You think your high school experience sucked? Try being a teenage feminist these days. Girls who want equality are getting more crap than you can imagine, but are fighting harder than ever to have their voices heard.
Eighteen-year-old Carmen Rodi reports
I am happy to call myself a teenage feminist. And thankfully, there are others out there like me. But it is by no means an easy ideal to uphold. In high schools all across the country, feminism is met with apathy, misunderstanding, or worse—ridicule and animosity—from both students and teachers. That is not enough to stop us, though. Despite the negative reactions we often get, young feminists are ﬁ ghting to make a diff erence in a number of inspiring ways, whether it’s maintaining clubs, starting magazines and blogs, or organizing events that support women’s rights and gender equality.
I’ve been a feminist since the eighth grade, when I ﬁrst learned in history class about the limited number of women in politics. My resolve was only strengthened when I took up skateboarding that same year and experienced gender stereotypes ﬁ rst-hand. (“Oh, cute, a girl trying to skateboard” was a classic comment.) As a high school freshman in 2005, I entered a world that was exactly like the Mean Girls cafeteria, where the words “slut” and “whore” were thrown around every day. Outside of school, the media sets unrealistic standards that are targeted toward girls, making me feel pressure to look like a stick-thin clone. As a teenager especially, I encounter these types of challenges every day, but as a feminist, dealing with them is that much easier.
“So many girls don’t even realize how scrutinized they are in high school, that however they dress or act marks them socially in some way or another,” says 17-year-old feminist Chiara Graf. “Women are always marked, but high school is when the slut/ prude, girly/tomboy, nerd/ditz dichotomies are so prevalent. Once you learn to defy them, the entire high school experience changes.” Eugenia Plascencia, a feminist who just graduated from Community Charter Early College High School in Lakeview Terrace, CA, agrees. “At school, nobody else seems to care as much as I do. Girls walk around blissfully ignorant to the fact that most of the guys see them as just a good lay.”
“Feminism is believing that discrimination and diff erentiation based on gender, which is itself only a cultural construct, is not OK,” says Dare Brawley, 17, a senior at Poughkeepsie Day School in Poughkeepsie, NY. She spreads the word about women’s issues as a contributor to her school’s feminist magazine, Scarlet, that’s written and distributed by girls in grades 7 through 12. Brawley believes being a feminist is important because it allows young women, who become especially vulnerable during their teen years, to reject the modern cultural deﬁ nition of what it means to be female.
Yet, despite the self-conﬁ dence that feminism can give girls just when we need it most, raising awareness about women’s rights is often met with criticism. Unfortunately, I know this from experience. In 2006, halfway through my sophomore year at Belmont High School in Belmont, MA, I saw a ﬂyer for a new group called Feminist Alliance Belmont, or FAB. FAB’s mission proved it was exactly the kind of group I was looking for: “a student-run organization dedicated to changing the social stigma of feminism in our community and making a difference in the nation.” I quickly signed up and loved our meetings where we talked about various subjects including the lack of comprehen- sive sexual educational resources at our school and how female musicians are represented in the mainstream media. It was also a great outlet for simply sharing personal stuff in a secure, com- fortable, and nonjudgmental setting—a rare ﬁ nd in high school. Other students didn’t see FAB this way, however. Allysa Gore, 18, who joined the group when I did, says, “The Feminist Alliance is associated with man-haters. I personally have been asked if I was a lesbian just because I’m part of this group.”
The “aversion to using the word ‘feminist’ was deﬁ nitely FAB’s biggest challenge and persisted throughout my time at BHS,” says FAB co-founder Kate Moore, now a sophomore at Smith College. “A lot of liberal boys who were active in Amnesty International, Diversity Club, Gay-Straight Alliance, and other organizations that we worked with and shared a lot of values with refused to get involved with FAB because they were ‘too liberal for feminism,’” meaning that they considered feminism to be overly radical for any real liberal thinker. Seventeen-year-old Martha Wechsler, a senior at Belmont High and a member of Feminist Alliance, agrees that the club is seen as more extreme than other school groups like the Gay-Straight Alliance. It’s hard for people to take women’s rights seriously because “feminism is still perceived as a dirty word; it’s about man-hating, not equality,” she says. FAB member Hank Broege, a senior at Belmont High, believes that feminism recognizes everyone, regardless of gender, as “equal human beings,” but most of his male peers don’t understand feminism as he does. Because of his involvement with the group, Broege says, “I get crap from guys like, ‘You’re so gay.’”
