The third annual Where are the Women? conference was held virtually from Wednesday, Feb. 24 to Saturday, Feb. 27. The theme of this year’s conference, which is organized by Wheaton students, was belonging. Sessions addressed issues such as gender-based violence, vocation and corporate activism.
The conference hosted five sessions throughout the week centered around the theme of belonging. Assistant professor of psychology Christin Fort ‘10 began the conference with a chapel message on Monday, Feb. 22, using the biblical story of Ananais and Sapphira in Acts 5 to highlight the importance of honesty and a woman’s role in truth-telling.
The four-day conference hosted sessions on women in leadership and a variety of careers such as the arts, publishing and faith communities. Speakers and the student cabinet held panel discussions and coffee-hour discussions over Zoom, allowing them to invite speakers outside of Wheaton such as pastor of Grace + Peace Community Sandra Maria Van Opstal and executive director of Christians for Social Action Nikki Toyama-Szeto. Wheaton’s Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer Sheila Caldwell, Provost Karen An-Hwei Lee and visiting assistant lecturer of anthropology Liliana Quiroa-Crowell co-presented a session on women in academia.
“It was a joy to see this year’s planning committee consider speakers, topics and formats that didn’t happen my year,” said Madison Casteel, senior anthropology and urban studies major and former program director of WAW20. “Professor Quiroa-Crowell’s reflections on her experience as a biracial woman at Wheaton and anthropological work on memory were a particular gift, as was the panel on violence against women.”
Sophomore math major Willow Noltemeyer attended the session on “Women Leading in Academia and Leadership” and also praised Quiroa-Crowell for her contributions to the panel. “I really appreciated her frankness about Wheaton’s focus on one type of story and how that kind of story isn’t always representative of Wheaton’s entire student body,” said Noltemeyer. “Her call to cultivate stories that can make the entire student body feel welcome was both important and moving.”
According to Program Director and graduate student Joy Lee, this year’s conference expanded its focus from analyzing vocations to include how women can successfully integrate and “belong” in these fields. Unlike previous years, the conference also aimed to expand beyond the immediate Wheaton community by featuring female guest speakers from a variety of different ethnic and vocational backgrounds.
The conference press release stated, “We believe that belonging itself occurs at the intersection of three realities: being grounded in the love of Christ; being seen, valued and loved in community; and building Shalom, also known as God’s Kingdom on earth.”
WAW is an independent student-run committee that is formally supported by the Office of the Provost and the Office of Student Engagement as well as the Vocation & Alumni Engagement department, as well as other organizations including the Bible and Theology department. Each year, the committee changes and new women who are interested in organizing the annual conference submit their applications during the spring semester.
The WAW21 committee is made up of eight total cabinet members: Program Director Joy Lee, Assistant Director Abigail Chen, Communication Director Katie Gienapp, Social Media Director Sophie Winnes, Hospitality Director Grace Brooks, Chapel Director Claire Miller and Fundraising Co-Directors Lily Huang and Justine Stewart.
Lee said representation was a key factor in choosing speakers both at Wheaton and in the broad Christian community. The WAW21 committee noticed that past conferences had featured mostly white speakers. This year they focused on inviting more women from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.
“We think representation is an important aspect,” said Lee, a graduate student majoring in humanitarian and disaster leadership. “Being mindful of hearing from different voices — folks coming from different life stages, vocations, ethnic backgrounds.”
Towards the end of the conference, the speakers addressed issues of patriarchy, white supremacy and Christian nationalism. Recognizing the racial tensions within the past year, the committee stated their enthusiasm to build an atmosphere filled with love, understanding and “shalom” for women of color.
While the conference is typically held in Barrows Auditorium, WAW21 had to accommodate the COVID-19 precautions by hosting nearly all the sessions online. The opening event allowed a few participants to attend in person, and the remainder of the sessions were held completely virtually. Two of the committee’s biggest concerns about these changes were promoting the event and being aware of students’ “Zoom fatigue.”
“I think [COVID] did impact attendance because of screen time. I really appreciate folks who are still engaging, despite all the zoom classes and stuff that they have to do on screen,” Lee explained. According to her, there was an average of 35 live attendees throughout the entire conference, ranging between 20-75 in the sessions.
“Where are the Women? started during a walk and a conversation Camille Frey and I had during my visit with her mid-way through her HNGR internship in Ndola, Zambia,” explained professor of theology and director of the Center for Early Christian Studies George Kalantzis. “Camille was working with Christian organizations whose aim was to educate young girls and women and empower them to see themselves as the full image-bearers of God they are. Yet, even though empowerment and claiming places of responsibility by and for women were the aims of Christian organizations towards the surrounding culture, women were absent from positions of leadership within these same organizations and the churches they represented.”
According to Kalantzis, they noticed that though women made up two-thirds of the church population, that number did not reflect in church leadership. They later found that the lack of women leadership in the Zambian church perfectly juxtaposed the American church. Back at Wheaton, Kalantzis and Frey began to work on launching the very first Where are the Women? Conference.
“When I returned to Wheaton in the fall of 2017, I asked a number of our students, graduate and undergraduate, if these are questions that interest them and if they would like to think together of best ways to explore them further,” Kalantzis said. “The response was immediate and explosive, as if they had been waiting for a lifetime to find a safe space to ask the questions.”
After a two-year process of brainstorming, forming a committee and then fundraising, the first WAW conference was held in February 2019. The original included roughly 17 speakers, pulling from student leaders, alumna, faculty and administrators on campus.
“It brought me a lot of joy seeing the growth, the evolution over the years,” said Caldwell, whose office has been involved with WAW for three years. Caldwell helped sponsor this year’s conference and called the overall experience “exceptional.”
In spite of the setbacks the committee experiences, including running short-staffed or relying heavily on social media and technology to program the typical in-person event, Lee said COVID has offered future committees the option to include more external speakers than was previously possible.
“I think [COVID] opens that door up a little bit for the future committees if they want to take it into [a hybrid] direction,” she said. “Our plan is to incorporate some feedback for the future committee. I think it would be valuable to have a better understanding of virtual conferencing.”
Wheaton College, IL