Learning from women who lead

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

In the days leading up to the Yale Women in Leadership Conference on Saturday, February 25, I asked a male friend of mine if he wanted to reserve tickets and come with me. We both knew the Conference Chair, Kendall Schmidt, SM ’19, and how much work she’d put into the event, and I was excited not only to go and experience it, but also to support her. I saw no reason why he shouldn’t come — that is, until he pointed out, as though it were obvious, that this would probably be an all-female space, and that although it sounded really great, he didn’t want to intrude. I was completely taken aback — it hadn’t even occurred to me that the attendees, in addition to the panelists, would all be women. And even after that possibility was pointed out, I wasn’t terribly invested in the idea. Wasn’t hearing the panelists speak enough? However, the day of the event, I was shocked by the palpable comfort I felt just from being in an all-female space. It’s not a feeling I have very often — most of the circles in my life have been male-dominated, especially since coming to Yale. While this isn’t always a bad thing, the value in all-women spaces became immediately clear to me as soon as I entered the room. It felt approachable, validating, good. Not to mention, the schedule was filled with a slate of incredible women from a variety of fields (the organizers secured speakers from tech companies, activist circles, government positions, and academia, among others) who have proved, and continue to prove, that achieving success as a woman is more than possible.

The day opened with a short speech from the Conference Chair, followed by a keynote from female leadership advocate Liz Azbug. The next few hours were split between three panel sessions, an additional keynote from Dr. Deepali Bagati, and a few closing remarks. I was able to attend two panels. The earlier one, “Fostering Queer Womanhood,” hosted two speakers: the first was Clare Kenny, a recent graduate of Skidmore College who’s been working with GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy group, and the second was Robin McHaelen, a woman who’s worked extensively in LGBTQ-centric activism and social work in Connecticut over the course of her life. It was a fascinating opportunity to hear the perspective of two women who clearly came to queer activism with hugely different life experiences. The conversation was both moving and useful. Still, a little more trans-inclusivity would have been appreciated on a panel for LGBTQ issues, preferably in the form of a trans female speaker, a clear lacuna that wasn’t acknowledged. However, the pair did almost immediately acknowledge the problem with heading a queer-centric panel with two white women (Allison Graham, a woman of color and the planned third attendee, unfortunately couldn’t make it), which, while not a solution on its own, was a helpful reminder to audience members about the epidemic of white centricity in allegedly queer spaces.

The second panel, “Women Writers,” was a little more formal. Featuring heavy-hitters like a Presidential speech writer (Vinca LeFleur), a debut novelist (Nicole Dennis-Benn), an academic (Ruth Franklin), and a poet (Rachel Zucker), this panel became something of a rumination on how to maintain political integrity in this specific moment in their individual fields. According to Conference Committee member Catherine Cray, “Going in, my goal was to get people from different genres and different places, because I wanted to find unexpected commonalities, and I think it ended up working out really well.” Each woman, to varying degrees, had found herself discomfited in her field since November 9, and was also coming to activism from varying levels of experience. LeFleur confided in us that although she attended the Women’s March, she’d never done anything like that before, and was still figuring out what to do next. Franklin told us to remember the things we thought were important before the election and to keep investing in them, and Dennis-Benn emphasized the importance of bravery and openness. But it was Zucker’s advice that seemed the most fitting to this moment, and to the Women in Leadership Conference in general: she told us to be disruptive. To rattle the bones of power in every moment of our lives, through marching, or rudeness, or loud poetry, or carving out a day — like the Conference itself — catered exclusively to women’s success. It’s good advice.

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