stereotypes and tropes within them. I could also talk about the guilt I felt for loving these movies, and found I wasn’t the only one! That car ride was the beginning of an eye opening and mind blowing experience.
The bonds forged on that car ride made it easier to maneuver the landscape of the conference. Even for a community college conference, the crowd was pretty big. It started early, with breakfast and coffee, and a keynote speaker. Anita Sarkeesian gave an informative and entertaining presentation about the controversies of “Glitter Science.” I’m not super interested in the STEM subjects, but hearing her talk about them was really neat. I could feel her passion, as well as everyone else’s in the room. There was a lively Q and A afterwards. Next, we broke into groups. At a conference, there are usually several panels going on at one time and you visit the one you’re interested in.
One of my newfound friends and I were really interested in a panel on Feminism and Religion. There were five women on the panel, a Mormon, a Jewish woman, a Zen Buddhist, a catholic, and a Muslim woman. Hearing how they found peace within their religions while also maintaining feminist beliefs was empowering and inspiring. I also learned a lot about religions I’d never considered studying and was pleasantly surprised at what I learned about Catholicism, the religion I grew up in. After the first panel we broke for lunch with entertainment. The Zen Buddhist from the religion panel was also a traditional hula dancer. She danced and played tradition Hawaiian drums and told a story about a volcano and a beautiful woman. I may sound corny here, but it was downright magical.
After Lunch was our panel, and I was terrified. My research paper was based on Mean Girls, the movie we all know and love. I analyzed the behaviors of the Plastics, and made some inferences about how I believed they were reflected in the negative way teenage girls treat each other. I loved researching and writing this paper, and I still love Mean Girls, but I was not ready to share this with the world. Then the microphone was passed to me, and I raised my eyes to the fifty or so in the audience, and I saw friendly faces. These people were here to hear what I had to say, and that was exciting. I began reading, too quickly at first, but I soon regained my composure. After I was done, a feeling of relief and self-confidence surged through me, and I was proud. It was then I knew, I wanted to do this again and again. I wanted to be a part of this community. I wanted to be an activist.
The day continued on, no one around me realized that everything had changed. I saw another panel, about how girls navigate the online community, specifically gamers, without being completely smothered by the patriarchy of the uglier part of the internet. After the panels were over, we all met up and traded cool stories from the panels we’d visited separately. The four students, me included, and our professor, (mentor, and friend), all went to downtown Chicago and did some exploring. I’d never been before and I loved the city. It was so big, so full of life, so bursting with eclectic smells and colors and sights and sounds. The brief glimpse I got of the sprawling city made me promise to come back for more.
We stopped for dinner, agreeing that we’d like to try something new, since this was an excursion in trying new things. We found a quaint Ethiopian place covered in traditional Ethiopian art and bursting with spicy and exotic smells. We were all in awe and couldn’t help but crane our heads to see every wall in the establishment. The waitress helped us with ordering, unbeknownst to me, Ethiopian food is brought in big platters and shared by everyone at the table. You use a soft, spongey, sourdough type bread to scoop different types of stew with your fingers and escort them to your mouth. It’s an experience that not only excited your taste buds, but also provides good laughs, as we all tried to gracefully eat with our hands. The different stews were delicious, made with lots of curry and spice, sometimes based with chickpeas or potatoes.
The meal provided good fuel for a nice ride home, we continued talking, but much more subdued with full bellies. I arrived home so late it was early and passed out before washing my face. I was exhausted by the onslaught of new information, the countless names and faces and shaken hands. Despite all that, though, I went to sleep smiling.