On August 26th, 1970, women and their allies made United States history for the largest demonstration for gender equality the country had ever seen. Organized by Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, feminists across more than ninety major cities took to the streets to fight against the pay gap, sexual violence, lack of childcare, and countless other issues addressed during the second wave of the Feminist Movement. Fifty years earlier, on August 26th, 1920, the 19th amendment was officially signed, solidifying women’s right to vote.
Women’s Equality Day was first celebrated in 1971, when U.S. House Representative Bella Abzug introduced a bill that called for the national recognition of the holiday. In honor of this year’s celebration, we here at AIDS Foundation Chicago, (AFC) are shedding light on two remarkable women within our organization, Dr. Cynthia Tucker, and Dr. Simone Koehlinger, who I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with to discuss the ins and outs of womanhood.
Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background and how you came to be a part of AFC?
Simone Koehlinger: I started working in the social services field as soon as I graduated college. I was a case manager working with people with developmental disabilities, and then I realized I wanted to do more. So, I went back to school and got my doctorate in clinical psychology. I thought I was going to be a practicing psychologist, but my interests took me elsewhere. Since grad school, I’ve immersed myself almost exclusively in the HIV field, working at Howard Brown Health, the Chicago Health Department and Public Health Institute of Metro Chicago. I've been with AFC for 10 years. Almost all of my work has been focused on health equity, whether that's healthcare access or prevention. It's always been about health equity.
Cynthia Tucker: I started my career at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, counseling young women. As a health educator, and I got a chance to work directly with women from the community and provide direct services. From there, I went to Chicago Women's AIDS Project where I began directing programs that really focused on women, and particularly Black women living with HIV. I had a team of 14, we created innovative programs integrated programs with Chicago public schools, and community-based centers. And worked closely with and provided health education, counseling, and testing in the Chicago Department of Public Health STI Centers. After that, I came to AFC. I've been here 18 years, providing now reentry, capacity building and special projects focused on public health.
How do you think identifying as a woman affects your role in the professional world?
Cynthia Tucker: It's very difficult. A lot of times I've been at many tables where I was pretty much shunned or told that “that doesn’t matter.” I remember being told, “we don't care about those people who are coming out of jail in prison,” and, “those women don't need help.” And that is very difficult. And I think it's where you just stand your ground and try to make sure that you are doing advocacy on behalf of people. We're talking about people, you know, we love people, we want to make sure that people can thrive and be sheltered and be able to be sustainable on their own. And it's just very difficult when you have all of these other intersectional things that are happening that impact the ability for a woman to thrive.
Simone Koehlinger: I think it gives me an important perspective. As a woman, I see and experience things that many men don't. People who identify as women have particular opportunities and strengths. Although there has been progress, we also continue to face significant barriers and challenges. So, bringing my experience as a woman and a lesbian, I think is important and has informed the work that we do, and I think the clients that we serve benefit from different perspectives. Like any of our work, it has to be informed by a diverse set of voices, right? So not just sex and gender, although those are very important, but also race, ethnicity, ability, how we grew up, etc. We bring so many things to the work, and just like the HIV and the homelessness epidemics that we're facing, they're not just affecting one group of people, but all kinds of folks who are often marginalized. And I think coming at this work from a woman's perspective is very valuable in helping us be successful.
From any point in your life, what is a challenge you’ve faced as a woman and how did you overcome it?
Simone Koehlinger: There were some specific experiences in my early life that informed who I was, and those experiences had a lot to do with my being a woman. Some of those experiences were very difficult. Unfortunately, I'm not alone in that. I have come to appreciate the parts of me that are strong and that are resilient and adaptive, and a silver lining in all of this is that I can appreciate other people's journeys, people who’ve had similar experiences. It's very common, especially for girls and women, to have experienced some sort of violence in their lives. Also, as a woman, I am aware of the multiple little things that happen all the time, the things that kind of nip at you. Whether it's not being acknowledged, having the men at the table be given more respect, not being heard and even experiences walking down the street. Most times, this does not cause me great pain, but they are constant reminders of what it means and what it's perceived to mean to be a woman in our society. How do I cope? By noticing these experiences, challenging when I need to, and keep it moving. I also make it a point to recognize the strength and unique gifts of the other women around me. Making space for each other is so important!
Cynthia Tucker: A lot of times, as a Black woman, I have been one of the only ones at the table in HIV and AIDS work saying a particular point for women. I have to make sure that my voice is heard. I'm also not speaking just for me, but I'm speaking on behalf of all women. We're all in the same place. Women, and especially for trans women, making sure that advocacy is at the forefront. Everything around transgender rights and transgender health is in its infancy, and we need to make sure that we're pushing for real change, and that they're counted as women. We need to make sure that we’re allies standing with them. It can be very isolating and exceedingly difficult. But what I learned was, I didn't always need to be the loudest in the room, I didn't always need to be at the forefront. I've learned to advocate on the side and get a group of people, other women, and bring them forward. Empowerment is a very strong tool. That has been the most advantageous thing I have done. Partnerships mean everything.
