Last February I attended Harvard University's Athena Conference, along with several other teachers and students from my high school. One purpose of the conference was to expose high school girls to college life, when they will be living away from home for the first time. Workshops focused on raising their awareness on such issues as date rape, harmful images of women in the media, the changing definition of the word "feminism," women in government, and poetry writing as a means to explore gender issues. The conference was held all day Saturday, and timed to coincide with V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women.
The speaker who started the conference was law school professor Dr. Diane Rosenfeld, who spoke on sexual violence. The statistics were surprising to our students: 85% of rapes occur between people who know one another, and rape is the most underreported crime. So-called "date rapes" are common on college campuses (including Harvard), particularly during the first six weeks of school. We viewed the documentary Rape Is, which showed interviews of rape victims. These victims (including men) were taking an entire lifetime to recover from this one act. Dr. Rosenfeld spoke about the rape culture that we live in, using examples of advertising (showing violence against women and images of weak, vulnerable women) to prove her point. She urged the audience to boycott these companies, and to start letter-writing campaigns to object to this kind of advertising, She ended by posing some questions: How can we inoculate girls against these negative cultural messages? Are we going to let the media define who we are?
After Dr. Rosenfeld's talk I attended a workshop on sex and relationships. Two Harvard freshman women facilitated the discussion by describing what they were experiencing on campus: relationships are out, "hooking up" is in. Nobody, according to them, wants a relationship in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, couples hook up with one another for one night, or maybe a few nights, with no strings attached. How far these liaisons go varies from couple to couple. After listening to stories illustrating this current trend, I couldn't help but speak up: "Don't women and men both get hurt in this scenario?" The women concurred that this did sometimes happen. The facilitators also stated that although casual hookups had gone on at their high schools, they were harder to avoid once they moved away from their parents' homes. I was glad that my students could hear about this first hand from young women who were only a year older than they.
My next workshop, also facilitated by Harvard freshmen, was on body image, focusing on the unhealthy cultural norm that gives women the message that what we weigh determines our worth. The media constantly bombards us with images of thin, beautiful women, making many women feel unworthy because their bodies aren't pencil thin. As part of the workshop we did an exercise where we wrote down things we disliked about our bodies (nobody had blanks), and things we liked about our bodies, and shared them with the group. One facilitator candidly shared her experience suffering from anorexia. The group ended by sharing ways to simply take care of yourself during your first, often stressful first year away from home.
After the workshops ended we convened in one of Harvard's gorgeous rooms where the poetry group performed the poems they wrote, and other students played the guitar and sang.
All the attendees from my school remarked later that the day was a complete winner, especially the senior girls. The following week many of us returned to Harvard and watched the same young women who ran the workshops give terrific performances in their production of "The Vagina Monologues." Bravo, Athena Conference facilitators!
Reference Citation: Dolan, Maureen. (2003). "Harvard's Athena Conference: 'Nurturing your inner goddess'." WILLA, Volume XII, p. 38-39.