Essay: Fighting back on behalf of other women

Sarah Blugis, a senior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

One warm summer night, my family was headed out to the county fair. I was seven, and I wanted so badly to wear the new Britney Spears shirt that I was so proud of. It was pink, had Britney’s smiling face on the front, and was so big that the hem brushed my knees. I still remember how excited I was to show it off.

But on our way out the door, there was a brief argument. Someone pointed out that it didn’t look like I was wearing any pants, since my T-shirt covered my shorts – and I certainly couldn’t be let out of the house looking like that.

“It’s fine,” my mom said. “She’s fine. She wants to wear it, so she’s wearing it.”

This was one of the many small lessons of strength and independence that my mom taught me while I was growing up. Things as innocuous as letting me dress myself, answering my questions about where babies come from without blinking and reminding me that it was good to be smarter than the boys in my class all helped me grow into the person I am today. And I have my mom to thank for that.

In fact, I think that all of the women in my family have made me stronger – ready to claim my place in a world that constantly pushes women back, down and out of sight. Ready to take on a culture that still tells women, “No, you can’t.” Ready to fight back against everything that has already tested the strength of the women in my family. Ready to have my own strength tested.

That hasn’t happened yet. My strength as a woman has never been tested. As a straight, white, cisgender woman living in the United States, I haven’t faced more than sexism. I’ve been healthy my whole life, and I’ve never even broken a bone. I haven’t experienced anything more traumatic than your everyday catcall. I’ve survived nothing more than a few painful breakups. I’ve never really struggled or suffered.

I recognize how incredibly privileged I am to be so fortunate, and I think about it every day.

The people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned at GW, not my own experiences, have made me a feminist. In some way, shape or form, I want to fight for women’s rights and equality for the rest of my life. I want to play even just a small part in making this world a better place for future generations of women. That realization has been one of the most important changes I’ve undergone since stepping foot on this campus four years ago, and it has undoubtedly changed the course of my life.

But when I see what other women have gone through, are going through and will continue to go through – violence, discrimination, abuse – suddenly, it feels less like my fight. I often feel like I haven’t paid my dues. I haven’t paid the price for being a woman in this world, and that somehow prevents me from understanding exactly what I should be fighting for.

Of course, suffering isn’t a requirement for being a feminist, or for advocating equality. No one has ever told me I’m unwelcome because I haven’t had any painful experiences. But even though I’m a woman, it sometimes feels impossible to be an activist when I can’t possibly understand how women have suffered. So I don’t try to understand it, and instead, I just listen. I get angry on behalf of other women.

I’m reluctant to share their names because their stories aren’t mine to tell. But the women in my family have made sure I’m ready to face the world, because they already know what it’s like. They’ve paid their dues, and I know they hope I never have to pay mine.

Two years ago, I helplessly watched one woman in my family battle against breast cancer. It was caused by a rare hereditary genetic mutation that by some stroke of luck, I didn’t inherit. After countless tests, a double mastectomy and hours upon hours of emotional strain, her smile is back to being the brightest one at every family event. Her appreciation of life is immeasurable, and somehow, she isn’t angry at the world.

At age 13, another woman in my family was raped. She had a boyfriend who was older, and who didn’t listen. She doesn’t talk about it and I feel guilty that for so long, I had no idea. Even though she could have shut down her life, avoided relationships and hidden herself away, she has so much love in her heart for the people in her life. She would find a way to stop the world for her family.

After years of blaming herself and making excuses for a man, yet another woman in my family broke free from an emotionally abusive relationship. He told her what to wear, how to eat, who to see. He preyed on her insecurities. But she knew she wasn’t the version of herself he had created, and left him behind for a better life. Now, rather than shying away and distrusting people, she goes out of her way to help – her compassion is unmatched.

Part of me is sure that I won’t always be as lucky as I’ve been so far. Over the past few years, I’ve started to notice and listen to other women’s pain, storing it away to remind me that the world isn’t as small and clean as my neatly kept apartment. Anyone who spends four years on a college campus should realize that it’s nearly impossible for women to make it through this world unscathed. And anyone who disagrees hasn’t been paying attention.

I never want my luck to run out. And luck is all it is, really, because no one chooses to suffer. While some communities of women are at higher risk for violence, abuse or health risks than others, every day for every woman feels like flipping a coin. But it shouldn’t be that way.

I hope that someday, more women can make it to 22 without having experienced violence, abuse or any other pain – and instead of just being the lucky ones, they’re the majority. But right now, that isn’t the reality, and it’s something we all have to change – whether we’ve been individually lucky so far or not.

I know that I can be a feminist and an advocate without personal pain, as I acknowledge that there are certain types of pain I don’t understand. I’ve realized that without any personal hardships, listening to other women is essential – and being a good listener is what made me a feminist. I listened, and I got angry.

I’ve accepted that someday, there’s a strong possibility I too will experience the pain that so often comes with being a woman. But all I can do is hope that when the strength the women in my family gave me is tested, it’ll hold up. When I look around at the women all around me, I’m sure that it will. It has to.

This is one of The Hatchet’s personal essays – a new type of opinions content that explores students’ experiences and stories. Read a more detailed explanation from The Hatchet’s opinions editor here.

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