Telling Women’s Stories: WEW Conference

By Marija Tesla ’11

One thing I love about Italian culture is how romantically it intertwines the past with the present while the country as a whole looks toward the future. I experienced this firsthand earlier this summer when I attended the Women’s Education Worldwide (WEW) Student Leadership Conference hosted by Collegio Nuovo, which took place as Italy celebrated its 150 years of unification.

President Emeritus Joanne V. Creighton and Smith College President Carol Christ founded WEW in 2003 to bring together leaders in women’s colleges and universities worldwide to learn from one another and exchange ideas for advocating for women’s education.

Affiliated with the larger, much older University of Pavia, Collegio Nuovo is a 30-year-old women’s college located in Pavia, a small town 27 miles southwest of Milan. During this weeklong conference, I met women from around the world who, like me, have attended or currently attend a women’s college in their home country. I was there representing Mount Holyoke, and I am grateful the College made it possible for me to go.

I attended workshops that covered a diverse array of topics: We heard a short history of the 650-year-old University of Pavia; learned about contemporary Italian women’s writing; reflected on Italy’s unification from a gender perspective; and discussed education as a key to development, among many other subjects. I also gave a presentation about MHC and what inspired me to come to the conference. I shared some admission statistics from Mount Holyoke, as well as the personal experiences that shaped me and helped form who I am today.

One of my favorite workshops was given by Laura Dimitrio, a professor and fashion and art consultant. She spoke about how fashion is a faithful mirror of social, political, and economic history. She discussed how the moon boot became a fashion staple after the landing of the first person on the moon, while women’s empowerment coincided with the popularization of the miniskirt by London designer Mary Quant during the 1960s. Fashion is truly an art form in Italy—something I appreciate—and is probably one of the many things that made me fall in love with this country.

In addition to attending workshops, we visited Turin, where I toured the Museum of Cinema located in the Mole Antonelliana, the architectural symbol of Turin. The building was completed in 1889 and rises above the city to a height of 549.5 feet. When first built, it was the tallest masonry building of its time. Being afraid of heights, I agreed to go up the elevator to the top, but I had to hold onto the other students who were in the elevator with me as we headed up the “Mole.” At the top, I let go of my fears, walked out onto the balcony, and was greeted by an incredible 360-degree panoramic view of scenic Turin and its surrounding mountains. Standing on the symbol of this city that had been Italy’s first capital (before it moved to Florence and then Rome), I couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of taking in this view during Italy’s celebration of a century and a half of unity.

I had many great experiences in Italy while I was at the conference and later on as I traveled on my own. Somehow, though, I can never forget the moment I had with the women in that elevator. No matter how afraid I was, I knew I would be fine because I was surrounded by other strong women who, like myself, have their own strengths and fears, all of which spring from their pasts and presents. In that moment, nothing else mattered—they were willing to help me as I confronted one of my own fears and give me the strength I needed.

The conference was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it brought to mind a question I have been grappling with for some time: Are women's unification and a worldwide movement that makes every woman an equal member of her society possible?

I would say yes, but not easily. Though I don’t know how, I do know we should strive for a world in which women are equal members in society, and we should try to come to an understanding of what that would mean around the world. Only by looking into the past and figuring out how we arrived where we are today will we make the future a better place for women. Unification lies in knowing one’s history. Many women’s stories don’t exist, are told by men, or are scattered and broken. Italy is a country dealing with many issues, but also celebrating all that it has managed to preserve and unite. Perhaps women could do the same: hold onto the past, address the present, and work toward a better future.