In High School, Feminists Tackle Outsider Status

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I heart feminism

(WOMENSENEWS)– Mariah Trautman is looking forward to renaming the Women’s Student Union at her Pittsburgh school the Feminist Student Union. The senior hopes this adjustment will welcome all students: not just those who identify as women.

The open-door policy at the 20-member gender equality club at Allderdice High School, with a student body size of 1,352, falls in step with a trend exemplified by the United Nation’s HeForShe campaign of welcoming males.

But the trend is by no means consistent among students or student groups at the four schools sampled for this story.

At one school, a formerly all-girls club is opening up to boys, a decision not supported by every member. Meanwhile, a girl-focused club at another school distances itself from the term feminist, which is a generally unpopular concept among several classmates.

“Some people wrongly believe that feminism is putting men down to bring women up,” said Andrea Cohen, a junior at Beachwood High School near Cleveland. “It is not putting anyone down, rather, bringing them up.”

However, high school students continue to see a difference between feminism and gender equality.

In September, for instance, the student newspaper at Woodrow Wilson High, in Washington, D.C., with a 1,700 member student body, found that all of the 155 students surveyed believed that women should have equal rights to men. However, only 63 percent of girls and 28 percent of boys call themselves feminists. Rosenthal’s Feminist Spread (Adobe PDF document)

“As a feminist, I found [the results] really frustrating because all of these people agreed that women should have equal rights to men, but they weren’t willing to identify themselves as a part of that movement,” said senior Annie Rosenthal, the editor in chief of the paper, whose school does not sponsor a feminist club. “I know more people than I can count who believe in gender equality but don’t identify as feminists because they don’t understand the meaning of the term, or don’t want to be associated with the stigma around it.”

Peters Township High, Western Penn.

This fall, the Femina Club sprouted up at Peters Township High, a school with a student body of 1,487 in Western Pennsylvania. The 30-member club is girls-only and aimed at leadership development.

“We are only concerned about ourselves as females and not comparing us to men,” Femina Club President Brooke Vulcano, a senior, said in an email interview. “We are in no way against or out to get males.”

Vulcano denies any affiliation between the Femina Club and feminism, a term that few students at the school seem to embrace.

Sophomore Sneha Hoysala of Peters Township, who is not a member of the Femina Club, identified herself as an “equalist” rather than a feminist during an interview at school in order to clarify that she does not advocate for a matriarchy.

Sophomore Jacelyn Palmer of Peters Township, who is also not a member of the club, is against what she views as the feminist movement as well. “There’s sexism in the feminist mindset,” she said during a phone interview. “feminists believe in women as the bigger, higher gender. They think that women are smarter and better at everything.”

Caroline Baumgart, another student at Peters Township who does not participate in the club, agrees with Hoysala and Palmer.

“Feminists have radical ideas,” said Baumgart in an interview conducted at the school. “They think that whenever a woman abuses a man, she is being empowered. They want a woman-driven society, and they don’t realize that that is just as sexist as a man-driven society.”

Joseph Belfiore, a sophomore at Peters Township, takes a different view. Belfiore became a feminist in middle school when he “began to notice the role of women and the stereotypes surrounding them in society.”

“If more boys became involved in the feminist movement, they would feel more open to the fact that they don’t have to be so strong. If they didn’t feel this responsibility to be so dominant, they would be able to express emotion the way they wanted to,” said Belfiore.

Belfiore said it’s not easy for a guy to identify himself as feminist. “A lot of guys make fun of me because they associate being a boy feminist with being weak or more flamboyant,” he said in an interview at school.

Belfiore’s classmate John Barry is also committed to feminism. “I consider myself a feminist,” said Barry in an interview at his school. “I was raised by a single mom, so at a young age I realized that women could do so much.”

Barry said the widespread misconceptions about the term feminism are a good reason to encourage males to be active in feminist clubs.

“The only way to bring about change is to do it together,” he said.

Beachwood High, Near Cleveland

Junior Bradford Douglas was the first male invited to be a guest at the Inspire Club at Beachwood High School, a school with a student body of 667, near Cleveland, by the leader, a friend of his.

She “said it would be cool to have a guy or several guys in the club, just to introduce another perspective,” he said in an email interview.

The Inspire Club was created last year to serve “as an outlet for girls to be the dominant members of something in a world where men have always dominated,” according to member Molly Rosen. Its membership fluctuates between eight and 10 girls per week.

Douglas felt welcomed at the meeting, which focused on self-esteem. “I spoke at the very beginning about how guys can actually be very sensitive, but put on a hard shell in order to appear strong physically, mentally and emotionally,” he said.

Rosen was pleased with Douglas’s contribution, but not convinced boys belong in feminist clubs.

“While I think it’s important to have males on board with feminism, our club is an outlet to talk about the problems we face as females,” the sophomore said in an email interview. “Males are so dominant in society that it’s very nice to have something just for us.”

Douglas understands why the Inspire Club was open exclusively to girls in the past.

“There are some things that one prefers to discuss with people of the same sex and it may make one uncomfortable to have someone of the opposite sex present in certain cases,” he said.

Douglas does not foresee the Inspire Club recruiting many more male members in the future.

“I know several guys who are like me and support gender equality in general,” he said, but “I don’t really know any boy feminists.”

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