When I met the members of Malvern Collegiate’s Young Women’s Empowerment Group (known by insiders as Y-WEG) a few weeks ago, there was no doubt they fully endorsed the lyrics of Cyndi Lauper’s signature song, which was written long before they were born. As I entered the auditorium at the start of their Girls’ Empowerment Conference, an annual event in which grade 8 girls from Malvern’s five feeder schools spend a day at the high school with Y-WEG members, the music was blaring and girls were talking, laughing, singing along and dancing.
The theme of the day was “Speak Up.” Here is some of what I said on that topic in my keynote address:
When I was your age, I had never heard the word feminism and, if I had, I probably would have said I was not interested. I was very fortunate to grow up in a family (I am the oldest kid of six – four girls and two boys) where I did not really see any big differences between being a girl and being a boy.
But then I had an experience in high school that showed me just how it was different to be a girl. One of my male teachers, who I really liked because he was funny and interesting, behaved inappropriately with me. I was pretty naïve for my age – no doubt much more naïve than any of you are – so when he touched me, I had no idea what to think. I knew I did not like it, but I also thought that somehow it must be my fault that this was happening.
No one talked about sexual abuse or sexual assault in those days. I would not even have known what those words meant if someone had said them to me.
So, I did not talk about it with my friends or with my parents. I just tried to find ways never to be physically close to this teacher and, even though I loved the subject he taught, I did not take it again after that year because I did not want to have to be in his class.
I have no doubt that I was not the first or last victim of that teacher, and that makes me mad to this day. I was older than you guys, but I was still a kid, and someone should have been there to protect me and other girls from this man.
That is something that is better today than it was then. Unfortunately, sexual abuse and sexual assault still happens, but at least they are talked about now, and most schools have policies in place to support students who are abused by a teacher.
Being able to turn to your friends, being there for your friends when they turn to you – this is so important for you now and, really, forever in your lives. If I had been able to talk to a friend about what this teacher was doing to me, maybe we would have been able to stop him.
There is a message here for all of us: at the end of the day, you need to be sure your friends have your back and they need to be sure you have theirs.
We hear a lot of negative stuff about feminism and feminists. But being a feminist really just means that you believe women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. It is not very complicated or scary.
Girls and women in this country and around the world still do not have equal rights with boys and men. But, we have the power to change that. It will take all of us, and there is no time to waste.
When we work together, even if we don’t always agree about everything, we can make the world a better place for all of us.
A good place to start is right here: in your families, your communities and your school.
Call yourself a feminist and feel proud when you do.
Speak up when you see, hear or experience something bad.
Have each other’s backs. Stick up for your friends.
And, I might have added, had Cyndi Lauper been on my mind – have fun!