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She starts small but thinks big: ‘I want girls to change the world’

Champion of women’s rights has ambitious goals, heart for helping others

A little after 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, Jillian Snyman stood in front of 15 surprisingly awake Rockford High School classmates and held forth on what it means to be a feminist in 2019.

It was the school year’s last meeting of the Women’s Awareness and Empowerment club, of which Jillian is president, and she made sure they got the point of what this group was all about.

“At the very first meeting, I said that throughout the whole year, no matter what we do, we just need to remember the point of what we’re trying to do here, and that is what feminism is: a social, political and economic equality of the sexes – not just for women, not just for men, but for everyone,” Jillian said, PowerPoint in hand, her delivery rapid-fire.

The senior was just coming off an overtime defeat of the RHS women’s water polo team, at the hands of East Grand Rapids, despite her best efforts as goalie. “We’re beating them on defense every time,” she groused to a friend. “It’s so frustrating.”

Her determination to defend the goal was outdone by her defense of women’s rights – and men’s – in her nearly 15-minute presentation on “meninism,” which she labeled an originally positive thing for guys that “became a way to make fun of the feminist movement.”

She wrapped up her talk with a recap of the group’s activities this year, from discussing teen dating violence and women in government to marching against slavery and reading books to elementary students.

“You guys have done so much,” Jillian told the group, which did include a few guys. “In every single way, you were making a small difference, and that adds up. Because look at the people in this room. And then how many people do we see in our day at school, and how many do we see at work? That causes a ripple effect.”

It was the kind of talk that makes Jillian a good leader, said club member Isabelle Waldvogel: “Her passion just rocks.”

Jillian Snyman plans on becoming a lawyer to help effect change

World-changing Ideals  

Indeed, Jillian speaks passionately about her commitment to women’s rights, combating sexual abuse and violence, and electing strong Democratic leaders. She starts small but thinks big, seeing the women’s empowerment club rippling far beyond Rockford.

“I just want girls to be able to change the world, because they’re all so capable of it,” she said, admitting that her heart speeds up just talking about it. “When everyone supports other people, the world will change in a second.”

She is particularly passionate about changing the culture of discrimination and violence against women, hard realities she sees in the club members’ eyes.

“I want them to have every single tool they could ever possibly need to protect themselves, protect other people and stop the perpetrators,” she said, her voice intense and her blue eyes bright. “We need to change our culture to stop creating perpetrators.”

Besides leading the women’s group, she is cofounder and president of the RHS Young Democrats (which includes Republicans); vice president of Young Leaders Against Violence, a countywide group concerned with dating violence and sexual assault; captain of the debate team; and has volunteered teaching children with disabilities how to swim.

And oh yes, the water polo team. She loves the mental and team aspects of it, saying her teammates “make me a better person and a better leader.” To train for games, she treads water 2 ½ hours a day — wearing weights.

If that all looks like mettle, Jillian quickly credits her mother, Nicky Snyman. An immigrant from South Africa, she raised Jillian and her sister Meegan as a single mom, has a Ph.D. and works as a physical therapist. Jillian calls her “the most amazing, supportive person” whose example motivates her.

“If my mom can move to a new country, then I can work a little bit harder,” she said. “If I see an injustice in the world, then that’s something I have to fix.”

Jillian and fellow women’s club members say goodbye after their last meeting of the school year

High Hopes and Ambitious Goals

That kind of focused determination makes Jillian a strong leader, said Christina Purvis, faculty adviser to the women’s empowerment club.

“She’s the definition of intrinsic motivation: wanting to do things and get people passionate about it,” Purvis said, noting Jillian’s ability to organize and make contacts. “She’s not afraid to sit down and have a meeting with the principal.”

Neither is she afraid to think big – really big – starting with the 2020 presidential election. If a woman is elected, she said she will dance with joy while thinking of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th-century suffragist.

But first things first. She plans to enroll in the fall at Michigan State University, proceed to University of Michigan Law School and become a lawyer. She would be “extremely open” to running for office at some point, she said.

Beyond that? She would like to be the first woman chief justice on the Supreme Court – unless another woman beats her to it.

“I just think that would be the ultimate service to my country: interpreting the Constitution in a way that provides an America for everyone, not just white men,” she said.

Yes, it’s pretty ambitious, she admitted. But then, she added, “If you’re not shooting for the stars, what are you doing?”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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