On Friday evening, Bianca Howell ’21 looked out at a crowd of about 120 people and took a deep breath.

“You are part of a journey that started before: Before your first baby steps, before your mother’s. Before, you were a dream,” she began.

Howell, a new tap of Word, Yale’s oldest spoken word group, and a staffer at the Women’s Center, was one of several performers at the Yale Women’s Leadership Institute’s fifth annual Leading Ladies Gala. Apart from student performances, including musical renditions by Whim ’n Rhythm, the evening’s proceedings featured a keynote address by Andrea Stanley, senior editor of Seventeen magazine.

The Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative hosted the first Leading Ladies Gala in 2012 to create a space to celebrate female leadership on campus, according to Adrianne Owings ’20, event coordinator for this year’s Gala.

“We have people on campus nominate people who identify as female who are leaders in their respective fields: professors, students, everyone on campus,” Owings explained.

She added that the event is particularly special because it does not involve an external organization recognizing leadership but rather a community honoring the leaders they interact with every day.

Both Owings and Chelsea Guo ’18, president of the Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative, also noted that although many of the women nominated were extremely accomplished academically and professionally, their anonymous nominations most frequently characterized them as “kind,” “generous” and “caring,” highlighting their role as community-builders.

Owings said inviting Stanley to be the gala’s keynote speaker was an easy decision.

“I heard [Stanley] speak two years ago when I was a senior in high school working on a United Nations Foundation campaign,” she said. “I remember her being a very empowering speaker. She was one of the first people I asked.”

Peppered with anecdotes, Stanley’s keynote address began on a lighthearted note as she asked the crowd if they could “talk about shoes for a minute?”

After detailing her childhood attempt to start a local newspaper on composition lined paper and her first job writing obituaries and “piecing together the stories of the dead” in a dim newsroom after hours, Stanley described a career-defining moment that took place as she was chasing a breaking news story.

“I can’t remember what [the photographer] was wearing; I can’t even remember what he looked like, because his appearance was of no importance to me. But what is burnt in the memory of my mind is that I had on a pair of heels,” she reminisced. “And that part I can be sure of, because when I hopped into his car, he said, ‘You’re not going to wear those shoes, are you? No one is going to take you very seriously looking like that.’”

Stanley recounted feeling “underestimated” and “undervalued,” adding that that event changed the way she allowed others in the newsroom to treat her.

Today, Stanley said, the most important part of her job is using her writing to advocate for young women through her writing and by guiding them through similar situations.

As Stanley ended her speech, she stressed that it is important to do the work required to further women’s empowerment now rather than wait for the future.

“The future isn’t female because our time as women is now. We don’t need to wait to be great. We can fight and still be fierce. So stand in that discomfort and then stand a little taller,” she said. “The future is here. Our time is now and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

The event also featured a speech by one of the nominated leading ladies, Alejandra Padín-Dujon ’18, a human rights fellow and former director’s fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Padín-Dujon emphasized the importance of intersectional feminism and recognizing the personal nuances of womanhood for every individual who identifies as a woman.

Howell, who performed a poem that explored the nexus of race and womanhood, agreed. She noted that it was “somewhat nerve-wracking” to perform at the Gala.

“I worried that my poem, while authentic to myself and many of the women who inspire me, might not resonate with the general audience,” she said. “However, I wanted to express that although I am proud of my womanhood, I am also unsure of what it means especially in relation to and inseparable from my blackness.”

Guo, the president of the leadership initiative, said she was happy to see so many people congregate on one night and recognize that women’s issues affect everyone and should be appreciated and supported more.

At this year’s gala, over 130 Yale-affiliated women were nominated as leading ladies.

Saumya Malhotra | saumya.malhotra@yale.edu