I Know My Worth

By Kat Cowley

I’m Kat. I serve as the Student Coordinator of the UM Food Pantry, I’m an MPA student at UM, and I graduated from UM with a BA in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies in May 2018. I usually have purple hair, and I’m proud as hell of what I’m doing, although it took me a while to get there.

I came to Montana in late August 2014 with only a general idea of what I wanted to do over the next four years. I knew I would be in the Women’s Studies program—although we weren’t a stand-alone major yet—I knew that I’d be working at the ice rink at least for my first year, and I knew that plenty of women in my family had come through Montana before me.

My great-grandmother, Nana Reese, was here first. She was sent out west from Portland, Maine in the early 1920’s to prevent her from marrying the preacher’s son. She and the preacher’s son continued to write while she was in Montana, and they later married. Nana Reese was sent to live with a woman she called Montana Katherine, a woman about whom we don’t know much other than that she took good care of Nana for the three months she was out west.

I like to imagine that Katherine was the reason Nana was stubborn enough to marry the preacher’s son anyway, but who knows if that’s true. Much like the rest of our family’s stories, Montana Katherine’s has warped over time. Whoever Montana Katherine really was, I’m glad to carry on her legacy as the next Katherine in Montana.

In the spring of 2015, I declared a major in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, and thank goodness I did because I have no idea what I would be doing with my life if I hadn’t found that path. WGSS brought me to internships, a minor in Sociology, a position on student government, and so much more.

All of the righteous feminist anger that had been building in me after growing up in Spokane and seeing injustices everywhere I looked finally had direction. Not only could I identify the roots of the problems I was facing, but I could formulate solutions or at the very least see how the world could and should be different. As I have earned leadership positions on campus, these skills have become so much more important.

Unfortunately, knowing the source of my oppression does not lessen its effects on me. I loved being an ASUM senator, I accomplished some great things in my year and a half term, and I had the chance to work with some amazing young men and women. And yet the memories that stand out the most to me are these:  getting ignored or spoken over in meetings, and the frustration that came with male colleagues repeating my ideas as if they were their own. Whether on the senate floor or in committee meetings, mansplaining[1], hepeating[2] and the like was common place. I like to think I am an empowered woman, I know my own worth and I know that I am a more than competent leader. However, after months of this kind of behavior from the men I was working with, I began to lose faith in my abilities.

This pattern has repeated itself in every leadership position I’ve held on campus since. I become comfortable in my position, begin to gain confidence, and then slowly lose that confidence as I’m treated differently, or as if I’m not qualified for my position because of my gender and age. Every woman I’ve spoken to on campus seems to share some of these experiences with me. Regardless of how accomplished, educated or qualified we are, women in leadership are often led into this mindset that we aren’t actually good enough. And frankly, it’s exhausting.

As frustrating as this all is, it’s also getting better. As more women take leadership positions at UM, and across the nation, more women and girls see that we are capable of leading and that we probably have been all along. I was so lucky to have been raised by and around feminists (thanks to mom and dad and Jane, and my moms across-the-street Chris and Tara), and to have been told all my life that I could do anything I set my mind to. For those women not lucky enough to be raised by people like this, seeing women in power is vital to seeing themselves step into leadership roles of their own.

In my work at the UM Food Pantry I have grown to recognize earlier when the symptoms of imposter syndrome set in. This is partially due to the amazing support network I have, my boss, my aunt, and all of the amazing people who work in the University Center and are very good at reminding people how great they are. But I want to make sure I give myself some credit too. For the first time in my adult life I’m able to defend myself when I’m interrupted in meetings, and to claim credit for the hard work I’m doing. I’m so attached to the UM Food Pantry for a number of reasons. I know how important the work is, and I might never have the opportunity to build something like this from the ground up again. Building this taught me that I am capable, and more than that – I’m kind of a badass, too.

[1] When a man condescendingly explains something to a woman under the presumption that she doesn’t understand the topic, regardless of her actual level of expertise in the topic. Imagine explaining to Jane, the attorney, what “double jeopardy” is even though SHE’S AN ATTORNEY.

[2] When a woman presents an idea, and it falls flat, but a male colleague presents her same idea later and is celebrated for it. Imagine Caitlin recommends sending part of the budget back to committee, and no one responds. Five minutes later Joe makes the same suggestion (evidently having heard Caitlin), and everyone agrees with Joe.