How It All Started
Two months ago, I traveled to Washington DC with my Jewish Youth Group to speak to my North Carolina government representatives about comprehensive sexuality education in NC schools. I was so proud to be a sixteen year-old girl walking through the Capitol building, holding a speech that had the potential to inspire change. However, this pride was soon diminished when some of my classmates found out I was in DC. I was told, “ugh what are you protesting now” (some profanity removed) and “looks like another triggered feminist”, etc. From that point on, I began to notice how “feminist” was being used as an insult, and the amount of hostility towards female students speaking up for what they believe in at my school. Because of this, I chose to investigate feminism as a movement overall, and more specifically feminism at my school.
So What Is Feminism Exactly?
Some definitions that Google provides for feminism are:
– the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.
– the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
– an organized effort to give women the same economic, social, and political rights as men.
Going into this project, I had a pretty good sense of what feminism meant because of both the units we had already completed as a class, and because of my own personal interest and participation in the movement. However, I felt that in order to truly understand the definitions listed above, I had to define feminism for myself. The definition I came up with was: the belief that women should be of equal status to men in all walks of life, and the determination to make that belief a reality. Defining feminism for myself made the movement mean so much more to me as a project. My next step was to conduct research on the feminist movement in order to gain a better and deeper understanding of it than just my own personal definition.
Research, Research, Research…
When I began to research the concept of feminism, one article in particular caught my eye. Posted by The Daily Beast, a progressive political commentary website, the article was titled, “You Don’t Hate Feminism. You Just Don’t Understand It.” This phrase was exactly what I have felt the need to say to my peers on multiple occasions. The article discussed an anti-feminist women’s group and how what they stood against just wasn’t what feminism is. It addressed the misconceptions they, and many others, have about feminism, and provided a clear, accessible explanation of what it actually is. This article was extremely helpful for me in understanding the mindset of my peers.
Another resource that was important in my project was a video that Mr. Tolley brought to our attention in the first week of our feminism unit. The video is a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We Should All Be Feminists”. Adichie is a Nigerian feminist writer. I have put the video below, however it is 3o minutes long so if you would not like to watch the entire clip, I recommend watching from (0:55-2:10), (3:33-5:23), (7:03-8:45), (15:36-16:57), (18:06-18:37), (27:58-30:01).
These clips exemplify a lot of the conclusions I came to through my own research. For example, Adichie addresses the misconceptions of feminism, and goes on to prove them false, and she discusses the personal injustices she was involved in at her school. In addition, she promotes the message that anyone can be a feminist, and that we need to reclaim the word for what it truly means. This video was a great foundation to keep in mind before going into my next step in my project.
The Student Experience of Feminism
The next phase of my project was to create a survey about feminism and send it out to the student body in order to get an idea of the perspective of feminism at my school. A few days prior to creating the survey, I was in English class and my teacher mentioned the word “feminist” when discussing Pride and Prejudice. In that moment, several eyes turned to me as if the “class feminist” would have something more to say than anyone else. This moment felt both condescending and like I was being singled out. So, once this survey was created, I decided to send it to the head of school to send out anonymously. Within 15 minutes, I already had 32 responses. Out of about 450 students, approximately 200 took the survey. This was many more than I anticipated. I have provided the link to the survey below. Please take this survey before continuing on with my project.
Thank you for taking the survey. I hope it gave you a sense of what I was trying to evaluate at my school. Below are the results of my school’s survey.
I was unaware that at my school, faculty and staff are not allowed to participate in student-made surveys so the two students who selected the faculty and staff box’s data should be ignored. Overall, I was surprised at the amount of boys who took the survey, and that 10% of the students who took it said that they did not know if they were a feminist. However, I was not surprised that well over half of the students thought that the word feminist has a negative connotation. This survey was extremely important to my project because it gave me an idea of how the concept of feminism is truly viewed at my school. I had predicted that 57% would call themselves feminists, so the fact that two-thirds considered themselves feminists exceeded my expectations. At the end of my survey, I put a box that said “if you would be willing to briefly discuss why you are, or are not a feminist with the creator of this survey, please put your email below”. I was unsure about how this would go, but I wanted to be able to discuss my survey with students, and not just a screen. I was surprised to find that many students who were too shy or did not want to speak with me in person about their beliefs just wrote why the are or are not a feminist. Of course, leaving an open feedback box did come with some negative or unnecessary backlash, however the majority of responses were very open and clear.
