Courage, Authenticity, and Inspiration: Reflections on Women’s History Month

Women share stories of those who inspired them—and challenges still facing women today
Seven women in outline on a purple background
Photo illustration: Momo Shinzawa
March 18, 2021

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In honor of Women’s History Month, Tufts Now reached out to members of the Tufts community and recent university guests to share stories about the women who inspire them, and to talk about the issues and questions facing contemporary women.

Work to Be Done
I was born in the 1960s; not that long before I was born, women had so few rights. For my mother’s generation, it was incredibly difficult to balance home and work life. My mother went back to work 12 years after I was born, while I was able to do so after only three months. Jen Covell, J86I think that the pandemic has also made us realize that there needs to be a better childcare infrastructure and more support for women who have to take care of their children, and also advance in their career. And as a full-time working mother, I say that’s an opportunity. We’re fortunate enough to have more resources than many women before us did, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Women’s History Month reminds us of that. — Jen Covell, J86, president of the Tufts University Alumni Association

Know Who You Are
I think that young women today have challenges that I did not experience, one of which is that you have almost unlimited options. We have a Massachusetts astronaut who is going to be the first Sarah Booth Photo: Anna Miller/ Tufts Universitywoman to walk on the moon, and we have a woman of color as the Vice President of the United States. In many countries, political glass ceilings have been smashed, and there are many inspiring women in politics right now. But when you have too many options, you might become overwhelmed with what is the right path. People are always willing to tell you what you should or should not do, which makes you want to fit into their expectations. I would tell every young woman that it's more important to know who you are and be authentic to yourself. If you are true to yourself, you can do your best at whatever you do. Because, then, you will have made the right choice for you. — Sarah Booth, Director, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University (HNRCA)

Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, NJ, August 1964 Photo: WikipediaRestoring Courage
When I think about women who have inspired me, there are so many I could list. The person, though, in whom I have been finding the most situational inspiration throughout this pandemic is Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a leader in civil rights, in reproductive justice, in democracy… She is an important reason why American democracy even exists and why the Democratic Party shifted from a white supremacy party to one that allowed Black people to be a part of it. Hers is a history that we consider only every so often. In reality, there are many Black women like her who were business leaders, spiritual leaders, and movement leaders and whose contributions to building the Democratic Party and our democracy (across the South, in particular) are—like Hamer’s—invisibilized. I have always known about her, but I find myself relearning her story now, as a way of restoring courage through our current journey. — Political strategist and activist Wilnelia Rivera, A04, AG14

Admiring Those Who Follow Us
Although I can certainly name many women in history whom I admire for their accomplishments, the woman who inspires me on a daily basis is my daughter [Dr. Marianna Papageorge, A12, M18]. Every day, I watch her dedication to her chosen profession. I see how hard she works, how strong she is, and how she wishes to improve. Maria Papageorge. Photo: Alonso NicholsWhen she becomes discouraged, as we all do, she is resilient. Her strength inspires me to keep trying even harder in everything I do in my life. Women tend to be hard on themselves, but I wish the young women today who are working hard and are succeeding in their professional careers could see themselves through our eyes. — Dr. Maria Papageorge, professor and chair, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, and associate dean for hospital affairs, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine

Find You Authentic Self
Know your why. For me, my why was the one in five children who lived in poverty... Know your power, know your mind. There’s nobody like you; you are the authentic you. What’s inside of you, what you care about, what you know about, what you want to do—makes all the difference. Authenticity is everything. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at Tufts University on May 3, 2019. Photo: Anna MillerAnd you are the authentic you. When you see somebody else and think, ‘Oh, I’d like to be like that.’ Forget that—you are the best you... you are what this country needs. — Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, in response to a question from Victoria Tran, A21, about Pelosi’s advice for women starting out in their careers (Pelosi spoke to a Tufts audience last month, as part of the Alan D. Solomont Lecture on Citizenship & Public Service on Feb. 25.)

Honoring Those Before Us
It’s important for women to remember that whatever opportunities they seize, they don’t do so in silence. Through their achievements, women effectively communicate with other women, especially younger generations, and serve as role models for them. As a woman in engineering, I looked up to great female Marie Curie 1903 Nobel Prize portrait. Photo: Wikipediascientists like Marie Curie. Even in the face of formidable challenges and rejection, Curie was persistent and ambitious. She broke down many barriers, attended Warsaw’s “Floating University,” an illegal night school (as women in Poland could not attend university); worked as a governess to save money for her and her sister to go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne; looked for a research laboratory tirelessly and met her husband, Pierre, who cleared a small space for her in his lab; and became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person ever to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields (physics and chemistry). Women’s History Month is a time for us to both honor women like Curie and also to do the work of encouraging younger women to achieve their own ambitions. — Provost and Senior Vice President Nadine Aubry