From 1892 to Today: 8 Lessons from 125 Years of Women at Brown

06/15/2017 01:43 pm ET

In 1892, when women first enrolled at my alma mater, Brown University, the average woman lived to be just 44 years old. The most common cause of death was complications from pregnancy and childbirth. We’ve come a long way since then, but today around the world women still face many of the same struggles for reproductive health and justice as the generations before us. I recently had the chance to join fellow alumni to celebrate 125 Years of Women at Brown. I was so inspired by the women I met – visionaries who broke the mold, paved the way for future generations, and shared their stories. Here are my top takeaways.

  1. Janet Yellen, class of ’67 and the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve, knows well that as a country we suffer when a lack of affordable childcare and paid family leave keep women from reaching their potential in the workplace. Currently, childcare is affordable for fewer than half of families in most states, and only five percent of lower wage jobs have paid family leave policies. Affordable childcare and paid family leave have been shown to increase full-time employment and help women stay in the workforce – it only makes sense to consider this when leading our country’s central bank.
  2. How do you speak with someone, not for someone? Actress, writer, and Brown grad Aunjanue Ellis spoke to the power of sharing experience through storytelling. Her advice? If you’re telling a story about someone, truly hear their voices – don’t override their story with your own narrative. It takes courage to be an authentic storyteller.
  3. Senator Maggie Hassan, class of ’80, called out the need for more women in politics. She first got involved in politics as an advocate for her son, who has severe cerebral palsy. Now she fights for all children to have a full life.
  4. What is the key to confidence? Legendary Professor Barbara Tannenbaum (who has taught at Brown for 46 years!) says the only way to gain confidence is to fail. Before you fail, you live in fear of failure. Fail fast and move on.
  5. Diane von Furstenberg, fashion designer, philanthropist, and mother of two Brown alums, describes life vividly and honestly. In her words: “Life is a journey. My life is full of different mountains – colorful, boring, everything.”
  6. More from DVF: “When you’re successful, 1) you can pay the bills and 2) you have a voice. And when you have a voice, you have an opportunity to share your voice with others who don’t have one.”
  7. Last one from DVF: “I have never met a woman who is not strong. It’s always women who take care of everyone in a tragedy. Know that you are strong before the tragedy.”
  8. And last but not least, Cecile Richards, class of ’80 and president of Planned Parenthood, reminded us that healthcare is a human right, and it belongs to everybody. Today, the total number of women who graduate from college is six times what it was before women had access to birth control. According to her, that kind of progress happens when people are willing to challenge the status quo and, increasingly, our own government. Her appeal: “Use your platform to challenge authority, take a stand, and make a difference.”

That’s the way we’ll keep making progress over the next 125 years.

<em>Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, speaks to alumnae at Brown University</em>
Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, speaks to alumnae at Brown University

Caitlin is a founding member of Maverick Collective, an initiative of Population Services International, a global health non-profit with operations in 65 countries and 9000 staff. Maverick Collective members partner on PSI programs to tackle critical challenges faced by women and girls through innovative projects to develop game-changing interventions that government and businesses cannot advance on their own. Members are working shoulder to shoulder with a global community providing proof for solutions that radically impact the lives of girls and women in the most undeserved parts of the world.

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