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I invited Riley Gaines to campus to encourage peers to have the tough conversations

OPINION: Whether we are defending women’s sports — or any center-right policy — women must not remain silent, we must speak out to protect our rights

As an industrial engineering major at West Virginia University, I do not often take courses that delve into the political. And truth be told, living in a red state helps if you’re a conservative college coed.

But the reality is our university is still hostile to certain opinions and viewpoints.

I have friends who keep their mouths shut in the classroom rather than risk being ostracized or harassed. In the quad, they avoid telling peers they’re conservative in order to make friends.

It shouldn’t be like this, but it’s the reality on a college campus, even like mine, which is by default liberal. So I decided to do something about it.

In 2021, I founded the WVU Network of enlightened Women Chapter with the desire to build and empower a community of conservative women on campus, and it’s been a success. Over the years we’ve hosted guest speakers, enjoyed camaraderie, and encouraged each other in conversation without any pushback on campus.

But that changed this month as our group hosted perhaps its most controversial guest speaker to date — Riley Gaines — a hero to women’s rights and a fearless truth teller when it comes to protecting women’s sports, bathrooms and locker rooms.

Her Sept. 9 visit to WVU was the first stop on her tour across college campuses this semester as the director of the Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute, and we were honored to have her speak, but it didn’t come without protest.

Leading up to the event, many of the flyers we posted were ripped down. Our banner hung in the student union had a mustache drawn on it and was flanked by gay pride flags on either side.

During the open forum at a weekly student government meeting, one student began screaming, beating on the tables, and calling for people to protest our event. The same student came up to me the next day while I was holding a flyer promoting the event, grabbed it out of my hand, ripped it to pieces, and threw it back at me before storming off.

As Gaines spoke, there were a handful of protesters, one of whom walked around the room with a transgender flag and sign. Another paced the halls outside yelling hateful comments, such as “should have swam faster” or “train harder.” Gaines quickly shut him down by pointing out it was clear he had not competed in sports at the same level.

At one point during her speech, Gaines said she realized far too many coaches, parents and politicians were not doing anything to help protect women’s sports from the encroachment of biological men who identify as women. So she decided to do something about it.

“If we as women, we as female athletes, if we weren’t willing to stand up for ourselves, how could we expect others to stand up for us,” Gaines said, adding she only plans to “speak louder.”

Gaines’ message also relates to conservative college females who feel intimidated into silence. I know one student who did not even attend our event for fear of being outed as conservative.

But as women’s rights are being violated, it is imperative we be more assertive. It’s why I launched a NeW chapter on my campus, and I hope to lead by example, just like Gaines.

Whether we are defending women’s sports — or any center-right policy — women must not remain silent, we must speak out to protect our rights.

Caroline Johnson is a senior at West Virginia University and founder and president of its Network of enlightened Women chapter.

WATCH: Riley Gaines fights for female athletes

IMAGES: Courtesy photos

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