Having to deal with people’s misperceptions is totally dis- couraging, and what’s worse, it makes it hard for us to support the issues we care about. In 2007, Feminist Alliance launched our ﬁ rst major event, Love Your Body Day, a nationwide cam- paign put on by the National Organization for Women to reject and raise awareness about the unrealistic body-image standards put out by the media. We arranged for local speakers to talk, a couple of high-school bands to play, and diff erent organizations to have tables present, including Planned Parenthood. But the event was not easy to set up after the school received a com- plaint from a parent about Feminist Alliance and the alleged pro- choice agenda of Love Your Body Day. The administration had to review all of the information that was going to be distributed and was hesitant to allow Planned Parenthood to participate. On the day of our event, our principal stood by the whole time, but it ran smoothly and attracted a good crowd of students.
Unfortunately, the event didn’t change anyone’s attitude to- ward the club. The Feminist Alliance is now in its third year, and while it seems we’ve gained a tad more credibility with our school’s administration (the principal didn’t watch over Love Your Body Day this year), as far as the students go, the re- sponse to feminism is still the same. If not mysteriously taken down, signs announcing club meetings receive angry comments scribbled on them, such as “Anti-Feminist Alliance.” In class, students complain about the “crappy feminist” literature we read and never pay much attention to any of the historical female ﬁgures we learn about. One classroom discussion about ideal American women ended with talk of Jessica Alba (my ﬁ rst consideration had been Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—apparently, I was alone on that one). At last year’s activities fair, an event that promotes extracurricular activities by publicizing the diff erent student groups, the Environmental Club had a table next to Feminist Alliance, and the contrast in student support was huge. In terms of its cause, the Environmental Club is widely accepted and had pages and pages of students signing up. Feminist Alliance, on the other hand, mostly received only curious looks and ﬁ lled up less than a page of sign-ups. Many people asked ridiculous questions about the group, and a few approached the table just to launch a debate. A couple of students even tried to argue the justice of the wage gap.
It’s hard enough when classmates don’t understand what feminism is, but sometimes even the teachers can be clueless. Graf, a member of Newton South High School’s Feminist Club in Newton, MA, says the founder had a difficult time trying to form the group during the 2007-2008 school year. “When she approached our school’s club counselor about starting a feminist club, he responded that Newton South already had a feminist group, called Project Presidency. Project Presidency was a group formed to educate people about candidates in the November 2008 elections; it had nothing to do with feminism whatsoever,” she says. “It just goes to show how people are often oblivious to what feminism even stands for, which is why there was deﬁ nitely a need to form this club.”
It says a lot that while her group’s active members are few, the club’s email list is long. “Though lots of people are interested in feminism, there’s a stigma against appearing feminist and seeming ‘radical’ and ‘angry,’ so people aren’t as eager to come [to meetings]. In fact, lots of people wrote their email addresses on our signup sheet but asked if they could not write their names, I suppose because they didn’t want to carry around that reputation,” Graf says. “There have also been people who are just really immature and disrespectful, writing down joke emails on our signup sheet or vandalizing our posters. Those acts aren’t tragic within themselves, but it’s so sad to think of how people are creating an environment where wanting equality is something embarrassing.” Club coleader Persephone Hernandez-Vogt, 17, adds that it’s diffi cult to garner support and that being outspoken leads to conde-scension. “People tend to laugh off the Feminist Club,” she says. “When I ask people to come to meetings, they roll their eyes. It’s a similar reaction to the one I get when I bring up the role of women in the stories we read in literature class. People think I’m making a big deal out of nothing.”
