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OU group aims to empower women

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As women affairs commissioner, Madison Koenig has the unique task of bringing women together to talk about relevant issues. This isn’t an easy task, especially when the people she represents in Student Senate might not necessarily have the voice they deserve in other spheres. That’s a big part of the reason that she helped to found the Ohio University Women’s Association, otherwise known as OUWA.

OUWA is a relatively new group on campus designed to bring together women who might otherwise not have a lot in common. Since so many on-campus groups focusing on women focus on one specific area of their lives, such as major or political affiliations, OUWA is trying to bring women together based on gender identity alone. The group is open to anyone interested in joining and is working to grow their numbers since they formed in November.

“The Women’s Association is a really beautiful and unique space on campus where women and female students who have backgrounds from across the board, from the Women in Business and representatives from different sororities to women in aviation to women in the Society of Engineers to the Iranian Student Association to F*ckRapeCulture, to get together and talk about the things that we have in common,” said Koenig, a senior studying English in the Honors Tutorial College who describes her current role in the organization as a “facilitator.”

“Instead of the things that separate us, we can focus on those commonalities and those relationships and bonds. We’re a baby organization, but we’ve got our feet on the ground and I’m excited to see where we go with it.”

The idea for OUWA has its origins in last year’s Restart ticket for Student Senate elections. According to Koenig, a major idea of the ticket was to get students with similar interests in the same room, with her target group being women. A focus on how to bring women together, even when they had dramatically different interests, led to the creation of the organization.

The group’s first major event is the events of Empowering Women of Ohio Week, which kicked off Monday with a panel on the history of women at Ohio University, and ends Friday night with a workshop on navigating gender bias in the business place. The keynote speech was on Thursday from Samantha Boch, a nurse working in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, on her experiences working in a women’s prison. Other events include a film screening about life for women in prison as well as a panel on sexual violence.

According to Koenig, the takeaway is that women very rarely live up to the stereotypes so often presented in media.

“Women lead rich, interesting, complicated lives,” Koenig said. “Women in Ohio are no exception. There are a lot of problems we have and issues that need to be solved, but women have been and always will be innovative in solving those issues.”

Katie Conlon, a junior studying history in the Honors Tutorial College and a member of OUWA, also helped to plan the events. March is Women’s History, and April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which she says means that this event could not be more perfectly timed.

“This is a great opportunity to talk about gender and what it means to us,” Conlon said.  “Especially coming after the Center for Law, Justice and Culture’s series on critical resistance, this is a perfect time to talk about double standards in our society. Women face these issues that are unique to them that we just don’t talk about, and this is a great way to shine light on it.”

The events of the week were planned in about two and a half weeks, according to Conlon. Many of the speakers are professors from the university, but that didn’t necessarily make the event any easier to put together. There’s a lot of diversity in the ideas being showcased, and it provides exposure for many new ideas.

Those attending any one of the discussions, film showings or workshops can expect a unique experience of networking that participants might not get otherwise. OUWA sees Empowering Women week as a chance for students to reach out to different groups, despite other barriers they may face.

“There really is no singular experience here,” Conlon said. “There’s a good look at intersectionality, and how that plays your gender identity or your race or your socioeconomic status or a hundred other things. We’re a broad organization, and there’s a lot of opportunities for everyone to grow.”

The growth for the organization is already visible. At least 35 people attended the Thursday keynote speech and not all were OUWA members.  Anna Mendlein, a junior majoring in social work, is a member of OUWA’s Facebook page but does not consider herself to be in the group. She is, however, a member of the Ohio University Students for Law, Justice and Culture and wants to one day potentially work as a social worker within the correctional system.

She attended two events of Empowering Women of Ohio Week: Wednesday’s lecture on intersectional approaches to sexual violence and Thursday’s keynote. Samantha Boch’s presentation on her personal experiences working as a nurse for a prison and her research on the effects of prison on families interested Mendlein.

“I was drawn in by the talk about mass incarceration, because that’s a potential professional interest of mine,” Mendlein said. “I wanted to learn about women’s experiences in prison, as well as how [Boch] expresses her beliefs about feminism and other issues to her co-workers.”

Mendlein said she enjoyed the idea of a week of powerful women because it brought attention to women who aren’t often portrayed. In an attempt to combat the ‘weak female’ stereotype that was so prevalent for so long in media, television shows and movies now often focus on women in positions of extreme power, such as CEOs.

“I am really into the idea of a week of powerful women,” Mendlein said. “The focus is not just on women in power. There was a look at women without privilege, instead of the typical white female CEOs you normally see when you talk about powerful women. Women come from all parts of society, and it’s important that we focus on that. I think this week of programming did a good job with that.”

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