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Tuesday, June 14th was a big day for me. To be fair, it was a big day for a lot of women. It was the day of the inaugural White House Summit on the United State of Women, which I was fortunate enough to attend. But for me, it was also the day I was returning to the city where I was attacked and sexually assaulted.
I had not been back to Washington D.C. since 2013. That summer, I was interning for one of my state's senators. I was ecstatic, dedicated, and only 20 years old. While the other interns went to bars, I wandered the city and frequented 24-hour bookshops and cafes. I was on my way to a bookstore one night when I was raped, just three days short of returning to Arkansas.
My rapist took my wallet as he fled. Because it had my Senate ID badge, I had to admit my wallet was taken. I just told my supervisors I was mugged. I couldn't tell them I was raped when I was walking alone at night. I had been warned for years that women shouldn't walk alone. I chose to violate that warning and as a result, I rationalized this is what I deserved.
Because of my silence, I couldn't tell anyone what else he had taken from me: my peace of mind, my privacy, my self-worth, my dignity, and after a few months, my health.
When I returned to college that following fall, within the first month a student was raped. Later I learned that this was not the first to happen on my small campus, but this was the first notification email the student body had received. After reading "The suspect was not apprehended," I panicked. Someone was raped, less than a block from my apartment door, and the rapist was free.
I found it hard to breath and my vision started to gray and blur. The seizures started immediately and continued for months, stumping neurologists, cardiologists, and the emergency room doctors I frequented. I had to take medical leave for a semester. The seizures came with such frequency that I began hallucinating, seeing images of a man lurking in the shadows wherever I went. I stopped eating and fell back into an eating disorder I had distanced myself from.
In an effort to help me mend something, my grandparents took me to an eating disorder clinic, hoping that we could at least battle the known disease. After sobbing and telling my therapist about the assault, the seizures began to subside. I was diagnosed with PTSD and dissociative seizures and was able to receive treatment to start centering myself and processing what happened. I felt like I could breathe again.
I thought about this as I disembarked from the plane in D.C. Tuesday. I looked around at a familiar airport and set off.
"Today will change tomorrow."
As that declaration echoed in halls at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the inaugural White House Summit on the United States of Women officially commenced. By the time the 11-hour summit drew to a close, I had cried three times, my hands were sore from applause, and I was committed as ever to continuing to fight for gender equality. But while the summit was great at revitalizing and energizing the attendees, it was the feelings of safety and steadfast support that were the most potent.
Vice President Joe Biden was one of the first speakers at the podium and his address tackled a familiar issue: rape culture and violence against women. Biden, a long vocal advocate against sexual assault, gave an impassioned 50 minute speech that echoed sentiments from his letter to Emily Doe.
"If you cannot consent because you are unconscious, it is rape. Period. The answer isn't to shame women for drinking. Consent isn't, 'Well I didn't hear 'no," Biden said, to emotional applause and tears from the men and women in the room. "We have to give women and girls a greater voice. They have to be assured that their voices will be heard."
This challenge was a theme that carried throughout the summit. From violence against women to women's health care access to empowering women in the workforce, the sole responsibility of driving equality was lifted from the shoulders of women and distributed among all. As women, we have the ability to speak about our experiences, to share our innovations, and to empower ourselves. Some women have always worked to exercise this ability, to push back against sexism, but were often met with closed eyes and closed ears. At the summit, women were encouraged to keep challenging sexism, but in speeches from Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Mariska Hargitay, Oprah Winfrey, Matt McGorry, and Quentin Walcott, men and allies were called upon to listen, acknowledge, and be better.
This summit marks a unification of sectors where women are still unfairly impacted. While the addresses on sexual assault were the most poignant for me, I talked to other women and men who were particularly moved by discussions from all six areas covered by the summit. As the lights rose in the halls and we began to disperse to our corners of the country, we left with determination and hope. We celebrated accomplishments, but more importantly identified how to unify and move forward to keep driving gender equality.
As my plane taxied down the runway, I thought back to my anxiety about returning. I thought back to my assault and my silence. If I had been told that walking alone was not cause for my rape, I would have come forward. If I had not watched other women shamed for their rape, I would not have felt shame for mine. If my college had known how to deal with rape in a comprehensive way, I would have not been terrified of my own campus. I can't go back and change the past, so instead I move forward, because today I can change tomorrow.