Salvadoran Women Lift Themselves Up

Dr. Noelle Brigden picked up powerlifting a a remedy for chronic pain, and for the emotional demands of researching violence against Central American migrants. Now, she’s sharing her passion with women in El Salvador to provide them with a source of personal empowerment.

Brigden, left, who took third place at a San Salvador competition, behind Guadalupe Cabrera Baires (center) and Veronica Reyes (right)

It’s not unusual for faculty members to win awards, but Dr. Noelle Brigden, assistant professor of political science, added a unique notch in her belt with two winning powerlifts — a 275-pound deadlift and a 150-pound bench press — at the 2017 Wisconsin State Fair.

The sport is more than a recreational sideline for her. Brigden picked up powerlifting both as a remedy for chronic pain from an earlier spinal cord injury and as a balm for emotionally demanding research. Brigden studies borders, violence and human security, and began lifting after conducting two years of in-person doctoral research on violence against Central American migrants during their passage across Mexico. Lifting served as a metaphor, she says, “for what I could carry, in terms of the stories that people had trusted me with during my research.” To share that empowerment and give back to the region she continues to study, she recently created a three-week powerlifting program for women in El Salvador.

Reluctant to leave children unattended in cities that rank among the world’s most violent, Salvadoran women often turn to entrepreneurship to provide for their families. Economic status, gender inequality and machismo, however, are just a few of the obstacles in their way. Brigden’s partner organization, the nonprofit Programa Velasco in San Ramón, supports these women on their journey to become financially independent entrepreneurs, offering resources such as mentoring, workshops and family support.

Debuting in December, Programa Velasco’s powerlifting program was a hit, with a grandmother in her sixties claiming the title of Bridgen’s star student among the 14 women who participated. Brigden returned to lead another three-week course in March, encouraging more Salvadoran women to find sources of self-esteem and strength within themselves and continuing her mission to promote the “revaluing the female body as a source of strength, and not just beauty.”

Adapted from the 2018 issue of Discover, Marquette University’s annual research, scholarship and innovation magazine. Read the entire issue here.