If only eye-rolling were the worst of it. It’s amazing how ridiculous people’s reactions to feminism can be. Last year, when Ashley Marini was a senior at Cedar Springs High School in Cedar Springs, MI, she was inspired to take action after seeing Eve Ensler’s performance of The Vagina Monologues. Her school administration denied her request to perform the monologues, so she began a women’s studies club with the help of one of her teachers. “I wanted to create a place where people could come and talk about their experiences with gender inequality and be able to talk through the stereotypes of men vs. women. I wanted to spread knowledge and conﬁ dence throughout my school,” she says. Instead, Marini was perceived as a hardcore, man-loathing feminist who wanted to further her cause of misandry through the new club. “It takes longer than it should to try and show people that, underneath all of the stereotypes and media misinformation, they really are feminists even though they might not want to admit it,” she says. Julie Zeilinger, 16, dealt with a feminist’s bad rap, too. Now a junior at Hawken High School in Gates Mills, OH, Zeilinger gained interest in women’s rights after reading an article about female infanticide in India and making the connection between violence against women worldwide and gen- der problems within our own culture. Though she was only 13 years old at the time, Zeilinger “carried the feminist label with pride,” she says. “I tried to give it the positive spin that it deserves, but popular culture permeated its way through my words, as it always does, and the ultimate eff ect wasn’t what I would have liked. Mainly, people saw me as a militant bitch— and weren’t afraid to tell me so.”
Not every teen feminist’s experience is quite as negative, but stereotypes still abound. Seventeen-year-old Jen Wang, a senior at Winchester High School in Winchester, MA, began the Winchester Feminist Alliance in 2008. Despite the mixed response from her school community, Wang thinks most of the comments are made in good humor. “There are serious matters, but there’s a certain lightheartedness when you joke about things like burning bras and never-ending rage,” she says.
The backlash against feminism is deﬁ nitely a bummer, but don’t think for a second that we’d quit the cause. Winchester’s Feminist Alliance has only nine members, but despite its size, the group has already worked to promote global women’s rights with a school presentation on the crimes against females in South Africa and has set up a bookshelf with feminist literature in the school library. They are currently planning a service activity for a women’s shelter in Boston.
Similarly, Zeilinger didn’t let the haters get her down. Instead, she simply shifted her approach and took her cause to the Internet, launching F Bomb (www.thefb omb.org), a smart, outspoken feminist blog that she hopes will also become an online community for young feminists. Rather than being “angry” and giving in to the urge to “tell it like it is,” she now expresses herself in a way she feels is more progressive and head-on. “Feminism is never just about being angry, or just about trying to change the world; it’s about both,” she says. In addition, she’s involved with a group called Expect Respect that teaches high school students about dating violence, and she helped start a feminist book club at her school.
Despite the crazy amount of antagonism we have to deal with, or maybe even because of it, one major characteristic teen feminists share is our perseverance. Being an outspoken feminist in high school takes so much energy, and it can be completely draining to just try to get other students to listen or in some way comprehend our beliefs. The disappointment is almost overwhelming, but we never give up. “We felt so alienated and powerless and frustrated when it seemed like the world was against us, and what was the use anyway?” says FAB co-founder Anna Weick, now a sophomore at Wellesley College, about her high school experience. But in the end, she says, being a young feminist is rewarding and amazing. “You meet webs and webs of people, adults and other teens, who make it all worth it even when you only see each other for a march once a year in the pouring rain and those signs are so heavy—but we have inﬁ nite energy and hope.” She believes her experience in high school was vital not only for her persistence in raising awareness of women’s issues but also for gaining a new perspective of the world. At Wellesley she is a trained ﬁ rst-responder for sexual assault and rape victims, as well as a sexual-health peer educator. FAB co-founder Moore adds that “taking such a visible role related to a topic about which many students felt uncomfortable probably compro- mised my social life in high school. I frequently felt called upon to defend my ideas. It was often not a comfortable position to be in, but I felt so strongly about equality for women that I was willing to take this stand.”
Wang agrees that it is worth the battle. “Identifying as a feminist comes with this funny sense of self-assurance and makes me feel a little more certain about myself,” she says. “We’re not deterred by the stigma of being feminists, and that’s something I’ve come to admire and adore from everyone involved in the group.”
At my school, students continue to contest and question feminism. I could easily argue endlessly with peers who would love to defeat feminism for all it’s worth, but I have no interest in doing so, because justifying your beliefs in that way serves no purpose. Progress is made only when you don’t react to the overwhelming negativity that exists toward feminism in high school and simply continue working for equality through any means you can. It has taken me four years to learn this, but I am so glad I have.
Photographed by Heather McGrath