Rachael Denhollander learned firsthand that while advocacy is supremely important, it also comes at a cost.
“Whenever advocacy is necessary, we’re not just speaking up for something,” Denhollander said. “We are, by definition, also speaking against suffering, oftentimes speaking against communities—possibly even our own—speaking against long-held and firmly entrenched ideas.”
Denhollander, an attorney, former club gymnast, and advocate against sexual assault, gave the keynote address at Boston College’s 10th annual Women’s Summit on Saturday. The event aimed to empower attendees by creating space for meaningful conversations and connection through various workshops and panel discussions.
In 2016, Denhollander became the first woman to publicly accuse former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse and seek criminal charges against him for sexual assault.
After being sexually assaulted by a college student from her church at the age of seven, Denhollander said she found herself surrounded by adults who trusted and supported her, but also those who challenged the validity of her experience.
“Adults who chose principled dissent, chose speaking up against a community that had a long history of minimizing abuse and harassment, saved me from worse abuse,” Denhollander said. “But I’ve also experienced the converse community response when adults in our community chose to view my parents and these counselors as being overdramatic.”
Denhollander said this early experience influenced the way she later processed and chose to handle Nassar’s abuse.
“I internalized the first message that survivors intrinsically know: if you cannot prove your abuse, do not speak out—it will cost you everything,” Denhollander said. “Adults who chose silence over principled dissent set the stage for an abuser to enter my life almost ten years later.”
According to Denhollander, the power Nassar held as a renowned doctor led her to invalidate her own feelings of discomfort.
“I had to come and grapple with the reality that it wasn’t just one person I couldn’t trust—it was an entire community that wasn’t safe for me,” Denhollander said. “And for nearly two years, I continued to be abused, and I thought it was my fault for even thinking something could be wrong.”
It was then that Denhollander discovered a system in which abusers could maintain their positions of power while victims were silenced.
“I knew that the fact that Larry was left in power meant only one thing,” Denhollander said. “It didn’t mean that what he had done was okay. It meant that people in authority and power institutions were silencing survivors and keeping him in that position of power.”
Initially, Denhollander said she didn’t feel her voice was powerful enough to speak out against such powerful institutions.
“If I spoke up, I would be fighting a Big 10 University and their sports program,” Denhollander said. “I would be fighting USA Gymnastics and the national Olympic governing body, which is commissioned by the U.S. Senate.”
But Denhollander said the actions of previous sexual assault survivors gave her the courage and opportunity to share her experience and advocate for change.
“I had that choice to speak up, to exercise principle dissent, because I was standing on the shoulders of so many others who came before me, and their advocacy and dissent paved the way for me to raise my voice,” Denhollander said.
Although many of the survivors who spoke up were world-renowned gymnasts, Denhollander said it is important to remember the younger, lesser-known gymnasts who suffered the same abuse.
“The reality is that almost all of the weight ultimately was carried by no-name gymnasts and dancers … who didn’t have the name, didn’t have the attention, and they carried the weight of it so that nobody else had to,” Denhollander said.
Denhollander also asked attendees to consider how they can use their personal skills and talents toward a meaningful purpose.
“Draw comfort knowing that each of our efforts—to speak for the voiceless, to stand up for the defenseless, to advocate together—that really does combine to create a change that shapes the world,” Denhollander said.
After Denhollander’s keynote speech, attendees had the opportunity to participate in two of six workshops, ranging from “The Hairless Female Body,” which discussed the history of female body hair removal through the lens of racism, sexism, and classism, to “Unpacking Imposter Syndrome and Discovering Truth,” which explored the effects of imposter syndrome on mental, emotional, and physical health.
Following the workshop sessions, attendees gathered for the mainstage panel, titled “Navigating Life After Graduation,” in which panelists shared insight on transitioning out of undergraduate studies.
Anne Celestin, one of the panelists and BC ’23, reminisced on the moments she spent as a mentor for the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center (BAIC) and the Women’s Center.
“I spent a lot of time in my dorm, but I wish I spent more moments in the Women’s Center and BAIC connecting with younger BC freshmen and sophomores, just being able to be honest with them,” Celestin said.
Annie Spielberger, another one of the panelists and BC ’21, said that even though communities and friendships change post-grad, finding just one person to connect with is enough.
“Even if you just have one person, one person is enough for a community,” Spielberger said. “Knowing that you’re not alone and having that one person is so important.”
The Women’s Summit concluded with a student artisan fair held in Gasson Commons and a slam poetry performance from Phionna-Cayola Claude, resident director for Vanderslice Hall and 90 St. Thomas More Rd.
“Wear the clothes that actually make you feel bold, ‘cause I never actually felt seen when I was wearing less clothes,” Claude read. “Loving myself started with smiling, just because I wanted to.”