Like most Galas, there are bright lights, impeccably well-dressed women in sparkling chiffon and silk dresses and, of course, a red carpet. Then there was me shuffling around in a plain black blazer, a red dress and worn black business heels that had seen better times. Hanging around my neck was a black Canon camera that I barely noticed as I mentally repeated the lines I would ask my interviewee.
“Hello, my name is Helen You, Media Producer with Silke Endress. Could you please state your name? Great, [insert name], how would you define a distinguished woman?”
A deceptively simple question to ask at the 2017 YWCA Women of Distinction Gala to women who have become champions for women’s empowerment and gender and racial equality. But when asked this question, I was often met with a minute of silence, an astonished expression and the occasional “oh that’s a tough question.” Here I was, a 20-year-old college student, standing in front of a woman who created programs to empower young women and women of color to be involved in intersectional social-justice work, or the President of a successful private company, or an activist who mobilized a whole generation of youth to stand up for their rights and freedoms, and they did not have an immediate answer.
That one minute of silence spoke to me so than any other moment throughout the evening because it demonstrated that even women whom society considered women of distinction, they themselves did not have a pre-determined definition. It was an incredibly humanizing opportunity for me to connect with these women whose biographies and achievements had me place them on a figurative gold pedestal. In that moment, whether they knew it or not, I did not feel like an amateur photographer and journalist speaking to a CEO, but a woman speaking to another woman as to what our roles are in society, particularly given this political climate. Although there were varieties in their responses, there were three major commonalities threading between all the women: (1) A woman of distinction does not do something for herself, but what she feels is right and will inspire others (2) she supports other women and does not tear them down for their successes (3) it is not just one woman who makes a change, but a team of women and like minded individuals who work to achieve their success. Three simple principles that every woman can live by in their day-to-day lives.
Throughout the entire evening, as we transitioned from photos and idle mingling to dinner and the awards, these ideas swirled in my head as I reflected at these simple truths. I knew these ideas existed, but up until now it had never been so eloquently verbalized to me in a way that I immediately visualized my support system of eight amazingly strong young women as individuals who have unknowingly lived by these principles. As I stood on the back stands with my camera, I felt a grin form on my face as I filmed YWCA’s host, Melissa Harris Perry, President Chair at Wake Forest University present each honoree and Women of Distinction awards. There were countless of women whose work across the country addressed a range of issues from domestic abuse, sexual assault and rape, education, voter registration, etc. and at each of their introductions and summary of their incredible work I could only think “how could you just choose one to acknowledge?” In each introduction, Melissa offered a small anecdote that provided a brief intimate glimpse of her life. The room fell silent and everyone seemed to hold their breath, waiting for what she was about to share with us in those few minutes.
In one anecdote, she spoke of her grandmother who was a maid, and often as a person of color, she and others are often mistaken to be maids to fit society’s stereotypes of a woman of color. Although it is frustrating and painful to be labeled so plainly by society, Melissa continued and with such courage that she is proud that people can see her grandmother, the maid, in her because without her, she would not be the woman standing before us today.
As a woman of color, in that moment I had never felt so connected to a large room of people with both my salient social identities as a woman and as a person of color. Being surrounded by these women and listening to their experiences and thoughts, taught me that on the macro level, true inspiration and power does not come from the woman who does it all and takes all the credit. Rather, it comes from the woman who leads from behind and uplifts others to improve their community and society.
Conversely on the micro level, I learned that no matter one’s background, there are shared experiences and feelings that connect every individual. These connections are not made in a large room with hundreds of people, but one-on-one interactions as one act of support and kindness inspires someone to do the same for another, creating a domino effect. No one knows who they really are when they are 20-years-old and no one knows who they really are when they’re 90-years-old, so although I may not have a definitive passion or interest that I am pursuing, I can assist in the development of others on the micro level by having these humanized moments as I did with these distinguished women.
So, for me what is a distinguished woman?
It is a woman who will go above and beyond not for her old selfish pursuits, but the betterment of her community. She is a role model whose leadership skills inspires others to pursue their dreams and goals and is willing to work both in the limelight and behind the scenes to not only get the done, but assist others reach their greatest potential.