Townsend Harris High School students protested the school dress code with posters that were promptly pulled down by the administration.
Townsend Harris High School students protested the school dress code with posters that were promptly pulled down by the administration.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A controversy that blew up at a New York City high school last spring led several students to spend the summer building a feminist forum.

It all started when a male peer wrote a newspaper column about the dating problems of boys at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, which is 70 percent female. Detractors called the article an example of male entitlement and over the summer they have congregated around a Facebook page, which attracts daily posts. As school resumes this week, some are planning to move from discourse to activism.

The article, by then junior Ross Cimagala, argued that girls unfairly label boys in the school as “undateable.” “I often see some of my perfectly nice and datable male friends ignored by the young women they pursue,” he wrote in the 436-word piece published in the May issue of The Classic, a 30-year-old award-winning publication.

Student response to the piece was fierce. Within hours of publication, Jensine Raihan posted on her Facebook page: “It appalls me that even in a school where the majority of the demographics are girls, sexism is still alive and real,” she wrote. “You cannot identify as a feminist and deny that the article was promoting male entitlement and it promoted rape culture. It’s gruesome but it’s true.” Her post racked up 600 comments.

Townsend High student Angelina Liu quickly created a public “Feminism at Townsend” Facebook page, which has been gaining momentum throughout the summer as a place for students to comment on the episode.

“What everyone needs to realize is that when enough girls are made to feel like they owe guys for everything they do, when we feel like everything must be our faults when we’ve done nothing wrong, when we can’t believe that we matter apart from the opinions of others, there is a problem,” Rachel Chabin wrote in response to Raihan’s post.

Male classmate Qasim Safdar came to Cimagala’s defense: “He addresses all sides and just makes a good argument on the whole matter. Doesn’t just criticize girls, he also comments on the fault of men. I don’t get this whole fierce feminist reaction.”

Male-Female Divide

A majority of Cimagala’s supporters were male, while all those with objections to the article were female.

Cimagala denied his article reeked of male entitlement. “To be completely honest I didn’t even think of it in that way,” he said in an email interview. “I just wrote about what I noticed was happening to guys.” In a follow-up conversation a few months after the controversy he said he understands why girls were so fired up over what he wrote but that he didn’t intend to create a dispute.

Timing stoked some of the student anger at the selective-admissions high school. Cimagala’s piece was published five days after the misogyny-driven shootings in California that sparked the #YesAllWomen campaign online.

“I don’t think it would have blown up as much if it were published at a different time. It was like adding fuel to fire,” Cimagala said. “I knew it would spark some controversy, but I didn’t expect it to be such a big deal and was really shocked at first.” Cimagala originally wrote the op-ed for his journalism class.

The column also touched a sore point at the school, which maintains a strict dress code on female clothing. Rules prohibit tanks tops, showing of the midriff and shorts or skirts that are shorter than the length of an ID card from knee cap to hem line. Female students feel the rules are sexist.

“We [females] may be a majority in the school, but we still face problems,” said Liu, who created the Facebook page, in an email. “We are being told that our bodies are a distraction to boys. Now Ross’s article is making it seem like we owe boys something. I am not saying that Ross seems to be a misogynist, but I think it is irrefutable that his article had traces of male entitlement.”

Fellow student Allegra Santo agreed. “I see the vague attempt to say, ‘Hey, I’m not saying that I’m entitled to your body and your time,’ but really, that’s what’s being said here,” she wrote on The Classic website.

Advisor Caught Off Guard

While The Classic advisor Brian Sweeney did expect to get people talking, he “didn’t expect students to react as strongly as they did. Our three most-discussed and most-read articles all deal with social life at school, and it’s inevitable that something that touches on dating will stir conversation,” he said in an email interview.

The upside to the furor is that issues simmering at the school have come to the surface. “I believe that my article gave the feminists a platform to voice their opinions on,” said Cimagala. “In response to their distaste with my opinion, they eventually branched out into discussing other topics pertaining to feminism and sexism, a big one being the dress code, but that is not what my article initially intended.”

Students challenged the dress code as their first action to protest the culture at the school. Liu and others handed out posters in the school lobby in early June that argued “dress codes are perpetuating rape culture and oppressive objectification towards women.” According to an article on Think Progress, similar posters were handed out in a high school in Quebec, Canada.

Townsend Harris Dean Robin Figelman had posters removed from school property promptly.

“The dress code is the dress code, and I don’t do it because I think girls look sluttish, I do it because we want you to dress like professionals and get ready for the real world,” Figelman said in an interview. “You can dress the way you want in your house and outside, but once you’re in school, you take it or leave it.”

Post-administrative action, students posted their opinions on “Feminism at Townsend.” Liu wrote: “The fact of the matter is, that is a poor excuse and it is obvious that that is not the purpose of the dress code because hoodies, sweatpants, crew necks, yoga pants, sneakers, etc. are all allowed by the dress code.”

Liu hopes that the “Feminism at Townsend” page on Facebook will continue to gain support within the student body and the community at large.

“I know right now the majority of the student body is rather neutral, possibly even indifferent to what we have to say. I don’t believe we will ever be able to fully unite every single student.” Liu said. “Nonetheless, we would be satisfied if we could influence some people to find their own beliefs within themselves and to challenge the notions that they have been brought up to believe.”

“The school is only a microcosm of the world,” said Liu. “We should continue to try to foster an environment in which females are equal to males.”