To the women I never thanked who helped get me here

International Women’s Day — an opportunity to celebrate empowering female figures who make us stronger, kinder, braver and better. Songs, movies and novels have been made honoring self-sacrificing mothers and powerful women who have fought their way to a seat at the table — may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them. I could write epic poems about the strength my mother demonstrated in raising four hardheaded children, and I could write an autobiography solely describing the ways that women such as Patsy Mink, the first Asian woman in Congress, have inspired me to shatter that ever-raising glass ceiling.

But on this International Women’s Day, I’ve been reflecting on the women who have remained largely invisible in my life and in mainstream media, but who have nonetheless had profound influences on me. I’d like to thank these women, who have served as the unsung heroes in making me who I am today.

Like my third grade teacher, who used stuffed animals in class to pick apart toxic masculinity. At the beginning of the year, she gave each of us a stuffed animal to keep in our desk, and we were responsible for keeping it safe. She also advised us to turn to it for comfort, and use it for emotional support when we felt challenged in any way in class. Instead of teaching 7-year-old boys that emotional unavailability and insensitivity were traits intrinsic to their identity, she encouraged us all equally to let ourselves be emotionally vulnerable and caring for the tiny creatures. She gave boys and girls alike a space where we were all equally responsible for investing in the well-being of another entity. Although I was too young to notice the results, this exercise in kindness and equality reminds me today that empowered women can only exist in a space where men are empowered to break their own gendered norms as well, and she taught me that no one is above kindness and compassion. Thank you, Ms. Baker.

Or the saleslady at Victoria’s Secret who sold me my first real bra. As an awkward 11-year-old who desperately wanted to grow up but whose body was caught in its midadolescent disproportions, advancing beyond hand-me-down training bras was an exciting yet mortifying step. I remember standing in the dressing room, looking in the mirror at my rounded belly, stocky legs and blooming chest topped with a head of frizzy hair and squinty eyes, confronting the reality that I’d never be one of those “beautiful” girls who made guys stop on the street. “Cute,” sure, maybe even “pretty.” But never “hot” or “gorgeous” or any other adjective worthy of attention. I remember the tall, perfectly proportioned, undeniably beautiful Latina salesgirl taking my measurements and noticing my wistful glances at the perfectly airbrushed model on the wall. As she handed me the 32AA, she told me,  “Don’t worry honey, no one looks like that. Your body is beautiful because it’s yours, and every part of it is yours, and no one can take that from you.” With a wink, she added, “Her smile has got nothing on yours.” I don’t remember her name, but I owe her thanks for teaching me to love myself when I didn’t know how.

Or my high school calculus teacher, who never gave up on me despite my repeated pleas to let me move to the easier class. Throughout my formative years, I had internalized a belief that I wasn’t good at math, and never would be. Although I earned good grades in advanced classes, it felt like I was always struggling more than other students — particularly the boys in class. It felt like I was the only one not getting it, and it always seemed like I needed to perform better on tests just to prove myself. This teacher, however, gave me all the encouragement I didn’t realize I needed — not in the form of praise or flattery, but instead in the form of frustration. She made it clear that the only one who didn’t believe in my abilities was me, and that if I let go of my perception of myself as inferior and embraced challenges instead of hiding from them, I could achieve whatever I wanted. Thank you, Ms. Chute.

Or the woman who served as the night editor of The Daily Californian when I first submitted my application as a timid freshman. I didn’t really have any kind of qualifications for the position and there were dozens of applicants who were undoubtedly more competent than me, but she gave me a chance and inducted me into an organization that would become a cornerstone in my college life. And, most memorably of all, she invited me to my first college party, a small kickback with people in our department who finally made me feel welcomed on a campus that was otherwise completely isolating. She taught me another important lesson about women that I’ve carried with me through college: the most successful ones don’t make it in life despite being fun, compassionate and full of personality — they make it because of those things. For being a role model who I owe a lot, thank you, Janani.

Our lives are composed of interactions with extraordinary women who affect us in extraordinary, if sometimes understated, ways. With two older sisters, a rotation of female mentors and a national network of empowered women I’m connected to through my sorority, I’ve never faced a shortage of inspiring female influences in my life. But today, I’m thinking about the women I don’t normally think about — the ones who don’t necessarily wield massive power or prominence in society, but who have nonetheless given me valuable wisdom about being an empowered woman. I’m thinking about all the women I’ve never gotten a chance to thank for making me the person I am today.

Contact Hannah Nguyen at [email protected].