By Aleksandra Sidorova
SUNY Plattsburgh celebrated International Women’s Day Wednesday, March 8, with presentations and talks centering women, guest speakers and students alike.
The Alumni Conference Room at Angell College Center welcomed Maria Holderman, a fourth-generation teacher and a journalist who, in the 1990s, uncovered human trafficking in Romanian orphanages through more than 1,000 articles and 50 documentaries on the issue. Twenty years later, she wrote a book on her findings and experiences, called “Children of the Decree,” published in February last year.
The specific decree Holderman is referencing is Decree 770, passed in 1967 by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, which abolished abortions and contraceptives with the goal of 2 million children being born. Born the same year, Holderman herself is part of the generation of “children of the decree.” The decree resulted in more than 10,000 women’s deaths, an increase in children being put up for adoption and human trafficking in orphanages.
Holderman investigated the disappearances of children in Romanian orphanages by posing as someone looking to adopt a child. After publishing her materials, Holderman faced lawsuits and death threats, causing her to leave Romania on a one-way trip to Vermont. Once her book was out, so many victims of the trafficking reached out to her that she will be publishing a second edition to include all the new details the testimonies revealed. She said the former minister of justice Valeriu Stoica and former president of Romania Emil Constantinescu, who served from 1996 to 2000, both remember her for her work, albeit by her pen name Dana Achim.
“Be the change you want to see,” Holderman said as part of her presentation. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Holderman’s work started with visiting prisons to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals and seek out underreported stories. Her first press campaign emphasized the unfairness of a young woman having to serve a prison sentence of three and a half years for stealing food to feed her child, and eventually, Holderman was asked to personally bring the subject of her campaign home. Besides the impact one woman could make, Holderman spoke on the power of reading — her love for reading gave her the ability to think critically in a time of censorship and lack of information on the outside world.
Another event featuring women’s voices was Fuerza: The BIPOC Student Union’s fourth annual Womxn Empowerment Panel focusing on leadership, allyship and sisterhood. Seven female students were chosen to be panelists for the event: Marileana Rodriguez, Abieyuwa Uzamere, Djeneba Sy, Angelina Rodriguez, Kaliyah Green, Alexa Santos and Phardia Desir.
The panelists defined what womanhood means to them — confidence, support and being able to speak about their feelings and goals without backlash.
They also shared personal sries of when they felt empowered as women: Desir sued her employer — CVS Pharmacy — for discrimination on the basis of hair and won a few thousand dollars, Green proved to a spiteful teacher that she could read well enough to transition into the next grade in school, Angelina Rodriguez inspires her younger sisters to pursue leadership and education opportunities, Marileana Rodriguez was part of an all-female leadership board in the male-dominated Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and Santos said she was the first in her father’s family to finish middle and high school and will be the first to get a PhD.
The panelists also examined and discussed research on pay gaps across race and gender and the “pink tax,” whereby products marketed toward women are priced higher than products marketed toward men, and sometimes a pink variety of a product can cost more than a blue variety. The panel concluded with lessons attendees were expected to leave with: treating others with kindness and holding peers accountable.
Shelby Disla and Glendaliz Espinal, the event’s hosts and organizers, said the women they chose as their panelists exceeded their expectations. When selecting their panelists, they looked for women who don’t usually speak at events, but have powerful voices nonetheless. While planning for the event, they had a list of up to two dozen panel candidates, but about six women they asked to panel declined.
“They said it’s not that they didn’t want to do it, but they were just nervous,” Disla said. “And I think that’s also what comes with being a woman: every time you say stuff, you’re thinking, while you’re saying it, what are the consequences?”
Yet, sometimes the invitation itself can be empowering to a woman, even if she declines it, Disla said.
Attendees received free wristbands with the affirmations “I am creative,” “I am brave,” “I am strong” and “I am amazing” in a variety of colors. Additionally, Fuerza collaborated with the Women in Leadership club, encouraging panelists and attendees to wear purple — a color connoting leadership, status and luxury while not traditionally associated with a particular gender.
Spelling “women” with an “x” was also intentional, as it removes the “men” from “women.” Other alternative spellings include “womyn” and “womon.”
“‘Menstual cycle’ has ‘men’ in it too, and we never realize that,” Espinal said. “All these things around us — even ‘history’ has ‘his’ in it. I feel like there’s men everywhere, but how about women? We also deserve to be everywhere.”
Disla has a similar view of the term.
“The more I grow, the more I realize: most of who I am has nothing to do with a man,” Disla said.
Disla also acknowledged the term can be controversial and perceived as exclusive of transgender women and said using the term was a matter of personal preference.
Fuerza’s past Womxn Empowerment Panels discussed aspects of womanhood such as social experiences, COVID-19 and media influences. Disla recalled how last year, someone asked her why International Women’s Day is important, indicating a need for such conversations.
Nelly Reyes, a senior majoring in communications, was one of the 40 to 50 students who attended the event. Reyes said he was raised in a household of mostly women and he likes how women can bring a community together and have “genuine happiness within them.”
“I don’t know if it’s something that men are lacking — I don’t know if we just lack being happy — but it’s refreshing to kind of see a product of their joy,” Reyes said.
Reyes said people can be uncomfortable when discussing issues associated with the opposite sex due to subconsciously putting the groups against each other.
“I do feel like men tend to avoid these types of events, not necessarily because they don’t care or that they feel distaste towards women. I feel like sometimes it can be uncomfortable, and vice versa for women, especially when talking about men’s health awareness,” Reyes said.
However, Reyes said it felt “good” not to be part of the conversation and instead listen to the women speak at the event and learn their perspectives.