Representation Matters

There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”

-Associate Professor Nicole Martins, Indiana University

Representation matters. Really. It does. When people ask why I started Remember The Ladies, that’s where I go. The sooner young girls and women see positive and powerful representations of themselves in the classroom and life—the sooner we will see those same individuals believe in themselves, think new opportunities are possible for them, and change the freakin’ world.

I remember walking to the library during my first year as a professor. It was finals week, spring semester. I was relieved. I survived. I ‘faked’ my way through. (imposter syndrome was still very deep in my bones). Late nights creating lectures, praying students wouldn’t see my rookie status. I was working out the kinks.

Summer was just. a. few. days. away. Almost. There.

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Across the quad, I heard someone yell my name. I turned around to see a young woman running towards me. She was one of us, a history and poli sci major. I had never had her in class but she was a legit student—I heard it through the grapevine.

Hi!” She said with heavy breath.

“Hey! What’s up?”

I just wanted to let you know—thanks for being here.”

“I’m sorry?”

"You know, it’s just really cool seeing a female doing what you’re doing. I’ve never had a female professor in history or poli sci. It makes me think I might be able to do it too. [Awkward pause] You know, be a professor. So, ummm…thanks!”

She then ran off to take her next final.

In our thirteen-member department, I was the only female. And, the youngest by 10, maybe 15 years. And the first year was hard. Working my way through a lonely sea of tweed jackets, bourbon, and cigars, there were thousands of times I questioned whether I belonged, if I fit in. If it would work.

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But, that short conversation changed me. I started seeking out female students. No longer wondering “Do they really want to talk to me?! The young, female professor?!” But, they did. Shockingly. They asked me everything from the origins of the Civil War to what you wear to an interview to how to handle unwanted advances.

I settled in. Realizing, for a time, I was right where I needed to be. I by no means changed the world—but I understood how absolutely vital it was to have individuals like you in places you aspired to be. And, maybe, that was why I was so uncomfortable in my own position—it seemed, at least in this small-town, rural college, we were the outliers, not the norm.

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Again, representation matters. At the unveiling of her portrait, Michelle Obama said she was thinking of little girls, “who in the years ahead will come to this place and see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of a great American institution…And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls.”

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Before Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman testified against former physician Larry Nassar, who received a 175-year sentence for sexually abusing his patients, there were 70 individuals who planned to testify. “I didn’t think I would be here today. I was scared and nervous. It wasn’t until I started watching the impact statements from the other brave survivors that I realized I, too, needed to be here.”After her testimony, another 86 individuals came forward to share their stories.

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And, after the inspiration of Serena Williams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 19-year-old Avra Reddy ran for Madison Wisconsin’s City Council. The first time in 26 years a woman had won—and, historically, the first woman of color. She told Elle Magazine, “I turned to women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Serena Williams, these wonderful, strong women of color who came out of situations where people thought they could not be where they are today. Turning to women like that—and recognizing that those women were consistently told that they couldn't and they weren't good enough—really pushed me to think that my background and who I am will get me to where I want to go.

So, that’s how this whole thing got started. I believe if you see it, you can be it. We have no control over how young girls are raised or who they come in contact with or what they experience, but if their curriculum reflects them, they’re more likely to believe they can, and will, do whatever it is they dream.