In what ways do you think society needs to continue improving in terms of women’s equality?
Cynthia Tucker: In 2023, we see it in our politics, we see it daily, on the news, TV, in everything that we are involved in, women are still way below where we need to be as far as payment gaps, especially in communities of color. As women, we’re considered the head of the household, but we don't get all the essential components that come with doing that, we're not given more money. We're still about 30% or 40% in our ability to do political work, advocacy, and other corporate types of jobs. Although we know how to do this stuff, and we do it very well, it is very difficult to have all of these ceilings in place that actually stop women, and we need to make sure that we're still breaking glass ceilings, and that we are moving forward and moving up, and that we're leading corporations, leading nonprofit organizations, spending time in the community, and that, politically, we are in charge. We've made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go. This crosses over from jobs to access to services, public health, and sexual and reproductive health.
Simone Koehlinger: We have come far and there's many things to celebrate. But there's still so much to be done and we still have a long road ahead. Unfortunately, while we've made progress, equal pay is still not equal pay – women are paid much less than men on average. But what's really got me going is, of course, healthcare and reproductive rights. There are many healthcare outcomes that are just inequitable, not only between men and women, but also within women. Healthcare access, when we talk about abortion rights – it's infuriating that we're at this point in our country's history. Healthcare access as it relates to everything from an overly complicated system to culturally competent medical care to insurance—so much needs to change. And then finally, there’s still the sexual and domestic violence disproportionately impacting women. And the apparent lack of interest in our country and the world is astounding, and we have to fight. I think something that overarches all this is women being in power. Women are still not represented in positions of power, locally, nationally, and internationally. It's when women have equitable access to power and are represented in the highest levels of government and decision-making-that’s when we'll see things really turn.
Shine theory (when women help other women rise, we all shine): who is a woman that you look up to, who has inspired you or helped you along your journey?
Simone Koehlinger: There are many women I don't know personally who inspire me – Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, Roxanne Gay, Sojourner Truth, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But more immediately, closer to home: my wife, my sisters, many of my colleagues, and the amazing community members and people who speak their truth and stand up for what is right. There were also several people who I worked with during graduate studies, either on my dissertation or in my training, who were unapologetic about being a woman and being strong. That was greatly inspiring to me. Women who are not afraid to speak out, even when it’s uncomfortable-those women inspire me every day.
Cynthia Tucker: There's been many of them. And one that I can think of is Dr. Mildred Williamson. I was a newbie, and she saw me at a meeting. She came over to me, and we developed a bond. She's always mentored me, even though we're not far apart in age. She was the state HIV and AIDS director. She's had many, many positions, but she never forgot about our friendship. And one thing that I saw her do was bring women with her and support women. And that is one person that I really admire. I also admire my family, colleagues, and many of the heroes in this industry and across the country.
What advice would you give a young woman about to enter the professional world, nonprofit sector, or simply adulthood?
Cynthia Tucker: To keep on continuing, to have perseverance, tenacity, and courage. Because it's gonna get hard for women. And so, you have to have something that you really love. I fell in love with public health. But for women it is important to know that you're going to make a difference, you're going to make change, especially a change in someone's life. And always remember, you can keep learning and growing throughout your career and make necessary adaptations along the way. I'm here to work with other women and learn from them.
Simone Koehlinger: I would encourage that person to be optimistic and open, but to remain aware because sexism is very insidious. I would encourage her to speak out when little and big things happen that might impede her success and professional growth. I’d tell her not to seek approval, to be empowered by what makes her uniquely her. I would encourage her to celebrate herself, what it means to her to be a woman and to celebrate other women in the workspace. And I would encourage her to seek someone else who identifies as a woman, who can be a mentor. And I’d tell her to speak out, to listen and tell stories, and to incorporate them and those learnings in her growth.
What is something you love about womanhood?
Simone Koehlinger: I love that women are strong in ways that we may not identify traditionally as strong. Women have an emotional depth and resilience that I find just beautiful. Of course, there are men who are amazingly deep and empathic, but there's something about what women bring to the world that is essential and special.
Cynthia Tucker: I think the thing that I love is that we are supportive of each other. We generally try to support each other. I would say 85% of the time, we're very supportive. And I really love that, because we don't want to see any women attacked under any situation. That willingness to share, support, that camaraderie where we are willing to break bread with each other and just listen to someone else's struggles and challenges and try to assist and strategize for solutions. I have worked with women with multiple challenges and had a simple conversation and we end up hugging one another and sowing support. And so, I think our ability, even under adversity and struggle, to hold our heads up and keep moving forward is something women do well. Because we've been through a lot, all communities of color have, and we deal with it every day. We are under racial threats on a daily basis. I mean, I haven't talked to a woman of color who has not been followed through a store or watched or something that was really awkward or had something happen to them in their childhood. If you talk to women, all of them have experienced some kind of trauma. And we never walk in shame. We are survivors. Yes, that's a good word. We’re champions.