DePaul community reflects on Women’s History Month

Despite International Women’s Day being celebrated every year, women are still subjected to violence, assault and injustice.  

In the United States, the whole month of March is dedicated as Women’s History Month. Yet the mass shooting and murders across Atlanta that killed six women of Asian descent last week, shows how this world still needs to fight for equality and safety for women –– especially women of color. 

Here at DePaul, the community of women are continuing to make history and work towards the rights and justice for other women. 

The DePaulia interviewed four women from our university community who share their stories and the impact they hope to have: Laila Farah, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies; Shannon Simonovich, an assistant professor from the nursing school; JaNae Contag, an adjunct professor at the art school and Ally Fouts, a DePaul alumna who works at Esthetic Lens Magazine. 

Laila Farah, associate professor of women’s and gender studies 

“I always tell my students, I come to women’s and gender studies pretty much through the back door or the side door,” professor Laila Farah said. 

 Farah is originally from Lebanon and her interest towards the discipline of women’s and gender studies has a story behind it. Farah was raised by Arab, Arab-American and American women who were passionate about women’s rights and began marching in protests by the age of 14. What particularly struck her was how Palestinian women were surviving in refugee camps within the country. 

Dr. Laila Farah, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies. (DePaul University)

Farah came to the U.S. in 1984 to attend Eastern Michigan University and continued her education at Southern Illinois University for performance studies. She noticed her work at both these universities revolved around women’s rights, specifically with Arab, Palestinian and women from developing nations. 

“How I came to WGS was really by practice, not by learning,” Farah said. 

Farah teaches one of the courses she developed, “Women in the Middle East,” along with “Women in International Film.” She teaches her students about what she knows –– being an Arabic woman in the Mediterranean. Through study, she takes a transnational feminist perspective in her teaching. 

“That we’re always not just looking at the problem, we’re looking at how women are creating solutions to the problem,” Farah said. 

Farah also performs shows about women’s rights. Currently, she is touring with a show called “Weathering the Maps” which showcases Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Previously, Farah did a one-woman show based on interviews she did for her dissertation in Lebanon and another autobiographical show. 

With regards to International Women’s Day, which occurred on March 8, Farah believes it should be “International Women’s Month” instead of the American historic women’s month. She also considers International Women’s Day to be a day of work. 

“The origination of International Women’s Day has to do with women fighting for labor conditions that were murderous and torturous,” Farah said, referring to unequal pay and the health conditions women are still often subjected to.

However, Farah said that International Women’s Day also celebrates the diversity and power of women. She advises that women can become more empowered at DePaul through taking women’s and gender studies classes and attending events at the Women’s Center. 

Shannon Simonovich, assistant professor of nursing  

“I am a social justice-oriented Catholic in my personal life,” professor Shannon Simonovich said. “DePaul’s Vincentian Mission, the cornerstone of which being helping those at the margins of society, is very much in keeping with what I am both personally and professionally invested in.”

Simonovich is a nurse who doesn’t practice clinically in hospitals, but whose research is designed to optimize the health of individuals and larger populations in a global sense. Some of her areas of research include maternal health promotion/disease prevention, health disparities and public health programming. Recently, Simonovich led a study of interviews with 100 nurses working on the front lines with Covid-19 patients.

Dr. Shannon Simonovich, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing. (DePaul University)

The interviews were done between May and September of 2020, and Simonovich worked alongside other nursing faculty at DePaul, according to DePaul Newsline. With a team of 24 people, Simonovich  tried to contact nurses across the country working in every speciality. Part of the research was also to see what nurses were being affected disproportionately by the pandemic. Only 37 percent of the nurse sample identified as White/Non-Hispanic. 

“Because of the robust composition of our study team and our ability to reach out through our professional and personal networks, it ended up being successful,” Simonovich said about getting a diverse population of nurses to sample. 

