In a World of #MeToo, Women’s Empowerment Takes Initiative

A recent popular Twitter and Facebook campaign, #metoo, asked women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to share and promote the hashtag in order to show solidarity and raise alarm. Though a laptop or phone screen has a way of diluting crises, Conn is not exempt from the systemic discrimination against women that this campaign renounces. For women on college campuses, sexual harassment and assault are all too real a threat.

The Women’s Empowerment Initiative (WE), Conn’s largest club with 250 members, aims to fight against the mistreatment of women on this campus and beyond. “One of our main purposes is to be able to showcase women’s narratives—what is the experience of being a woman on a college campus?” explained Michelle Lee ’18, chair of WE’s reading committee. Every aspect of WE’s process, from monologue submissions to an annual performance, involves women and non-binary students from Conn.

Last year’s production,“She is a Tempest,” emphasized the fact that one in four women on college campuses have survived rape or attempted rape by performing one in four monologues about sexual assault. Every story was submitted by a Conn student.

Each year, WE receives around 40-45 submissions and ultimately chooses 18-20 to perform. Lee commented, “We do a form of collective decision making. So there’s never this form of voting. It’s always discussing the monologues until we reach consensus.” There is a deep level of respect associated with reading and choosing the monologues. Lee furthered,  “Each monologue is read and discussed at minimum three times, but probably way more than that…One of our main tenets is talking about the pieces as if the author is in the room so it’s always that idea of speaking about them positively, but also being kind to the fact that someone was really brave and vulnerable to submit these works to us.”

At the beginning of Spring semester, casting sessions are held in order to allow women and non-binary individuals to bring the monologues to life. There are no cuts in order to promote WE’s message of inclusivity. Chiara Gero ‘18, co-president and artistic director, said, “We are keeping the participants aware that it’s not their words, that they’re saying someone else’s story. We don’t want to ever take that from someone. We’re just there to voice it.”

WE has tried to live up to inclusivity standards, but leadership admits that the show is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the student body. A women’s empowerment show first appeared at Conn in the early 2000s in the form of “The Vagina Monologues,” written by Eve Ensler, in order to showcase women’s experiences. However, in order to highlight Conn-specific narratives, the club decided to transition into a production written and told by Conn students called “As Told by Vaginas” in 2014. By 2015, the organization opted to keep the premise of “As Told By Vaginas” the same, but to change the name to the Women’s Empowerment Initiative in order to encompass more identities.

Gero justified the shift away from the Vagina Monologues: “The Vagina Monologues have always been very white; they’re the epitome of white feminism. A lot of it has not been catered towards women of color at all, it was not catered toward anyone who was not cisgendered in any way so I think that was the problem. The roots of it are so white and so cis.” Moll Brown ‘18, co-president and producer, discussed the most recent transition from “As Told by Vaginas” to WE:  “So the first year they named it “As Told by Vaginas” and since then we’ve tried to avoid words that have to do with anatomy because that’s exclusionary.” To clarify, not all women have vaginas and basing gender on biology is limiting.

Furthermore, last year’s show “She is a Tempest” left the question of using female pronouns up for debate. Brown commented, “Obviously I can’t speak for all non-binary individuals, but to a certain degree I would like a space for my narratives, but I also know that women need a space for their narratives and it’s tough because you want to make sure there’s room for both.” Brown continued, “I think [WE] has done a good job of making space.”

The general consensus among leadership is that WE will continue to evolve, continue to make space, and be open to feedback. “We’ve become so open to criticism and making changes,” noted Hannah Johnston ’18, Safe Futures liaison and fundraising chair. She added, “[the show] falls under the umbrella of women for now because that is the majority of the people involved, people who identify as women, but I don’t think anyone would have a problem changing that if it ever became an issue.” WE’s current form, name and process are not necessarily permanent. WE can and will change as times change, perhaps to include more narratives from transmen and transwomen.

Ultimately, WE’s major goal on campus is to promote women’s empowerment. When asked what WE wanted their audience to learn from the show, Gero responded, “These words and these experiences are real. This can happen to absolutely anyone—a person sitting next to you, your parent/guardian, your best friend, your cousin, your boss.”

However, by moving to WE rather than the trademarked and less flexible “Vagina Monologues,” the club also has a significant purpose beyond the scope of Conn. 100% of the proceeds from the show go to Safe Futures, an organization in New London that provides resources, shelter and counseling to anyone experiencing domestic violence and also helps to care for children affected by abuse. Johnston, a counselor at Safe Futures, explained, “Most of our clients are women, but we aren’t exclusively for women. We recognize that domestic violence doesn’t just exist in heterosexual relationships and it’s not just against women.”

The proceeds from the WE production as well as sponsored events, such as the Safety Net Bar night being held on Oct. 31 in Humphrey’s, help support Safe Futures mission. Last year’s two sold-out shows, attended by 700 people each, helped Safe Futures to open an additional location in Norwich, allowing more women, children and others affected by domestic violence to receive aid.

If anyone at Conn is interested in becoming a part of the club, there is still time to get involved. WE encourages women and gender non-binary individuals to submit monologues anonymously until Oct. 25 to and to show up to casting in early spring.