New group Damsels to provide supportive platform for women writers

Sophomores and Damsels co-founders Chopper Carter-Schelp (left) and Kriska Desir (right) pose for a picture on Tisch Roof on Oct. 3. (Thaw Htet / The Tufts Daily)

Damsels is a new student club this fall that aims to create a comfortable, affirmative space for women writers at Tufts and beyond.

The club creates a community and platform for women writers to share their stories by providing resources that expose women’s voices to broader communities, according to founders Kriska Desir and Chopper Carter-Schelp, both sophomores.

“The goal of Damsels is to empower women through writing and explore the written word as a tool for social change,” Carter-Schelp said.

Damsels at Tufts

The club will publish its members’ works online once a semester, host events during which writers can share stories and provide connections to get stories published by others, according to Carter-Schelp. She added that Damsels includes a publishing opportunity with every newsletter they send.

The club will connect writers to publishers, publications and events outside of the Tufts community, Desir said.

Damsels plans to host its own events to provide women with a platform for spoken word storytelling, Carter-Schelp said, adding that while Damsels is not yet registered with Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, it is an active organization at Tufts.

In order to be recognized by TCU Senate and be eligible for funding, clubs must be active for at least one semester prior to application in the fall and must complete the requisite recognition process, according to the TCU website.

By the end of October, the club’s website will be up and running with new works by female writers posted regularly, according to Carter-Schelp.

Desir and Carter-Schelp said they first met in a creative fiction writing course taught by Marcie Hershman, which was composed mainly of women.

“That’s how we met, and I find all-women spaces to be really empowering … So those two things coming together are kind of at the heart of what Damsels is,” Carter-Schelp said.

Desir and Carter-Schelp agreed that in all-female spaces, there is more opportunity for women to talk seriously about their unique experiences.

“When you’re in an all-women space and someone else walks in, the dynamic changes completely,” Desir said. “When you’re in an all-person-of-color space, an all-black space, and someone who’s not black or not a person of color walks in, the dynamic shifts. Even if that person is outnumbered, it shifts.”

Manal Cheema, a head fellow in the Writing Fellows Program, encounters student writing on a regular basis. She said that, in her experience, she has noticed a lack of confidence in women’s writing.

“I definitely think that women can be a bit more timid and apologetic about their academic writing from the fellowing that I have done over the past couple years,” she told the Daily in an electronic message. “It’s undeniable that women are socialized differently than men, and the effects of that socialization does appear in our writing.”

Cheema was supportive of a campus writing group that would encourage writers and engender confidence, though she worried about the presentation of any group as a response to socialized differences in women’s writing.

“I [want to] say that if we do have an all-woman writing collective we have to be careful of how it’s presented,” she said. “Because if we say it’s because women lack confidence in writing, then we could be furthering that socialization.”

Damsels Beyond Tufts

Damsels aims to broaden the content and expand the readership of women’s writing worldwide, Desir and Carter-Schelp said.

Their goals for the semester are to keep up an active chapter at Tufts and apply for 501(c)(3) status, which would make them a nonprofit organization under federal tax law.

After that, the group plans to expand beyond Tufts by reaching out to contacts at Harvard University, Wellesley College, Boston University, Northeastern University and Suffolk University, who are ready to start their own chapters, according to Carter-Schelp.

“When we started Damsels, we didn’t think of it as [solely] a Tufts thing” Carter-Schelp said. “We thought of it as a Boston-wide [initiative], and even expanding beyond that, an organization that happened to start at Tufts.

Desir and Carter-Schelp said that they are also engaged with women’s voices on a global scale. Carter-Schelp said that nonprofit work she did in high school connected her to a sister school in Kenya, with which Damsels is hoping to collaborate through a pen-pal initiative.

Intersectionality and Writing

Carter-Schelp emphasized Damsels’ unique mission, saying that the group merged writing with civic action.

“I think there are a lot of feminists at Tufts, I think there are a lot of writers, and I think there are a lot of people interested in equality, and I think this is a new sort of space that offers opportunities to those people,” Carter-Schelp said.

Desir agreed, saying that the group combined her passions for writing, community involvement and civic engagement.

“Those are so important and so tied in a way that I don’t think other organizations have looked at,” Desir said.

Both Desir and Carter-Schelp view Damsels as a space to explore women’s complicated, intersectional identities as well as a place to share writing.

“[To tell a story is] essentially a political act,” Carter-Schelp said.

Carter-Schelp said she identifies as a Hispanic bisexual woman, and she hopes to write young-adult fiction that reflects her unique experience.

“I never had someone to look up to in literature,” Carter-Schelp said. “And from the young-adult books I read, I thought I was supposed to be thin, and white, and I literally told myself that I wouldn’t be valuable until I had a boyfriend, because that’s the example I saw set in stuff that I was reading.”

Desir shared similar feelings about the power of speaking out through writing.

“It’s revolutionary to say ‘I exist’ and keep on fighting as a woman [and] as a woman of color, and I think it’s even more revolutionary to … bring a bunch of people together and say, ‘This is our voice, we will not be silenced, we are telling our story,’ in a world that tells you [to] be quiet,” Desir explained.

Desir also said that modern literature does not reflect the wider range of black women’s lived realities, a paradigm that she wants to change.

Though parsing apart the politics and complications of intersectional identity is an important part of their mission, Desir and Carter-Schelp maintained that Damsels is not a space intended only for women of color.

“We want to be inclusive of all women,” Carter-Schelp added in an electronic message.

Central to Damsels’ mission is the power of the written word to reflect on and validate an individual’s story, according to Desir.

“The most empowered I’ve ever felt is when I run into art, especially writing, that represents me, and makes me feel valid and heard. And that’s what I want to do with my life, and with Damsels,” Desir said.