The interviews were made into a handful of research papers, one of which was accepted into the International Nursing Review, which will be coming out May 12 on International Nurses Day. 

Aside from working on research amid the pandemic, Simonovich also founded the Maternal Child Health Initiative Research Collaborative in 2019. Her work is focused around preventable issues that occur in maternal and child health. Part of the reason why she founded the collaborative was because she is a mother to three children below the age of five. 

“As someone who is living through the same time period as the individuals with whom I do my research and for whom I try to advocate, I wanted to expand upon that as much as I could,” Simonovich said. 

For Simonovich, International Women’s Day means remembering past leaders and shining light on contemporary and up-and-coming leaders who are protecting the health and wellbeing of women across the world. Simonovich said that women at DePaul should also have the resources and mentorship needed to be successful and continue to lift people up. 

JaNae Contag, adjunct art professor

“My goal with writing music and writing lyrics and learning how to write lyrics, which is an ongoing process for me, has been really focusing on how can I write lyrics that critique aspects of our society and specifically the areas of privilege,” professor JaNae Contag said. 

Contag tells stories through her artwork and music. Aside from teaching media classes within the Art school, she is a pop musician. Contag goes under the artist name “Nae” — the last half of her first name — and throughout the pandemic, has been creating songs based on her experiences while hosting virtual concerts

JaNae Contag, an adjunct professor in The Art School. (Courtesy of DePaul University |Serhii_Chrucky)

“I was brought up on pop music and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, like that has all sort of played into my own identity as a female,” Contag said. 

When she went to graduate school, she took a deeper dive into the performing arts. After leaving, Contag wanted to pursue it further by giving voices she gave to the characters in her performing arts pieces. Flash forward a few years, after breaking boundaries of performance anxiety, Contag met her creative partner four years ago and has been putting on live shows and performing music of her own as a focus for two years. 

She came to Chicago because she wanted to remain in the Midwest while living in a big city. Contag is originally from Kansas City and came to work at DePaul in hopes of meeting students who always looked to achieve more because that’s how she was. This made her teach digital arts classes. 

What Contag looks at when writing lyrics is critiquing aspects of society — specifically the areas of privilege. When one is privileged, they can spiral to overconsumption and boredom. They also get lost in social media and doom scroll into the life that looks desirable. 

“You have the privilege of being bored because you don’t have to hustle,” Contag said.

One of Contag’s songs, “Be All End All,” focuses on the cliches of the English language and dismisses topics and closes conversation. It also represents a lack of self-awareness. Contag wants to release her album at a time that is divisive. 

International Women’s Day is continuously evolving for Contag, as for her it’s about celebrating the female leaders of the past while looking ahead to the future. She said that empowering women at DePaul starts with empowered listening and asking questions. 

Ally Fouts, DePaul alumna 

“It really works as a moment of reflection and to also think back to my own life and the things that I’m able to accomplish that maybe that years ago I wouldn’t have,” alumna Ally Fouts said about International Women’s Day. 

Fouts graduated DePaul in 2019 from the Art School. She now works as the communications coordinator and production designer for Esthetic Lens Magazine, a publication designed for creative people in all domains. Fouts came up with a virtual artists chat, which came from her passion for speaking with artists while also not being able to go to galleries.

Fouts is originally from Michigan. She initially came to DePaul to study journalism but switched to art as she was interested in learning about the subject. She said the writing requirements at DePaul, like turning in essays each week, helped her find courage in her work.

“It’s a little overwhelming the amount of essays that can be due, but I think that it really forces you to develop a thought, think it through, complete it,” Fouts said. 

Fouts said that hiring more women and non-binary professors would be beneficial to the community. She said, depending on the field, there were predominantly male professors, especially when she was required to take a science class. 

“I think just hiring more women and non-binary professors would be just the perfect place to start,” Fouts said. 

These female perspectives from DePaul bring different views that are embodied in International Women’s Day. However, all of them represent giving women a platform for growth.