On February 29th, my children and I found ourselves coatless in Chandler Park, enjoying the pink evening hour of a jeweled day. My daughter and I investigated the bronze statue entitled "Facing the Storm."
The creation of Peoria sculptor Jaci Willis, and made possible by the Macomb Women’s Club, who worked tirelessly for a decade to raise the funds, it commemorates Macomb women who have gone to great lengths to improve the lives of others. My daughter and I took in the sculpture, noting the vivid details that evoke the strong winds the two face head on. We read the names and descriptions of the accomplishments of these women, and I put my arm around my daughter, proud to be a woman raised in and returned to Macomb.
March is Women’s History Month. When I reflected on the importance and necessity of this month, I thought of that evening, standing humbled by those who have gone before, committed to this community, my arm around my own daughter. I thought too of all of the women that I have known who have continued this tradition of service and who have shaped my own story.
I was in college, sitting in Polly Radosh’s Introduction to Women’s Studies, when I first felt an obligation to “face the storm” and to actively participate and engage in the present day as a woman, understanding from whence I came. While it was a lecture class, Radosh commanded my attention. I was immersed, engaged, and often enraged by what I learned.
After class, I’d review my notes, amazed by how much I had learned in a single period, and so acutely aware of how much I still had left to learn. Radosh was able to weave in her rich life experiences as well, tie them to the material we were learning so that I understood the present implications of the past. I wanted to contribute to the future—a better, more equitable and just future for all. I did not have the temerity to ever think I could do what Radosh did—teach (and inspire) brilliantly. Even then, I was aware that she was an exceptional, brilliant professor, and it made me shy. When the semester ended, although I had no idea yet what my major would be, I declared my minor: Women’s Studies.
I also took every class in the minor I could with professor, now Dean, Dr. Susan Martinelli-Fernandez. I learned how to read truly challenging philosophical texts, critically question my assumptions and perceptions, articulate my ideas, and work my butt off.
Dr. Martinelli-Fernandez never gave me answers, but she supported my process of inquiry and empowered me to find out for myself. She had such a deep curiosity and such an infectious joy in regards to truly rigorous work in the pursuit of knowledge. I cite these two professors because it was their extraordinary example in the classroom that made me aware that I had to use what I’d come to know. I had to take this knowledge out into my life, my world.
Enter The Women’s Center.
21 years ago, my roommate Becky invited me to the Women’s Center. It was an interest meeting for a new student organization. We’d begin as “Feminists & Friends” but within months become “Feminist Action Alliance.” I met Martha Klems, then the interim director, and graduate student Donna Dennoncourt. This is where I would work with Amy, Bridgette, Becky, and others on Take Back the Night, the Clothesline Project, a speak out against hate crimes, and march against domestic violence.
I found my voice, began to use my body and my vote, and came to understand that fear could be faced and overcome, especially in community. We lifted one another up and collaborated creatively. Martha Klems supported us to enact our shared mission, which we, as students, drafted and revised. Smart, funny, and strong, Klems challenged and inspired. She still inspires me today, to march and rally, write, lift my voice, and to do so with joy. She involved students in book groups and the hiring process of Director Loretta Kinsinger. She made us all feel seen and heard.
The team at the Women’s Center modeled for me inclusivity, empowerment, and enacting the democratic process. I carry these women with me, and am still guided by their example today.
Next month, the Women’s Center celebrates its 30-year anniversary. Just think of all the women who are enacting great change in the world because of the impact of The Women’s Center and the people in it. I celebrate them all, but most especially current Director, Janine Cavicchia, who will retire at the end of this academic year, after 29 years of service at WIU. She has been tirelessly committed to enacting the mission of the Women’s Center and has contributed massively to its rich legacy.
I wish I could build a monument to her, and to all the women who continue to educate, advocate for, and empower women. My gratitude is immense, but sadly, I am not a sculptor. Instead, I’ll try to embody and enact, as well as pass along, to my daughter and my son especially, all that these extraordinary women have taught me.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.