Finding inspiration outside of normal confines

What an all-girls school taught me about my perspective on female empowerment

Shivani, her mom and Emma Willard School.
Photo: 
Credit: 
Photo illustration by Josh Granovsky

Despite living in a world where men dominate politics, engineering and other powerful societal roles, my own personal world growing up taught me to not think for a second that there was anything a woman couldn’t do.

When someone looks at a summary of my life up until where I am now, they would likely credit my high school education for my younger self’s belief that women could be or do anything. 

My high school, the Emma Willard School, was named after the woman who founded it in 1814, and is famed for being the first all-girls school in the United States. Emma Willard was light- years ahead of her time — not only did she found the school herself, she also went in front of New York State Legislature to argue why women’s education should have equal governmental funding as men's education. Then named The Troy Female Seminary, my school’s legacy is prestigious enough to show me the immense privilege I had of being a student there. 

At a time when women were considered no more than housewives, Willard turned her feeling that all women deserved an education into action and opened the now-established institution.

The Emma Willard School provides women with amazing opportunities, learning to use their voices and be empowered in a still male-dominated world. Many of my friends who went there have spoken frequently since we graduated almost four years ago about everything the school gave them and how they wouldn’t be the strong women they are today without that experience. 

For years, I didn’t feel the same way and I felt guilty about it. Why wasn’t I affected by this life-changing opportunity to learn in a place where women’s voices are valued above all else and where they didn’t tell you there was anything you couldn’t do because you’re a woman?

To explain the answer to this, I need to go back in time a little bit.

Growing up, the majority of my role models were women. I didn’t have a traditional family upbringing. In terms of family, a lot of times it was just my mom and I together. My mom’s the strongest person I know and she’s the one who instilled in me the thought that I could literally do anything I set my mind to. 

I only learned that women are paid less to the dollar than men, that people think women can’t do certain jobs because of their emotions or that women are still judged first and foremost by their looks when I was much older. My late discovery was entirely due to the fact my mom didn’t ever even imply those standards were valid or worthy of recognition.

My mom was a very strong person when I was growing up, surrounding herself with equally empowered, strong, successful women. A typical Sunday morning for me when I was younger was sitting in my best friend’s kitchen with our moms making us pancakes — that was my family. 

Basically, my childhood didn’t have many men in it and instead,  it had a high majority of women that were the exact role models any young girl would be lucky to have.

Additionally, either consciously or unconsciously, my mom filled my world with books, music and TV shows that were female-dominated. My childhood best friend — who’s really more like a sister — and I were probably the only eight year-olds at the Dixie Chicks concert and also probably the only seven year-olds that would dance around the living room to the Rent soundtrack. The Gilmore Girls DVD box set was my birthday present at age 11 and my bookshelves were always filled with Jane Austen novels. 

Natalie Mains, Mimi Marquez, Rory and Lorelai Gilmore as well as Jane Austen all have one major thing in common. They’re all complex, strong women who exemplify in different ways how to use their voices for what they think is important.

All of this is to say that I was really lucky to have this amazing childhood where I was surrounded, both in real life and in pop culture with strong, independent, bad-ass but still flawed women. 

Whether I realized it or not, my whole childhood, I was picking up very important traits from all these women who shaped me into the person I am today. My mom always jokes that I’m stubborn and have my mind set on things and I always have to remind her that it’s from her.

Bringing this back to my high school, by the time I was 13 starting high school, I’d already had about nine years of memories surrounded by these strong women. I already felt as if my gender wasn’t something that could hold me back — which is something I now realize is a tremendous privilege.

Coming into the Emma Willard School, I had great classes and teachers, but that was kind of all it was for me. For others, they got a much greater sense of empowerment from the experience than just the education part of it. 

They were able to find female role models, learn about empowered women and learn how to use their voice. It’s so amazing that the Emma Willard School is able to have such an impact on girls and has for 204 years now. But I always felt guilty that I didn’t have that same experience.

It took me a few years into my undergraduate degree to understand why this was the case. As I tried to think it through, I simply felt guilty that I hadn’t been able to get the same out of this experience as the people around me seemed to. 

I was worried this incredible all-girls school education had been a waste on me and that I wasn’t respecting the legacy of my school or the hard work Emma Willard and others like her had endured to make it a reality. 

It took me a while, but I realized it was okay that I didn’t have an as amazing high school experience as my friends did, because I’d just happened to get that same mentorship and inspiration elsewhere. 

In a place like university, where we’re simultaneously adults but still learning and maturing, it can be hard to figure out who we should trust and look up to. At this time in our lives when everything is education-focused, it seems like we should be looking up to professors or people in higher positions. If that’s the person you gravitate to then that’s great, but it’s important to realize you can find female inspiration and mentorship anywhere. 

Working at The Journal, I have peers who inspire me more every day than most of my professors have. It’s my friends that have taught me the true meaning of perseverance and trust.

People are in our lives for an array of different reasons. It’s okay if only certain people are the ones that shape us into who we are or encourage us in ways that people in traditional roles of mentorship just can’t. I can’t imagine how different my life would be or how different a person I’d be if I didn’t have the female-centric upbringing that I did.

Finding out who the ones you trust and look up to are important, and it’s alright if they're not the people that would traditionally fit into that role. Every part of who we are is a product of things we’ve learned along the way, and for me, I was lucky enough to have picked it up from my strong female upbringing.

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