Women Talk About the Moments They Felt Most Powerful

For some it was succeeding at work, for others it was successfully threatening a sibling's bully.

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Aug 5 2016, 3:30pm

Illustration by Georgie Sturge. Hillary collage by Jamie Clifton

Last week, Hillary Clinton was chosen as the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Now, no matter what you think of that pantsuited warrior, one thing is certain: A woman being appointed the presidential nominee for one of the two major American political parties is a historic event.

If she becomes president, Clinton will get her own chapter in the history books—and those history books are a total sausage fest, so that would be great news. More important, she'll leave a lasting impression on women and girls around the world that they could some day hold that kind of power too. Girls in particular could use that kind of confidence boost: A recent study in the UK found that young girls grow less confident as they grow older.

So in order to combat this depressing reality, our VICE offices around the world asked women between the ages of 16 and 55 about the moment in their lives they felt most powerful.

TANIA, 16, SPAIN

I grew up in the Andalusian town of Xerez. I had to grow up quickly, because it was rough: fights, drugs, violence, and police raids are pretty common—in my family too. When I was about ten, I had to start taking care of my sister, who's a year younger than me. I had to clean the house, cook, and look after her, which kept me from doing schoolwork. When I was 12, a girl from our neighborhood who's a bit older than the both of us bullied my sister. One day I was so tired of seeing my sister terrified, I took the knife I kept under my pillow and went out to look for her. When I found her, she started yelling at me. I pulled out the knife and put it at her throat, with a coldness that I now find terrifying. She started to cry and begged me to let her go, which I did. She tried to punch me, but when I got the knife out again, she ran away.

I have never felt as powerful as when I was intimidating that bully. Looking back, I'm not proud of it—I just want to focus on making my life better now. But four years ago, that was my reality. It was the first time I realized that I have the power to change my life for the better.

KATHRIN, 22, AUSTRIA

I grew up in the countryside, and I had always been very insecure. At school, I felt like a constant target. When I turned 16, my family moved to the city, so I had to change schools. In my new school, I ended up in a class of 29 girls and one boy. I met and befriended such a wide variety of girls, each with such different skills and talents. People outside of our school always joked that we were all being trained to be housewives, but nothing was further from the truth. We had girls who were math geniuses and girls who were terrible at math. We had girls who were amazing at sports or languages, and girls who couldn't be bothered with it. Because we were all girls, none of us felt obliged to fit a certain kind of mold—none of us thought we had to be any kind of way to be a proper girl.

I surprised myself so many times with what I was capable of during those years, and I stopped worrying about whether I was good enough, or what I looked like. At my school, you just had to try everything to figure out who you were for yourself. That was a very powerful feeling, and the fact that I found my own voice by being around those girls still helps me every day.

ELISE, 29, THE NETHERLANDS

When I was 12, I finally decided what I would do with my life: I'd be a journalist, when grew up. I had a plan, too. First, I'd join the school paper, and then at 16, I would start doing odd jobs on weekends at the local newspaper, hoping they'd see something in me and reward my dedication by letting me write stuff for them. After graduation, I would study journalism, intern, and find a job. Because I like doing things thoroughly, I wrote the plan down in a notebook—which I then lost and completely forgot about.

When I was 17, I somehow recovered this notebook, and I saw the plan I had had for myself at 12. The only thing I had done from that list was join the school paper at 15. I left that paper due to creative differences and applied to be a part time staff writer for a well-read online magazine that was written and edited by and for people under 20. I was hired as their columnist, and I even got paid a little for every column. Through those columns, I was offered other writing jobs.

I had decided on studying literature after graduation, to specialize in something I loved. Re-reading that plan for myself five years earlier was such a powerful moment, because it gave me confidence that while things had gone differently than I had planned at 12, everything had worked out so much better. At 12, I couldn't imagine what I was capable of at 17—and I realized that at 17, I couldn't imagine what I'd be capable of in five or ten years. I've been insufferable ever since.

KASIA, 29, POLAND

On the day of my grandfather's funeral, I saw my father for the first time in years. We're basically strangers—my mother has taken care of my sister and me by herself since we were little. My dad never had a good relationship with his own parents, but we did—our grandparents always tried to compensate for the absence of their son in our lives. When my grandfather died, I expected my father to show up—despite their relationship. He did, and I'll never forget what happened. Almost 20 years after he abandoned us, he came up to me and just said: "Hi!" I was shocked and speechless for a second, to which he said: "You're not even going to shake my hand?"

That was it. The fantasy of a father that I've always had in my head disappeared immediately. My mother had never said anything bad about him to us, but suddenly it was all clear to me. When one of your parents leaves you at a young age, you live with a hole in your heart. Even if your remaining parent does everything in his or her power for you, you still feel incomplete, not good enough, unworthy of love and all that. When my father revealed himself to me as an incredible jerk, that hole disappeared. I actually felt relieved that this guy had never been in my life and wasn't ever going to be. That was a powerful realization. After the funeral, my sister and I went for a smoke out in the parking lot. We looked at each other and suddenly started to laugh.

