Celebrating Empowerment and Women’s History Month at Fairfield University

Fairfield University celebrated Women the entire month of March for Women’s History Month.  Various student led initiatives brought attention to the issues women and men face on campus and within our community relating to gender and sexuality, as well as class, race, and religion.

Starting with a film screening of Miss Representation sparked discussion about women in the media and the ongoing pressure to achieve unattainable feminine ideals. Especially relevant at Fairfield, women and men feel these pressures which they expressed at a student led forum that was held in response to ongoing hate and intolerance on campus called Students Act Against. At the forum, men and women stood up in front of their peers, mentors, professors, and administrators to raise their voice about the intolerance they face every single day.

Sophomore, Crystal Rodriquez initiated discussion on gender by sharing her story about the disparities she faces as a woman on our campus. In a poem that she wrote for the forum, Crystal addressed sexism starting by warning all women in the audience that we were “about to get very angry”. She read her poem about the pressures of feminine ideals and how she is told from society that, “women are submissive, small, meek, [there] only value is to serve, [and they are] at a constant struggle to please men”.

After her poem, students responded with their own grievances and stories with similar concerns and struggles. Students brought up their fears in speaking out against these standards and for those that do, they feel ostracized. These fears force students to be silenced on campus unable to speak against said issues which further perpetuates stereotypes and intolerance. Male students stood up and expressed the pressures of masculinity and the idea that today; men are either “masculine” or gay. Junior, Josh Robichaud took  on an initiative to address this issue with men for men by starting a mentor group called Man to Man. One student who is now a mentor in the Man to Man program said this,

I am not allowed to stutter, not allowed to be emotional because I’m a man. It is difficult for me to get up here and be emotional. If I was a woman you would empathize. Thank you Dan (a student who spoke before him) for standing up and saying you were crying because I was crying too…We as a culture have not stop seeing one another as men and woman, girls and boys, guys and gals. We have to see each other as people.”

The Act Against student led forum allowed students to express their grievances, stories and share strategies for change inspiring a student movement that hopes to continue to allow students a place to express grievances and make a difference. Student leaders contributed in writing a petition to Act Against Hate which has been circulating on campus since the event, allowing conversations about intolerance to continue and no longer allowing students stories to be silenced.

Later in the month, senior, Erin Eife shared her passion in raising awareness of the disparities within the criminal justice system in the United States by bringing Piper Kerman author of, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, to discuss gender in prison. Some of Kerman’s main points included the cycles within the criminal justice program, and power dynamics within prison. She brings attention to the false depiction of female prisoners in the media and how they are very much sexualized.

Many women who enter the criminal justice system are from low socioeconomic status and have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Given 10-15 years in prison with little contact to their children, according to Piper, their children are then forced into foster care as the children’s fathers are not active or around to support them while their mother is in prison. Obvious cycles are continued as children within the foster care system and living in low socioeconomic communities are more at risk of being involved in crime or gangs therefore will also most likely enter the criminal justice system. Power dynamics are also at play within prison between female prisoners and between female prisoners and the male guards. Female prisoners literally have no power or control over many of their situations between male guards. In her book, Piper Kerman talks more about this and the way gender functions within prisons in the United States.

Concluding the month with V-Day events, Take Back the Night and a Women’s Day Celebration, along with Fairfield’s own Gender Bender Ball, the Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Commons worked with Alliance, Diversity Office, Dean of Students and others to celebrate the women in our lives and community. This year Women’s Day took on the theme of EMPOWERMENT, raising awareness of the various issues we face and the things both men and women are doing to empower others. One way we did this was by spreading the words of “She Loves You” to remind others that the women in our lives such as are moms, sisters, and friends, love us, and that they and other women should be treated with respect and equity. Bringing together more student groups than ever, GSSC had student clubs, initiatives, and programs come to Women’s Day to present their passion in conjunction with the theme of empowerment. By bringing in a diverse group of students we felt we could attract a larger population of students to the event, as well as come up with new ideas that enabled students to interact with these different clubs and initiatives.

This year, we were especially interested in involving more men in the planning process as well as attracting them to the event itself.  With the leadership of Josh Robichaud from Man to Man, we asked men to post comments about women in their lives who inspire them, as well as “pledge their penis” in a interactive way promising to take initiative of their own sexual health as well as their partners. Performances were organized by Jasmine Fernandez which featured stories of inspirational women throughout history such as Betty Friedan, and Abigail Adams, to Eve Ensler, as well as personal pieces written by students.

The event was held in the campus center with an assortment of tables, with information on women’s and sexual health, Spanish Saints, women’s ordination, veiling within the Muslim community, body image, Rape Aggression Defense Training and student artwork that contributed to the theme. Going into the night with the Gender Bender Ball, students were asked to “bend their gender” by dressing up as the opposite gender. This celebration of gender and self-empowerment was a great way to learn about oneself and others through the lenses of gender, sex, and sexuality.

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