The rise of high school feminism

For the first time in decades, feminism is firmly on the agenda for a growing number of teenagers. Meet the high school students championing the cause, and find out what sparked the shift.

Western Springs
Western Springs College Young Feminists, from left: Thomas Rands, Matilda Boese-Wong, Healy Jones, Marlon Drake and Coco Jouavel.

The 11.20 bell marks the start of morning tea, and as hundreds of students stream out of classrooms into the sun, a group of 15 convenes in room D11.

At the door is a quote from American televangelist Pat Robertson: “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

The quote is there ironically, of course. The teenagers congregating in D11 are members of Auckland’s Western Springs College Young Feminists Club, who are here for an informal focus group. They’re a bonfire – light the kindling with a question, and seconds later they’re ablaze with chatter.

Members of FeminEast, Wellington East Girls’ College Feminist Club.
Cameron Burnell/Fairfax NZ
Members of FeminEast, Wellington East Girls’ College Feminist Club.

Posy“I’m Posey,” a member begins. “Some of the stuff that goes on in society and school gets me really worked up. Watching the typical day-to-day things, it’s like, Oooh.” Asked what “stuff” the 17-year-old means, and the group comes alive: catcalling, sexual harassment, feeling unsafe walking alone at night.

“The way women are portrayed on TV is a big thing for me,” says Healy Jones, 17. “Watching shows where there’s only one woman who’s ditzy and can’t do anything, that really pushed me to join.”

The group came together last year after a wary few noticed a double standard in the school’s dress code.

“We had some friends who were continuously getting pulled up by teachers, and it was really unfair: ‘I can see your bra straps – you’re a distraction,'” recalls the group’s co-leader, 17-year-old Thomas Rands. “We had issues about the language teachers were using.”

With two others, Rands set up a Facebook group then sent a notice around the school inviting students to discuss the issue. Come lunchtime, more than 40 teenagers had convened to go through the school’s dress code, line by line. Senior management took their comments on board, and changed the wording of the policy. And, with that, the club was born.

“At first, I wasn’t anti the group, but I wasn’t 100 percent for it, because I was caught up in the mob mentality,” says 17-year-old Marlon Drake. “Everyone is freaked out by the connotations around the name feminism.”

Connotations? The group pounces again: man eaters, man haters, hairy-armpit lesbians. “It’s [perceived as] women trying to be better than men, targeting men and victimising themselves when there’s nothing wrong,” says Drake, “which I’ve since learned is untrue.”

ntil recently, feminist scholars had observed with concern that young women seemed reluctant to call themselves feminists. While these young women had no problem with the movement’s core values – equality, legal rights, empowerment – they saw the label ‘feminist’ as irrelevant to their lives and heavy with historic baggage.

“It was disheartening to see how little engagement the young women had with feminism,” concluded a 2008 study of young British women’s attitudes towards feminism. It was, they noted, uncool to call oneself a feminist.

Yet in the last three years, feminism has reached a level of ubiquity in popular culture. Feminist voices have found huge audiences online, young celebrities now regularly discuss the topic, and overseas polls have found that more people are identifying with the label. (No similar poll appears to have been taken in New Zealand.)

Students

Students at Western Springs College meet in room D11 to discuss gender issues. Photo: Peter Meecham/Fairfax NZ

During that shift, at least six groups like the Western Springs College Young Feminists Club have popped up in schools around New Zealand. These are millennials who aren’t just embracing the feminist label, but actively calling out sexism, fundraising for causes they believe in, and protesting wherever they see inequality.

“There’s this idea of young people being depicted as politically apathetic and quite narcissistic,” says Dr Sue Jackson, a senior lecturer at Victoria University who specialises in girlhood studies. In late 2013, Jackson heard that students from a local high school had started a feminist club. “I went, ‘Wow’. I felt like that was really significant because to date, what we hear is [that] young women have been turning away from feminism.” She plans to study the groups and their significance in a project starting later this year.

Other academics took note too. Nicola Gavey is a professor at the University of Auckland school of psychology, where she has long taught a paper on feminism and psychology. It used to be that her students would start the class knowing little about feminism, or with misconceptions about the movement, and her first job would be to clear up the confusion. But in the last two years she’s noticed a change. “There’s a large proportion of the students who are already identifying as feminists,” says Gavey. “Students are telling me they got into feminism when they were in high school. That would have been quite unusual five years ago.”

The question facing these researchers is why teenagers are now choosing to identify as feminists, after decades of rejecting the label. Has an increasingly pervasive feminist lens on current events, such as the Roastbusters case, sparked some long-dormant activism? Is it because social media gives young people a platform to dissect sexism and connect with a wider feminist community? Or is it because the likes of Lorde and Lena Dunham identify as feminist, so now it’s cool?

It’s all of the above, decides the Western Springs focus group. Social media plays a huge role: on Facebook, students witness sexism and aggression on the part of their peers towards feminist content and voices, but it’s also where they share articles and stories from a feminist perspective and develop a critical awareness of sexism.

“With social media, not only do we have the hunger, but it’s so easy for us to access all of this education,” says 17-year-old Matilda Boese-Wong. “We educate ourselves and become aware of these issues, and we can’t help but get involved and do something about it.”

Olive Brown is head girl at Wellington East Girls’ College, and leads the school’s feminist club, FeminEast, which was founded in 2013. She thinks pop culture is playing a big part in the resurgence of the feminist label. “Lots of celebrities are now asked if they consider themselves to be feminists and this has encouraged many young people to look into feminism. It’s sort of becoming cool.”