CAITLYN, 19, NEW ZEALAND

I used to play cricket—the only girl among the boys. When I was ten, in my last year of primary school, we had this cup game. We played another private school, and it was the most important game of the year. Then, right before the game, our coach said, in front of the whole team, that he was putting me as captain. It was a big deal. Suddenly, I was in charge of all these boys. I was so young, but I felt really powerful.

In high school, I played in the girls' team, but I was also asked to play in the boys' first XI team. Initially, I found it a bit daunting to play with these boys—by now they were almost men. But I just needed a second to realize why I'd been asked—I was at their level, and I had to stand my ground. Especially in cricket, you get a bit of stick. People from opposite teams can make you feel quite small, but no matter what I felt inside I always tried to not let it affect my performance.

These days, I work in a factory largely populated by men—and not the most subtle ones. All day I hear sexist comments—people slagging off their wives, their girlfriends, or other co-workers. It can get pretty atrocious in the smoking room, but I always say something about it. The way those cricket coaches treated me gave me the power and confidence to not let anything slide.

RUXANDRA, 16, ROMANIA

I met my boyfriend at a treasure hunt on Valentine's Day—we were on the same team. He was 17, and I was just turning 15. I noticed him because he was a bit dorky, in a cute way. After that, we chatted on the phone every day, and after a week, we went out for lunch. When we went for a walk after, we held hands, and he suddenly kissed me. That's how it started. He was the first boy I really, really liked. But we kept fighting about little things, and I could never really talk to him. For example, if we played video games and he lost, he would be very upset. And we only saw each other on the weekends, because he went to a different school. So after six months he broke up with me, and we both cried when he did.

I couldn't eat anything that first week, and I cried a lot. One night, I asked my mother to sleep next to me. I was crying, and she didn't know what to do. I pretended to be OK at school and fell apart at home. When a friend from school realized what was happening, she gave me a stern talking to. She told me I had to get over it, that I needed to see it as a beautiful and ugly memory at the same time. It took a long time, but then suddenly there was a day that—out of the blue—I realized I was fine. That I was over it. I felt so powerful at that moment. I immediately changed the pet name I had for him in my phone into his normal name, changed the names of the playlists I had about him, and deleted his first texts to me. I felt so good after that.

CATALINA, 33, COLOMBIA

When I was very little, my great-grandmother Carlota took me voting during the presidential elections of 1986. She talked to the overseer of the polling station so he'd let me go with her in the booth, see her mark the ballot—and they even let me dip my finger in the ink that marked those who had voted. I'm not sure why, but I remember I was so incredibly proud. It might have been my great-grandmother's excitement that was contagious.

Having been born in 1900, she would have been 86 at the time and always had very passionate political ideas. She taught herself to read at age 15 and was a member of the suffragettes for a brief period of time. She wasn't allowed to vote until she was 57. She wanted me to know how important it was to engage politically—maybe she suspected that my generation would take it for granted, sometimes neglecting that we are only able to vote thanks to the hard work of so many women before us. Carlota died when I was 17, a year before I was old enough to vote myself. She had taken me along with her to the polling station every time she got to vote, but that first time made the biggest impression on me.

ANNA, 51, CANADA

My dad's older brother had four sons, and my uncle would always tease my dad for only having daughters. My dad used to tell him, "Anything your boys can do, my girls can do better." It became sort of a competition, and my dad was always so proud of the fact that we could do anything our cousins could do. Anything from schoolwork to manual labor: When my dad was building our house, my sister and I carried blocks and bricks; we worked at his store in the weekends; at 17, I was driving a truck.

My parents are very strong people. My mother came to Canada in a boat from Italy, when she was just 14. She made that ten-day journey across the ocean all by herself. The fact that my mother was such a strong woman and that my father was never intimidated by her really empowers me. But it hinders me, too. I've had people telling me, "Anna, you never found a man because you're too strong. There aren't many men who can handle such a woman." I don't believe that, but in some sense, if you're a powerful woman, you can intimidate other people.

MARY, 54, GREECE

I got married when I was young, and my husband had two jobs, so I stayed at home raising our children. When he bought a taxi, he could work whenever he wanted—when we were on vacation, he put one of our two sons to work. Everything in my life and my sons' lives depended on my husband—his money, his support, his problem-solving abilities.

Six years ago, the doctors told us he had cancer. I had to take care of him, our house, and our children, and hold him whenever the chemotherapy made him sick. The treatment was expensive, so I had to take over the taxi. I didn't know how to drive, so I took lessons and got my driving and taxi license. At first, I was afraid that I'd get lost when I drove someone around because I didn't know the way around Athens that well. When I had no customers—that was the only moment in the day I allowed myself to cry.

A year later, my husband died. But by that time I felt powerful. That year had taught me that I could do anything—work, take care of him, lift his mood, cook, give my sons emotional support. I had never felt stronger in my life. I could do anything—except keep my husband alive.

