What Is a Woman?

I've had many teachers in life, including women who have taught me particularly important lessons about courage, strength, resilience, caring, and compassion.

Cindy, the oldest of my three sisters, realized at an early age that it was her job to help look after the other four kids in the Berry clan. My sister Barb became a veterinarian, the first doctor in our family. The one who was closest to me in age, Wendy, became my best friend growing up. My mother Norma went back to work when I started preschool in the early 1960s, and continued working as a schoolteacher and elementary school principal until she retired. And my grandmother, Ruby, lived to be 101, and would often recount to us colorful stories from her life, such as the one about traveling all day in a covered wagon to see the Wright Brothers perform breathtaking feats in their amazing flying machines.

All these women and others demonstrated to me wonderful qualities that I respected and admired, and sought to emulate and incorporate into my own sense of values and ideals. There are countless examples in our culture of strong, courageous women and their many accomplishments and contributions to the world. So why is it that so many women who are in positions of power and leadership appear threatening to so many who live in our male-dominated society?

A recurring theme at this year's International AIDS Conference was the role of women in ending the epidemic. In her address at the conference opening plenary, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about the essential role of communities, especially people living with HIV, in turning the tide on the epidemic. "And it will come as no surprise to you," Clinton told the packed audience, "that I would like to highlight the particular role that women play."

Clinton pointed out that in Sub-Saharan Africa women account for 60% of people living with HIV. "Women want to protect themselves, and they want adequate health care, and we need to answer their call," said Clinton. "Every woman should be able to decide when and whether to have children. This is true if she is HIV-positive or not. Women need and deserve a voice in the decisions that affect their lives."

In a lively morning plenary session by a panel made up of mostly women, HIV-positive educator and activist Linda Scruggs said it best by stating she wasn't going to ask for anything, because women have been asking to be counted in for the last two decades. "Today I stand here to give you some directions. We've decided to stop asking, and maybe you just need the recipe."

Scruggs called for meaningful involvement of women at every level, from the government to local communities and organizations, and also made it clear that women are not just asking for male-run organizations that "tolerate" a women's program. "We need the support and resources ... to give us the power to heal our sisters, to change our men. We are the mothers of the earth."

In her talk, Scruggs also shared part of what she says got her to the stage that day. She learned she was HIV-positive while visiting a perinatal clinic and was 13-weeks pregnant, and had to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy and live five years, or have the baby and possibly live three. She says she's glad that day the doctor was wrong, and her son, Isaiah, was born free of HIV, and he just recently turned 21.

"I could've made the decision to have an abortion. An abortion would not have been the first one I had had, but I had an experience with God. I had an experience that ... made me really look and reflect about women. After all, what is a woman who thinks she's ugly? What is a woman who feels she has no self-value? What is a woman who allows not one, but two men to rape her in silence? What is a woman who allows an uncle to molest her and others and still be silent?... What is a woman who feels that she's been broken and voiceless? What is a woman who's afraid of understanding herself? What is a woman who spent a lifetime trying to be someone other than herself?

"I'll tell you, that cold November day, that woman was me, but it was through the support of this community that I was able to find a voice and a place, that I could be just who I say I am. I am a woman."

Take care of yourself, and each other.

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