Feminism, “the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men," is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Although the idea behind it is simple— to grant women rights equal to those men have had access to for thousands of years— it is often changed and made more complex by ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Feminists, the supporters of this movement, also have a bad reputation. They are often thought of as angry, man-hating, and supportive of an unworthy cause. This spring, I decided to research what people in the Friends Academy community think about the issue of gender inequality and feminism and how they feel about its effects on their lives.
First, I created a survey that would provide me with the information I needed. The answers were anonymous, and from people with multiple gender identities, in grades eight, nine, and eleven. I not only wanted to know about students’ perspectives, but I was also interested in seeing if there was a visible change in opinions between different ages. My prediction was that younger students would have less bias and fewer opinions on the issue, as they may not have been so exposed to the realities of or ignorance about gender inequality.
The results I received surprised me. Students answered that they were “affected by gender stereotypes sometimes” more than any other option, and claimed that there were many different ways that it affected them. Some of these answers were as follows:
“When teachers ask boys to lift heavy things even though I'm capable of doing so”
“Sometimes people won't listen to my answers in math and ask a guy, even though they know I'm good at it.”
“I often feel obligated to dress and act "feminine" and fit into other gender stereotypes instead of just being myself”
“I was talking about my favorite sport and team and some boys didn't believe me and thought I didn't know anything because I was a girl. It happened last year and I proved to them that a girl can watch and be interested in sports too.”
“There are many stereotypes that females are generally weaker, more sensitive, vulnerable etc. I have been affected by it when I am doing some kind of work or sport, and a boy has been chosen instead because they are stronger, smarter, or just considered superior because they are male.”
“When people don't expect things from girls. Lots of things said by certain people as ‘jokes’ but really not funny and really offensive.”
When asked what gender stereotypes people felt most affected by, most of the answers seemed to have the same idea: that boys are (or should be) tough and powerful, while girls are weak and submissive. A few answers that stood out to me were:
“I think what bothers me the most is when I try to involve myself in a discussion regarding gender equality and am unable to express my views on feminism because of the way my peers (specifically male peers) assume I mean. I find it difficult to fully articulate my views, based on the preconceived notions that have so obviously affected and blinded the people around me.”
“That all girls are weak, that we can't follow sports, that we ask too many questions, that we can't to some things that men do, that we can't wear ‘boy clothes.’”
“I feel like the stereotypes around being a female is like not being tough, and being looked at as ‘girly’ like liking pink having a high voice, and perky, but I'm not any of those things”
“Girls are meant to marry working people, they won't amount to anything of themselves.”
Another question, “How do you define the word feminism” had answers that surprised me as well. I had before thought that in our community there was a lack of understanding as to what that word actually meant. Although many answers weren’t spot-on, they were incredibly close. A few of these were:
“The word feminist means that you believe in equality for all genders, especially those who are being oppressed.”
“A belief that people of all genders should be given the same treatment and opportunities.”
“Justice for women.”
“The movement for the greater equality of Women throughout the world”
“The acknowledgement of inequality caused by one's gender/sex and the act of working to raise awareness about it and bring an end to unequal expectations on people just because of their gender or sex.”
Finally, when asked what a feminist was, students answered correctly again, for the most part. Many answers were short, as they should have been, expressing how simple the concept of being a feminist and feminism is. In one student’s words, being a feminist is to “believe in equal rights and gender equality.” It is that straightforward.
Fifty percent of the students who filled out the survey claimed that they identified themselves as feminists. Fifty percent is great, but there is no reason that everyone shouldn't identify as a feminist. Conversations I’ve had with multiple people lately have helped me come to the conclusion that it isn't the belief or idea behind feminism that scares people away; instead, it’s the word itself. Yes, in the past feminism was an operation that was against men, and more about white women than women of color. But today, true feminism is inclusive and fair. It includes individuals of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, social classes, and orientations. It is about people, not just women; and we need it because little boys and little girls around the world are told to play with certain toys, wear certain clothes, and aspire to do certain things when they grow up simply because of one piece of who they are.
Friends Academy needs feminism just as much as any other community. Although we are a school based on the Quaker testimonies, one of them being equality, we haven’t truly embodied this concept, in my opinion. As a community, we need to start being more conscious of decisions we make as a group, and as individuals. So I encourage us all to make decisions: not to deface a board that supports an already oppressed group of people; asking role models like female athletes to visit us and to talk about their successes. I encourage more girls to speak up the way I see male students doing, and I encourage people to listen and recognize our female students’ voices and opinions. Finally, I encourage you all to be feminists: it is no different from simply supporting gender equality.