FeninEast

FeminEast meets in room 25 every Friday lunchtime. The senior students usually have a PowerPoint prepared, with news stories to generate discussion. The club picks a different topic each term, and works towards creating a zine based on those conversations. They’re usually eight pages long, and the 30-odd group members go class to class, selling them for koha.

“Zines are a really good way to share ideas with people,” says Brown. “They’re not huge and overwhelming, but they’re small, cute, and the girls seem to really like them. Some of the pages are just images, but if we give them to the girls and the wider community, it’s sharing what we’ve done.”

For the first term of 2015, FeminEast looked at the portrayal of women in the media. The zine they produced gives some insight into what discussions took place during Friday lunchtimes. One page has a vintage photo of four women in swimwear, surrounded by felt-tip drawings and stickers, and a quote: “As long as women are repeatedly portrayed as status symbols, accessories and almost always half naked in media, the way the world views women is never going to change. Women are multi-faceted and deserve roles that show every side of them. Change our Representation.”

“FeminEast provides the girls with a space where they can talk about things they might not be talking about anywhere else,” says Brown. “Overall, I aim to inspire the girls and get them talking about issues that are affecting them.”

Key issues affecting young women today include: sexual harassment and slut-shaming; physical self-loathing; a propensity for self-harm and eating disorders; misrepresentation in media; workplace discrimination; and access to contraception and abortion services.

That last issue resonates particularly strongly with members of the Wellington Girls’ College Feminist Club. On a Saturday afternoon last month, in response to a 40-day pro-life campaign outside Wellington Hospital, six members of the group staged a counter protest. They stood on benches opposite the pro-life campaigners, holding signs high so passing cars could see their messages. “Pro Choice” one sign read. Another said: “My body, my life, my control”. One had a picture of a coat hanger, with the words “Never again” above it.

The signs were made the Wednesday prior, during the Wellington Girls’ College Feminist Club’s fortnightly lunchtime meeting. Around 40 students had brainstormed ideas for the placards, refined the concepts and drawn them using felt pens.

The coat hanger was the most provocative idea, but it raised an important point, says Grace Belworthy, one of the club’s three leaders. “Our grandmothers and mothers fought for the right to safe abortions. Having groups standing across from the hospital, infringing on a woman’s right to have an abortion peacefully…” she pauses. “It was about supporting the women who went there to make a safe decision about their lives. We felt it was our responsibility to go and support them.”

Wellington Girls

Wellington Girls’ College Feminist Club leaders Grace Belworthy, Sophie Ballantyne and Alex Woodhouse Appleby. Photo: Cameron Burnell/Fairfax NZ

Taking part in protests, whether on the day or behind the scenes beforehand, is empowering, says Belworthy. “It’s also a message to wider society that this generation, and young women especially, we do care about what’s going on. Sometimes, the older generations think we’re just smartphone-obsessed and living in our own heads. We are here, thinking about these issues and we want to shape our future world.”

Belworthy leads the club’s 40 members with Alex Woodhouse Appleby and Sophie Ballantyne, all 17. This is the third year of the group, and the three are trying to make it a forum where students can share their stories and opinions on different gender issues, but also have their views challenged.

“It’s a safe space where girls should feel free to discuss any concerns they might have and maybe learn from others, gaining different perspectives on things,” says Woodhouse Appleby. Ballantyne adds: “In the club, we’re kind of a tight-knit community. We’ve become a cute little family. We’re all really friendly to each other. I love the feeling of support and acceptance in the group.”

This feeling of collectivity is an important part of feminism, says Professor Gavey. All political movements need some form of solidarity, and high school feminists have found this unity in their clubs.”It must be so amazing for young women to be in places where other people feel the same way and they don’t have to be afraid of being shot down because of their views,” she says. “There’s a lot of hostility and aggression and silencing of feminist voices. [The groups are] incredibly interesting and really encouraging.”

While it feels good to be in the club, members of all these groups still sense hostility towards the word ‘feminist’. Ballantyne recalls comments from their meetings: “Some girls have said, ‘My friends think I’m crazy for coming here’, or, ‘My friends judged me for coming here.'”

The one thing leaders hope to give their groups is the awareness that ‘feminism’ is a positive word. Giving people a proper understanding of feminism when they’re young is the best way to break down the stigma around the movement, says FeminEast’s Olive Brown. “There’s this idea that coming out and saying you’re a feminist is radical, when really it’s simple and not such a big deal.”

Back in room D11 at Western Springs College, one question has the students searching for an answer: Do they think the group will continue once they leave school, or is the club part of a passing fad?

Last year, Takapuna Grammar School in Auckland had a similar feminist club, but since the student spearheading it left for university, the group has not reconvened.

“I guess you might have this idea that it’s part of a whole fad; that it’s just very faddish, and very now, and very hot,” says Dr Jackson. “But I think when you look at why these clubs were set up, it’s not about that. It is very much about a political concern with these gender inequities.”

Rands doesn’t think it’s a fad. While Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations last year, or Beyoncé’s Grammy performance in front of the word ‘FEMINIST’ may be making the movement mainstream, that’s not enough to make someone want to be a feminist. More likely, they’ll realise it’s the label for something they’ve felt all along.

“I know a lot of people who never considered feminism have started to think about it and realised their ideals are equivalent with feminism,” he says. “They’re already a feminist – they just didn’t know it.”

– Sunday Magazine

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