Feminism | Posted by Anna D on 02/3/2011

How To Be a High School Feminist

Hell! I mean, High School!

Hell! I mean, High School!

On our way to high school recently, I asked my friend, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”

After a slight hesitation, she responded, “Well, I support women’s rights and all, but I’m no bra burner.”

Besides the fact that the bra-burning story is apocryphal, I was surprised by her answer. Is that what feminism meant to this smart girl?

As I’ve discovered what feminism means to me over the past couple years, I am repeatedly shocked by what others think of the movement. One highly accomplished woman I know declared that feminism was dead. Another scoffed when I said I was interested in attending a women’s college. Why is there so much animosity toward such a simple, important ideal—that women deserve equal rights?

The answer probably lies, like so many, in education. When my mother attended public high school in Santa Monica in the 1970s, at the height of the Second Wave when women’s studies courses were becoming popular, she was lucky enough to take one at her school. As a high school senior in a similar public school in 2011, I have not had access to any such classes, and women’s contributions still don’t get as much attention as those of men. In my history textbooks, there is only a paragraph or two on the feminist movement, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is always stuck in the sidebar. My English classes have ignored female authors almost completely; all books assigned are by male writers, while only the optional book list includes a few female ones.

High schools overwhelmingly disregard the subject; a survey I conducted of 12 Los Angeles public schools found that none of them has any kind of women’s studies course available. And private schools in Los Angeles are not much better; in a survey of 12, I only found three that offer women’s studies. It is especially a shame that so few private schools take advantage of their more significant resources and curricular freedom to offer these courses.
Interestingly, some private Catholic schools present faux-feminist courses masked as feminist ones. One local Catholic all-girls school offers a women’s studies elective in which students learn about analyzing their dreams with a dream dictionary and watch old episodes of Oprah.

It is schools’ responsibility to produce an educated, well-rounded student body; by ignoring half of the world’s population, they aren’t really doing their job. At my school, there seems to be a rise in sexism and a complete misunderstanding of the women’s movement. Although I realize women’s studies classes would not cure sexism for all time, at least they would allow students to understand, as my friend did not, what feminists really are. And students enrolled in the courses would spread knowledge by sharing with friends what they learn.

Since I cannot personally fund women’s and gender studies programs in all schools (although I would love to!), I have a few tips for young feminists to assure them that it is possible to hold on to their ideals during high school.

–First of all, I would recommend going outside your school to take classes at community colleges, to look into auditing courses at universities and to attend programs that examine the topic. My time at Barnard College’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI) helped me more fully explore feminism.

–Also, read feminist literature. When I discovered the lack of representation of female authors in my English classes, I chose to read female authors for my term paper. I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. For other recommendations, check out Jessica Stites’ list of feminist young-adult fiction from the fall 2010 issue of Ms., or reading lists from university-level women’s studies classes.

–To connect with young feminists (they exist, I swear), explore blogs for teenagers. Right here on The Fbomb you can read entries by young bloggers from all over the world, and Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist is also great.

–And, of course, the best way to educate high schoolers about feminism is to not tolerate sexism when it creeps into the classroom, whether from teachers or students. If we pledge, along with Susan B. Anthony, to never allow another “season of silence” when advocating women’s rights and to consistently challenge anti-female or anti-feminist attitudes, in spite of the discomfort or eye rolling, we can create a feminist re-awakening.

Originally posted on the Ms. Magazine blog

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  • Veronica @ at 6:18 pm, February 3rd, 2011

    I actually wrote a paper in 8th grade about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, because I also feel like she is overlooked much of the time. My paper didn’t reach the length requirements because I was able to find so little about her

  • A @ at 8:26 pm, February 3rd, 2011

    a 4th grade biographical report on elizabeth cady stanton is what began my life as a feminist. ;)

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  • Amanda @ at 2:34 pm, February 4th, 2011

    I didn’t wholly identify as feminist until near the end of my high school career (junior and senior year) and I took my fair share of jokes and I was one of few to get worked up about the underrepresentation of women in our English classes (I am an English nerd so that’s where I focused my attention). I was talking about it at lunch one day when my principal walked by and heard me and he told me he’d love to her my findings, so I did a more thorough investigation (I looked at all of the English classes I’d taken and how much literature by women we’d read, and the results were quite depressing). I wrote a short paper about what I’d found and arguing for more women’s voices in English class. I got a letter from my principal (I handed it in on the last day of school my senior year) that said he’d read my letter and totally agreed – we needed to get more women’s voices in English as well as other subject areas. Since then the curriculum for English has been revamped and gives a lot more attention to women writers. I don’t take all the credit for it, but I think that hearing a student calling for more diverse reading material was powerful, and I definitely encourage other students to do the same in their schools.

  • Tessa @ at 5:08 pm, February 4th, 2011

    I love this! It’s so hard being a high-school feminist. People are constantly hating and judging :(

  • Anna R. @ at 11:25 pm, February 7th, 2011

    Hahaha the picture says middle school. Anyway, thanks for pointing out the deficiency of female authors/historical figures. In History I’m constantly irked about that. We’ll be learning about ancient civilizations, and the lack of information about women roles in society is annoying.

  • Tiffany @ at 7:34 pm, February 9th, 2011

    I didn’t discover my true feminist lens until college at SDSU in womens’ studies courses. Looking back I yearn for that knowledge as early as middle school but definetly high school. Oh the things I could of understood let alone put into words! I saw all the sexism clearly but couldn’t quite fight against it. Now I can. Great post and all the power to you my fellow feminists- teens!

  • Goldbrick @ at 9:05 pm, February 9th, 2011

    The reason feminism is laughed at today is because women have achieved what they set out to do. At this point, clamoring for further feminist causes is seen as advocating a position for women in society beyond equality. I think that criticism is spot on actually.

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  • Martha @ at 2:14 pm, February 22nd, 2012

    Reading this helps calm my nerves- i’ve started a femminist interest group in my school and the first meeting is tomorrow. I’m a mixture of fear and excitement. But what really amazed was how many girls were interested in jouning- girls I would have thought were interested or identified with feminism were saying how cool the group sounded, and told me their stories about sexism etc. It shocked me how strongly other girls felt about it. None of my close friends felt that way and I had never really discussed it with someone.. it made me decide that a group MUST be strated, to help us all connect and get active! So TRY and set something up at your high school! Why not? People may surprise you…

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