Interviewing Mr. Wilson
After I sent the survey to my school’s director, Mr. Wilson, he emailed me letting me know that he was a feminist along with that he’d send the survey to the school. I immediately emailed him asking if I could interview him on his perspective of feminism at my school. After all, I had gotten the student’s opinion, now I wanted to hear what a person of authority thought. He was excited about the interview and I wrote a list of questions to ask him. I recorded the entire interview, however I will only include a view excerpts from each question because it was around twenty minutes long.
Q: Why do you consider yourself a feminist?
A: I was raised pretty… provincial…I was surrounded by strong women… there was no sense of “girls can’t do something”.
Q: How do you think feminism has changed over the years as a movement?
A: You look at what’s going on today…looking at the conservative caucus… we had made progress but I still think there’s a strong undercurrent that does not see women as equal.
Q: What does the word feminist mean to you?
A: For me it means someone who’s strong, someone who knows who they are, who feels justified in speaking up when they see inequality.
Q: Have you encountered any negative reactions or consequences to identifying as a feminist?
A: I am white, I am male, I am middle class…whatever my feminism, sexuality, religion are is not on the surface.
Q: As the Upper School director, how do you think feminism is thought of at DA?
A: I think we have a pretty healthy approach to thinking about the genders as equal…to having conversations on complicated subjects.
Q: Have you seen any change in the perspective on feminism at DA over the years?
A: I’ve been here 15 years… so seeing women with leadership roles, seeing women take on more at the school, that’s definitely a change.
Q: In my survey I found that 55% of the student population at DA considers feminism to have negative connotations. As a feminist person of authority how does that make you feel and what steps do you think we need to take as a community to change that?
A: I think the problem is the word feminist carries so much baggage… so that it’s hard to frame that question…most people would say “yes I share those values but no I am not a feminist” so it’s clarifying the term and taking ownership back.
Q: Because the faculty/staff did not participate in my survey, based on your interactions, what percent of them would you say are feminists?
A: I’m an optimist, I think 100% of them feel that way… we can’t stick our heads in the sand and ignore what’s going on in the world around us.
Q: Any other thoughts on feminism at DA or in general?
A: It’s not advocating only for women’s rights, it’s advocating where there is a deficit of rights… I think that’s always the conversation…and it’s harder too for young people to embrace something that’s outside of their perspective… I don’t know that I could’ve labeled myself as a feminist in high school. I think it’s constantly, it’s not about indoctrinating anybody into this idea of feminism…it is a way of talking about the things we value…it’s worth introducing those topics.
Here is a video of Mr. Wilson explaining why he identifies as a feminist:
This interview was so special and important to my project. Getting to hear the director of my school’s perspective was so interesting and crucial. I loved how he continued to emphasize that this was all a conversation. I often feel frustrated as the article I mentioned above does with the idea “you don’t hate feminism, you just don’t understand it”. However, what Mr. Wilson brought to my attention is that it is a conversation and the only way people will learn to understand the concept of feminism and reclaim it as a term without all the negative connotations is through conversation.
After gaining the perspective of both the student body, and a member of authority at my school, I decided my final goal for this project was to continue to raise awareness, to start conversations and to ask questions. It’s an impractical goal for the entire student body of my school to identify as feminists, and that wasn’t the goal of this project either. It was purely an investigation into how teenagers at my school view feminism and why.
Feminism is an extremely complicated concept to grasp, especially over a project of a few months. However, it was an incredible opportunity to be able to explore a topic I care so deeply about and am truly so interested in for a class. I went into both this class and this project having a basic idea of what feminism is, but not truly knowing the history, the debates, and the misconceptions. I think that while my peers might not always be open to the concept of feminism, as Mr. Wilson said, it is a conversation to have and I am proud to be the person at my school to try and begin that conversation. I defined feminism as: the belief that women should be of equal status to men in all walks of life, and the determination to make that belief a reality. I am determined to not only fight for that belief to become a reality, but to teach my peers about that belief as well.
Thank you so much for reading and feel free to comment below what you learned, your own thoughts on feminism, or this project in general!
- Shire, Emily. “You Don’t Hate Feminism. You Just Don’t Understand It.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 24 July 2014. Web.