When a friend and fellow Public Policy major told me about an upcoming seminar on Women, Law, and Legal Advocacy, I immediately started to pull together my scholarship application, writing essays and coordinating other necessary documents just in time for the deadline. I was initially drawn to the seminar because of its focus on legal careers; I knew at age sixteen that I wanted to become an attorney and work in criminal justice, so I was already beyond excited to meet female lawyers, tour the Department of Justice, and soak up everything I could about the law. However, I soon realized that my weekend in D.C. would leave me with much more than just knowledge about legal careers: PLEN left a lasting impression because it showed me firsthand that women can and do drive change.
Throughout it all, I was surrounded by women like me, each one of us a brilliant and capable lady who wanted to make her mark on the world. It’s true that I came away from panels with some new skills—such as awesome networking tips that have already helped encourage me to put myself out there and connect with people I admire—but I also got a growing sense of pride and female empowerment that I hadn’t really known I’d been missing. I expected to learn about salary negotiation and resume building, but I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself, and gain so much confidence in my role as a woman exploring the legal and policy fields. Over the course of a jam-packed 72 hours, I saw and heard from an incredible assortment of women whose personal and professional successes often left me speechless. Our fantastic keynote speaker, Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, held us all spellbound with her anecdotes and wit; the alumnae we met for lunch and at the networking reception were boldly seeking out and dominating their desired careers; and the panelists from all three days engaged us as well as each other by speaking candidly about everything from their families to their LSAT scores.
Over the past few years in particular, I’ve taken a real blow to my confidence in response to what many (myself included) have interpreted as a national outpouring of reactionary negativity towards women. Sexual harassment and assault allegations against a wide spectrum of public figures kept me on my toes, wondering which household name will be the next to pop up on my news feed, the name now taking on the unflattering profile of a predator." Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 book that explores complex themes of extreme female oppression in a dystopian, futuristic setting, was remade into a popular television show last spring, and ideological extremists harassed women online and in public at extremely high rates, including slews of racist and sexist attacks on Muslim and Black women. In my own experience last year, I was harassed on the street almost daily, and a work boss pushed me to quit my job after targeting me with several egregiously sexist and humiliating remarks. Every instance of sexism, from the everyday to the extraordinary, can hurt.
These things hurt.
But as much as these things waged their slow campaign to chip away at my sense of self, I also found myself surrounded by positive things that helped to build it up again. Looking up to my female professors and internship advisors, as well as making time for the other great women around me have both helped remind me that the world is full of smart ladies who aren’t afraid to pursue their goals.
During my time in D.C. for the Women, Law, and Legal Advocacy seminar, I was continually struck by the incredibly supportive and uplifting PLEN atmosphere. In three days, I met great female peers and role models in an environment where I felt more comfortable, safe, and accepted among other women than I do in most of my day-to-day life. Every moment of my PLEN seminar, from the panels, to our free time spent exploring the monuments, to our legislative simulation where coalition-forming and diplomacy were key, was like a breath of fresh air I hadn’t realized I so desperately needed. In today’s atmosphere, I believe it is especially important for women to lift each other up, and for my generation of future female leaders to see people who look like us achieving successful careers in law and policy—with all of the baggage we bring to the table as women in an often strictly gendered society.