Challenging the “Cookie Cutter” Mold – The Cristalee McSweeney Story
Cristalee first connected with the VWW community through the Schoolhouse in South Burlington, VT nearly ten years ago. Her older daughter became very involved in the camp, attending for three summers in a row and eventually returning as a junior counselor in high school. Cristalee talks about the structure and the community that the camp provided where her daughter felt she could challenge the “cookie cutter” mold which so many women and girls feel themselves pushed into and “encouraged [her] and other young women to see their potential, and to see their potential in a non-traditional way.”
Cristalee’s younger daughter, Hannahlei, also a three year camper and now participant in Y.A.C. (Youth Advisory Council), has had her own experiences with Rosie’s Girls. Hannahlei contracted a life threatening virus which has compromised her mobility, and ability to fight off infections, as well as causing an incurable seizure and pain disorder. Speaking with Hannahlei, she begins by telling me that “it was the first camp where I was allowed to do things on my own”, starting on the first day by flying a small airplane at the Burlington Airport. Her mother echoes this, adding that “the biggest thing that I think Rosie’s Girls and Vermont Works for Women did was they actually called me and said ‘we want Hannahlei to come to camp independently’… and the first day Hannahlei came home and said ‘mom, today was the first day I didn’t feel disabled’.”
However, Rosie’s Girls represented not just a space where she was allowed to participate, but where she was encouraged to take ownership of herself and her body, and where she felt seen and heard through a lens not defined by her differing abilities or her crutches, but by who she is as a person, as Hannahlei. Cristalee speaks about how, as a parent, it “gives me trust in our community that there’s a group of people, an organization… that’s normalizing differences and not making anyone feel like they’re not part of that collective circle.” And this isn’t unique to Hannahlei; at camp, all girls are encouraged to define their needs and themselves as individuals, and then to come together and discuss what they share and how they are part of a larger group.
The ability to take ownership of her own voice and her place in a community is a recurring theme. Hannahlei describes her grandparents as conservative but feels that Rosie’s Girls has given her the tools and confidence to talk about complex and sometimes sensitive issues about which her grandparents sometimes disagree. She says she has found her voice and feels that “it actually built a really good relationship with my papa. I can talk to him but he can have his opinions and I can have mine.” Her mother adds to this, saying:
“Hannah has developed the strength and self-confidence to have a voice. And not just to have that voice but to define that voice. And to redefine that voice and to challenge other people and that’s a skill that I want her to have for life; how do you engage in meaningful dialogue with someone and have discourse.”
When speaking with Hannahlei, this is most apparent when asking what she wants to do moving forward. Hannahlei dreams of one day becoming a Disney princess and she laughs a little when she says it. However, as we move forward through the conversation, she explains her desire to “make it OK to be a different kind of princess” and in that way, show other women and girls that there are a multitude of possible identities and that they can be whoever they want to be. She tells me “I can be a Rosie the Riveter and can also be a Disney princess.”
This insight is so often something that we miss, the idea that as a woman, you can be a scientist and like pop music, that you can be a feminist and wear makeup, that different facets of identity aren’t mutually exclusive, and even if you’re a princess, you can still carry a tool box. Hannahlei tells me that “a princess doesn’t have to fit that mold” of being skinny, blonde and blue eyed and that as a result of her experiences at Rosie’s Girls, she now has the tools she needs to help break that mold.
For Cristalee and her family, the experience of Rosie’s Girls has fundamentally shaped who they are and changed their perspective on the world. When I ask her what the biggest thing she feels Hannahlei gained, she tells me confidence, “like that she could do anything”, from the very first day of camp when the girls went to the airport and flew a plane, to being a Disney princess and breaking the mold of what girls can do and who they can be. She tells me that she recently found a piece of writing of Hannahlei’s where she said
“Rosie’s Girls was the moment in time when [I] realized that [I] could be more than what everybody thought [I] could be”
and says that if that doesn’t shine the light on what RG does for girls, she doesn’t know what would.