The feminist club at my high school is small. Very small. Four people small. And two of those people showed up once to a meeting, and then admitted they just wanted something good to put on their college applications. I’m a rising sophomore, so I was very intimidated this September when I joined the club of juniors.
During the second week of school, there was an assembly held to give all the people who were starting clubs a chance to tell the rest of the school about themselves, as well as set up first meetings. When the brave founder of our feminist club, a cool junior girl, stood up and announced the club name -Women Out of the Kitchen (or W.O.K.)- people started laughing and booing. After the meeting there was a sign up sheet for all the clubs. The W.O.K. sign up sheet was crowded by upperclassmen boys, and since I was a timid freshman, I shied away and decided not to write my name, but to just show up to the first meeting, instead.
I later talked to the head of the club, who told me what happened. A whole group of senior boys wrote their names on the sign up sheet, filling it up, as an obvious joke. One junior even wrote “men are genetically stronger” next to his signature. And no one got in trouble for it.
At the first meeting, I was so excited. The cool junior girl who founded the club and I talked excitedly about feminism (turns out we read a few of the same books!) while the other two college-applicant girls sat in silence eating the free snacks. For the first time in my short span of high school, cliche as it sounds, I felt like I fit in somewhere.
For the majority of the year, W.O.K. remained dormant. There just wasn’t enough interest in it, or maybe any, from anyone else. On the official Facebook group, cool junior girl would post thoughtful questions about cultural appropriation and fatphobia, asking for others’ opinions, but no one (besides me) ever replied.
One night in March, cool junior girl messaged me asking me to help her with a presentation for our school’s morning meeting. She had written a short presentation on rape culture and slut shaming, and asked me to read some of it. To be honest, the idea of standing in front of the whole school, talking about what I knew the majority of people would disagree with, was terrifying. But I knew that it mattered, and I knew that not many other people would want to say anything, so I forced myself to say yes. I did tell her that I was a nervous public speaker, and she graciously gave me a very small part.
Turns out, lots of other girls agreed with the content of what she wrote, and she got a handful of girls who weren’t in the feminist club to read. A lot of them had shied away from it because of the word “feminism,” but actually totally got what the presentation was saying. The next morning, I was so nervous. I read my small part, and the presentation flew by. A few braver junior girls did most of the talking. I read maybe two lines, and afterwards, as dumb as it sounds, felt like a feminist hero. (Public speaking is hard for me ok!)
The backlash was unbelievable, and unlike anything that I’ve ever witnessed. The girls who participated in the presentation were ostracized by the whole school– teachers included. This presentation was a very digestible, short and simple talk about slut shaming. In its essence, it could be summed up as “Why does having lots of sex make a man a player, but a woman a slut?” and “Think twice before you call a girl a slut.” It was literally that simple.
One particular lame-as-hell incident that happened to me was when I was walking down the hall a few days later. I heard two senior boys say to each other, “Dude, that girl was in the presentation. Let’s piss her off.” Then they very loudly walked closer to me and said, “Man, I totally RAPED that test yesterday.” They giggled like the little shits they are and walked away.
Weeks later, as the backlash continued, the principal got up in front of the school and apologized for letting us talk. She said that we were “trying to be provocative for the sake of being provocative” and implied the only reason we did this was to cause controversy, which I can assure you is not the case. We were trying to explain, very simply, I might add, an important issue to a high school audience. Having even the principal shut you down is the most disheartening thing ever. I heard countless friends and people I like talk about how it was all bullshit. My brother told me he was embarrassed for me, and said “Women being sluts isn’t ok because it’s easier for them to get guys than it is for us to get girls.” I was crushed.
A lot of my good girl friends were totally against it, too. I heard a lot of “these girls think all men are rapists!” The general response seemed to be very defensive. A few weeks ago, on the last day of school, I heard a few of my friends STILL talking about it and making fun of it. I could go into even more things that happened in response; these are only a small few of things that happened.
About a week later, cool junior girl checked up on me to see how I was doing. She asked me if I was getting any shit for the presentation, and she didn’t seem surprised by the amount of stories I had. She seemed to be getting way more bullshit than I was, and she could see how discouraged I was. I ranted to her for a little bit, and then she told me that she felt bad for me because I “have another 3 years to go putting up with stuff like this.” She lent me a bell hooks book and gave me a giant hug.
Being a feminist in high school is one of the most frustrating, infuriating things I have yet to experience. I was feeling pretty distressed, when one of my favorite teachers, (a feminist, queer woman who heads just about every liberal club in the school) told me she had something good to show me. She had emailed a woman who graduated from my school a few years ago, but still kept in touch, telling her about this disastrous response to an innocent presentation. The woman sent us back a message, telling us about how a similar thing happened to her in high school, and assuring us that there are many more people you can talk to about feminism once you graduate and leave high school. She also gave us a Christina Aguilera playlist, and told us to “keep it rockin’.”
Being a feminist in high school sucks. I can’t say first hand that it gets any better afterwards, since I’m still in high school, but I sure hope it does. School can seem like a really stifling environment to express what you believe in, and I’m proud of anyone who ever did the smallest thing to call out bullshit in high school. Keep it rockin’.