Catherine with a C
Last year at the NYC Women in the World event, we were humbled and awed by the work and conviction of teenagers that was highlighted. It was shortly after the Parkland Shootings and there were teenage and pre-teen gun control activist on one of the panels. While I’m not old enough to start saying things like “when I was your age,” I can no longer be considered the younger generation. Luckily for us, the younger generation is taking their responsibility for their future seriously and showing up. Even when they have to do it alone. Catherine O’Connor—‘Catherine with a C’ to differentiate her from Katherine who I met that weekend as well—is 19 years old and traveled to NYC from her university in Laramie, Wyoming by herself to attend the tenth annual Women in the World Summit.
Catherine attends The University of Wyoming and is studying “Gender and Women’s Studies with a minor in Honors and possibly a few other minors that I haven’t decided yet.” Get it, Catherine. She found herself at the front of the queue on the first day standing next to long time VERVE supporter, Tracy Bickley who asked her if she was alone. When Catherine confirmed it Tracy adopted her. We were half way through the first day before I realized that we didn’t bring Catherine with us to WITW. She fit so well with the VERVE women that I thought she must have already been one of us.
Catherine with a C became a permanent part of our group and over one of the meals she told us how a 19 year old raised in Casper, Wyoming came to be in the big apple all by her lonesome (something I wouldn’t even do now at 36 years old). She had been getting email updates from WITW and when they announced the 10th annual summit she knew she had to go. She first approached the Gender and Women’s Studies Department for assistance in financing the trip but they declined, claiming that it was a celebrities event and not educational. While I was indignant on Catherine behalf, I can see how an administrator with no experience with WITW wouldn’t understand its educational value. Brie Larson, Anna Wintour, and Adwoa Aboah might make the event seem superficial but these women all had stories to tell about how they manage success as a woman. This is an important aspect of education for a young woman. I wish I had a chance to hear these women when I was in undergrad. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my struggles against misogyny. Luckily Catherine wasn’t deterred by her first “no” and went to her Honors College who were able to see the value in such a Summit. They covered her plane ticket to NYC making it possible for Catherine to cover the other costs of attending.
This is a good time for me to explain that WITW is prohibitively expensive for most women in the United States. I work a full time job at a professional level and if I didn’t have VERVE’s support I wouldn’t be able to attend. The cost of the tickets may allow for a posh event with “free” handouts and red carpets, it means that for the most part this event is rich women talking to other rich women. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that but there does need to be some acknowledgement that this isn’t all Women in the World… this is a select few women.
We are grateful that Catherine was able to join us because her energy and passion was infectious. We asked her what her plans were after college and she said that although her plans aren’t solidified (that’s pretty healthy at 19), she was considering getting a Masters in “something helpful.” She hopes to “become a gender therapist and help trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals with either their transitions or becoming more comfortable with their identities.” She also wants to work with a non-profit at some point. So how did this open-minded young woman come out of a small town in Wyoming? “Growing up in a predominantly conservative area having liberal views was the minority, this allowed me to realize just how important it is for me to educate myself and share my thoughts and views.”
My personality and professional background lends itself well to critique and ideas about improvement. This often overshadows the brilliance of an event. What I wanted to know from Catherine was how a young and fresh mind saw WITW. “From the moment I arrived at the WITW summit I automatically felt the energy and knew that I was supposed to be there.” I have to admit, even with my disapproval of the race and class issues at WITW, I felt a certain energy there as well that I don’t feel at events hosted by men. Catherine added,
“I was inspired by every woman who stepped foot on the stage. Some of the most influential panels were The Ugandan LGBTQ+ activists, The women who had been either exiled from their countries or standing up against the oppressive governments and The frontline journalist (that definitely brought me to tears) these definitely changed my view on the world and the true difficulties that are seen in other nations. Stacey Abrams, Priyanka Chopra and of course Oprah really inspired me to really take the opportunities that I am given to make a change in the world. In addition to opening my eyes to the true hardships of other women in the world, it gave me perspective to see how truly privileged I am and how I can use this as a platform to advocate and spread awareness of the unjust acts that are occurring across the globe and begin to find ways that I can make a difference.”
I asked her what issues she thought women should be working on. I was delighted to hear my own thoughts reflected in her answer: “There are so many important issues and needs that it is hard to pick just a few, I think that as long as there are some women focusing on each that is how we are going to see change.” She also said, “I would like to see more of a focus on Human Rights across the world and specifically in the Global South, another one would be Climate Change which is something we as a global population need to focus on before it is too late.”
WITW staff were asking the question “How can women change the world?” Catherine’s answer was, “I think in terms of big picture women are already saving the world. That is what we have been doing for generations, we are just a lot more visible now. Through education, visibility, and activism we can spread the messages of feminism and global equality. Through hard work we can collectively make a difference and change the world.”
When I asked her if she would come back to WITW next year she enthusiastically said, “I would absolutely go again, I am starting to save my money now for next year’s summit!!!”
Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist