The song started something like this
When I was little girl
About twelve years old
My mama told me
I am a woman. I am strong…
I sang that song, until I panted for breath and until my throat ached. I felt really good and prepared to tackle what came after that.
In fall of 2011, I attended the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) conference in Chicago. I was doing my Ph.D. at University of Illinois at Chicago during that time. The conference was organized at McCormick Place. It was a huge convention center which covered an area of 2,670,000 sq. ft.
When I reached the McCormick place, I was amazed at the monstrosity of that place. The place was filled with women in professional suits and skirts. I was mainly there for the job fair. About 250 companies were participating in the job fair. The job fair would open up at the end of the day, so I attended a few sessions on personality development and job-fair related sessions such as, ‘How to write an effective resume’, ‘How to make the best of a job fair’ and mock interviews. Apart from all this professional training, SWE also had a lava lounge. Women can visit the lava lounge, can get free manicures and get pampered.
There were so many women all around me; dressed in their pretty black suits and I loved that. As a female in the engineering stream I never saw many women at our conferences. There would always be a handful of women among countless men. In this conference, the gender counts were reversed and that brought a smile to my face.
A Blues concert preceded the job-fair. About 500 attendees were present at the concert. We were in a big hall lit up in blue. I sat beside a woman dressed up in a black suit and her blond hair was tied up neatly into a bun.
I looked at her and said, ‘hello’. She replied, ‘hello’
I asked her, ‘Which University are you from?’
‘University of Michigan’
‘So you came from Ann Arbor’
‘Lot of companies are coming to recruit students in the job fair’
‘Yes, I have seen that in the brochure’
‘When are you graduating?’
‘Next fall. What about you?’
‘I will be graduating next spring. What is your major?’
‘I am doing my Master’s in Mechanical Engineering. What about you?’
‘I am doing my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. Are you looking for a job in any specific location?’
‘I am looking for internships in Atlanta’
‘My husband is an officer in the Army there’
‘I was working in the Army as well. Both of us have been to Iraq and back’
‘Wow, that’s great’
‘After coming back from Iraq, I joined in University of Michigan do my Master’s.’
‘Good for you.’
The concert started by then. I told her, ‘Good luck for the job fair’
She replied,’ you too’.
There were about 6 performers on the stage and that included both singers and musicians. Among all the performers, even to this day I remember the African American woman who leaded the performance. She had a bulky frame and she wore of dress of animal print. When she sang her voice was not mellifluous. It was authoritative. A voice which made the other person feel weak in his/her knees. The only difference was that she was using that voice to cheer us up and boost our moods for the upcoming job fair. No wonder, she was called as Nellie ‘Tiger’ Travis. I read later that she got the nickname ‘Tiger’ after she came to Chicago. The nickname symbolizes her intense vocal style and her towering, dominating and confident personality.
The ‘tiger’ sang several songs, that evening. Her last song was, ‘I am a Woman’. As she reached the climax of the song, she ordered all of us to stand up and shout, ‘I am a Woman. I am strong’ and to clap as we sang. We did that for about 2 minutes. At the end of the song, she asked us to clap for ourselves and for every other woman in our presence, for being what we are and for enduring what we have. She wished us good luck for the job fair. She prepared us to pounce on our prospective employers with confidence in our hearts and excitement in our bones.
Nellie Travis picture from http://www.chicagobluesguide.com
Youtube link to the song. I could not find a better video of this song than this