JAIME, 38, UNITED STATES

The moment I felt powerful for the first time was when I was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas. Before college, I'd had a sheltered upbringing. I'd never faced any resistance from anyone except my dad, over my fashion choices. And even he let me be me. But when I moved to Austin, I decided to really "push the boundaries." I cut off all my hair and dyed it purple—I was going for an Annie Lennox look. Some people in Texas didn't like this. They'd snicker and say mean things under their breath. I'd just ignore it and pretend I didn't hear.

But one time, while walking around campus, three big men walked by and hollered "Dyke!" at me. I say "hollered," but I really mean "sang." They stretched it out: "Dyyyyyyykkkkkkke!!!" This time—I still don't know what came over me—I turned around and screamed back: "Ignorant sons of bitches!" They moved away, embarrassed, their giggles cut quickly into silence—by me.

I felt so great. I remember the moment like it happened yesterday—how their faces and body language changed almost immediately because I refused to be stepped on. I even remember what I was wearing: plaid polyester Sansabelt trousers and a polyester bowling shirt. That moment is etched in my memory, and I remember thinking I'd always stand up for myself from that moment forward.

JANE, 52, UNITED KINGDOM

My defining moment came on Christmas Day in 2001. I was 37 and had recently walked away from a violent and abusive marriage. My son was six and my daughter was just one. My parents were coming down for Christmas lunch, my son was outside playing with his friends and their new toys, and my daughter was tucked up in bed having her morning nap. Lunch was cooking, the house was beautifully decorated—everything was in order as I waited for my parents to arrive. I had time to sit down and sip a glass of champagne. I remember feeling an incredible sense of calm and an overwhelming feeling of love for my children. It was in that moment I realized just how strong and capable I was. I did not need my ex-husband.

Little did I know at the time that I would have to deal with him stalking me for about 12 years after that moment. But I got through it totally intact, with two healthy, happy children, now age 22 and 16. At some point, a friend of mine who had done plenty of online dating suggested I write a book on the subject. So I interviewed around 40 people about their online dating experiences and got 50 bite-size stories. It was published as an e-book in 2013. That was another defining moment: I felt powerful as an individual—not just as a mom.

ANA, 33, MEXICO

When I was 23, one semester before graduating from college, I decided to go on this three-month trip to London, Paris, and Berlin. I had originally planned to go when I was 18, but my father wouldn't allow it—fearing I would never come back home. But after university, I'd proven to him that I wasn't this impulsive teen anymore, so off I went. Once I landed in London, I waited in line at migration and one of the officers picked me from the line. In chopped and nervous English, I tried to explain that I would spend three months there as a tourist. They didn't believe that and took me in for questioning in an interrogation room.

They asked me about my age, gender, background, intentions, the contents of my suitcase (Valentina sauce bottles and cans of jalapeños), why I was traveling alone as a girl, why my parents had agreed to let me go—and they tried to quiz me, when I said I studied international relations. I was interviewed by four different people who all asked me exactly the same questions. I had to write my answers in my own handwriting and sign a statement. They never gave me a translator, and I was so nervous, even though I was telling the truth. Because of that, I never stopped believing it would all work out. Which it did. Traveling on my own for the following three months was a powerful experience in itself. I now go about my life safe in the knowledge that things will work out as long as I'm sincere and not afraid.

METTE, 28, DENMARK

I had just started to work in the communications department at a law firm, and I realized that my salary was less than what had been agreed on, when they made me an offer. I was obviously disgruntled, but my boss told me that there was nothing to negotiate—that my salary was fixed. Normally, people are given the opportunity to negotiate their wages once a year, but she also said that I had to wait a year and a half until our next talk. I asked her to let me talk to her boss, who was then able to overturn that decision, so I ended up only having to wait six months until my next wage negotiation.

But as it turned out, there was another detail in the contract that was problematic: Apparently, I had to wait four months for it to take effect. I demanded that the contract take effect the following month and, again, my boss told me that was not an option. So, again, I went over her head and talked to her superior. My contract was made effective starting the following month. The whole experience made me realize that I have to be firm and assertive about what I feel I deserve—that I won't get anything, unless I ask for it. It also taught me to read contracts more carefully.

EDITA, 31, SWITZERLAND

I've had devastating migraines for years. No treatment worked, until I tried a new drug in 2012. The headaches vanished, but the side effects were severe. I was always tired, lost weight, and my mental health deteriorated too. I struggled to cope with college and work. Cooking dinner became too much to deal with, and I panicked when I had to leave the house. I felt like such a failure.

Months into living like this, my roommate played me the albumKapitulation("surrender") by the German band Tocotronic. Listening to it, I heard them sing things like "plot against yourself" or "cancel everything." That really stirred something in me. Shortly after that I was judged unfit to work and spent a few weeks at sea. I kept listening to the album, stopped taking the pills, read dozens of books, slept until noon, made little trips, and ate well. The headaches never returned—they were clearly stress-induced. I graduated, got a job, and now I am in a loving relationship that gave me a beautiful son. Taking the time to get over it myself was the hardest thing I ever had to do and what made me feel the most powerful too.

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