Discovering My Feminist Voice
This summer, we are catching up with former members of the AAUW National Student Advisory Council (SAC), the exclusive group of college women who advise AAUW on student issues and help plan the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. Catherine Cleary served on the 2010–11 SAC while she majored in women’s studies at St. Mary’s College in Indiana. She is now enrolled in the philanthropic studies program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and hopes to continue her women’s advocacy work at a nonprofit.
You seem to have a broad passion for women’s rights, from your work on sexual harassment to your volunteering at the Indiana Women’s Prison. How did you first get started in advocacy, and what keeps you motivated and inspired?
I’ve always been a volunteer. I was raised in a family where you volunteer and actively discuss politics. Service and activism were a must.
I started as a biology major, but during my freshman year I took a spring break trip to Indianapolis and volunteered at the Indiana Women’s Prison. That’s when it hit me that I wanted to continue this at school, so I took a week to reevaluate everything and went on to self-design a women’s studies major focusing on women’s issues in an urban environment, particularly young women in prison.
So your experience at the Indiana Women’s Prison played a part in what you are doing today?
Absolutely. After I came back to school, I knew this was it. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I became a social work intern there through a contact I had made. I worked in the special-needs unit, and it totally opened my eyes. I mean, I was 19 and from the suburbs, so for two months I got to peel back the layers of these women and see beyond their crimes.
You were awarded a Campus Action Project (CAP) grant from AAUW in 2011. Why did you apply, and what did you focus on?
I applied for the grant the year after serving on the SAC. I already had exposure to AAUW and all that it entailed, so by this point I was trying to figure out how to get more involved. Laura [Corrigan, also a former SAC member] and I applied for the CAP grant. The research topic that year was sexual harassment in school. We proposed this presentation that we would give to a public high school in South Bend, Indiana, that discusses sexual harassment at school.
I think we talked to at least a thousand kids about sexual harassment, what they think it is, and redefining it as more than inappropriate touching. We gave students notebooks to journal about what sexual harassment means to them and what things they hear at school that make them uncomfortable. I think it was a powerful experience for them and opened their eyes. We did this over our spring break our senior year. It was a quick and intense week but also wonderful.
What did you enjoy most in your time on the SAC?
First, feminist role models! Having Kate [Farrar, AAUW director of campus leadership programs] and Holly [Kearl, former coordinator of the SAC] as our leaders was phenomenal. I mean, they were like rock stars. They showed us how to be active in the community and how to do something you are passionate about as a job and then to also support others with that same passion in your personal time.
AAUW has really helped me develop my feminist lens by exposing me to issues and giving me experience to advocate for them. I think it was the most powerful thing I could have done.
This post was written by AAUW College/University Relationships Intern Samantha Lambert.