How To Be a High School Feminist

On our way to high school recently, I asked my friend, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”

After a slight hesitation, she responded, “Well, I support women’s rights and all, but I’m no bra burner.”

Besides the fact that the bra-burning story is apocryphal, I was surprised by her answer. Is that what feminism meant to this smart girl?

As I’ve discovered what feminism means to me over the past couple years, I am repeatedly shocked by what others think of the movement. One highly accomplished woman I know declared that feminism was dead. Another scoffed when I said I was interested in attending a women’s college. Why is there so much animosity toward such a simple, important ideal—that women deserve equal rights?

The answer probably lies, like so many, in education. When my mother attended public high school in Santa Monica in the 1970s, at the height of the Second Wave when women’s studies courses were becoming popular, she was lucky enough to take one at her school. As a high school senior in a similar public school in 2011, I have not had access to any such classes, and women’s contributions still don’t get as much attention as those of men. In my history textbooks, there is only a paragraph or two on the feminist movement, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is always stuck in the sidebar. My English classes have ignored female authors almost completely; all books assigned are by male writers, while only the optional book list includes a few female ones.

High schools overwhelmingly disregard the subject; a survey I conducted of 12 Los Angeles public schools found that none of them has any kind of women’s studies course available. And private schools in Los Angeles are not much better; in a survey of 12, I only found three that offer women’s studies. It is especially a shame that so few private schools take advantage of their more significant resources and curricular freedom to offer these courses.

Interestingly, some private Catholic schools present faux-feminist courses masked as feminist ones. One local Catholic all-girls school offers a women’s studies elective in which students learn about analyzing their dreams with a dream dictionary and watch old episodes of Oprah.

It is schools’ responsibility to produce an educated, well-rounded student body; by ignoring half of the world’s population, they aren’t really doing their job. At my school, there seems to be a rise in sexism and a complete misunderstanding of the women’s movement. Although I realize women’s studies classes would not cure sexism for all time, at least they would allow students to understand, as my friend did not, what feminists really are. And students enrolled in the courses would spread knowledge by sharing with friends what they learn.

Since I cannot personally fund women’s and gender studies programs in all schools (although I would love to!), I have a few tips for young feminists to assure them that it is possible to hold on to their ideals during high school.

–First of all, I would recommend going outside your school to take classes at community colleges, to look into auditing courses at universities and to attend programs that examine the topic. My time at Barnard College’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute helped me more fully explore feminism.

–Also, read feminist literature. When I discovered the lack of representation of female authors in my English classes, I chose to read female authors for my term paper. I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. For other recommendations, check out Jessica Stites’ list of feminist young-adult fiction from the fall 2010 issue of Ms., or reading lists from university-level women’s studies classes.

–To connect with young feminists (they exist, I swear), explore blogs for teenagers. Check out to read entries by young bloggers from all over the world. The founder of the blog, Julie Zeilinger, never took women’s studies prior to starting the website, but after declaring herself a feminist, she was able to cultivate her feminist community online.

–And, of course, the best way to educate high schoolers about feminism is to not tolerate sexism when it creeps into the classroom, whether from teachers or students. If we pledge, along with Susan B. Anthony, to never allow another “season of silence” when advocating women’s rights and to consistently challenge anti-female or anti-feminist attitudes, in spite of the discomfort or eye rolling, we can create a feminist re-awakening.

Image from Flickr user House of Sims under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. Actually, be careful about taking your reading list from women's studies classes. Some of those books can be very confusing, especially if you're not reading them in the proper context and/or don't have a professor to help you out.

  2. Stick up for yourselves…..

    There it was.

    A picture of a large penis poking a women’s eye out displayed on my daughter’s friend’s facebook wall. Underneath the photo his friend had written the caption “huge”. The expression on the women’s face, how can I describe it? She was hurting no doubt, but there was something comical about the pain. The picture combined with the word “huge” enraged me. Why do some men need to put women down to feel bigger?

    “This photo is vile and misogynist. Why do you and your friends feel so entitled to your cruelty?” I asked the boy. My daughter further explained to him that these images are not sex-positive but rather, play into guys feeling predatory in their sexuality towards women. “While I would rather not see this photo because I think it’s disgusting”, he argued, “it doesn’t offend me and I don’t think it is anti-sex”. He went on to explain that a women sticking her vagina in a man’s face would be just as comical if the man had a funny facial expression. This he rationalized means that the photo was not sexist. He assured me that he always tries to treat women respectfully and that I shouldn’t worry about it.

    Welcome to parenting in the year 2011.

    So many parents stick their heads in the sand and hope that their kids will outgrow their offensive views. I instead chose to dig deeper into my daughter’s and her friend’s attitudes towards humor and what I found disturbed me.

    Earlier in the year, this same boy and friends put up a joke myspace claiming to “parody” rappers. It was a bunch of teenage boys fake rapping about violence of all kind. Accompanying the disturbing lyrics were degrading photos of women that made me cringe. The misogyny of the myspace was over the top. Their lyrics included wanting to knife women and smacking around mothers “on their knees, begging please.” I shared the myspace with a friend, a trained social worker with a history of counseling teenage boys. This is what he said,

    “Yeah of course it’s degrading to women–sort of like kidnapping young girls, raping and murdering them and then eating them. But I expect these guys know very little about real sex and violence. The scary thing is they probably have some female fans. The apocalypse is near.”

    Indeed I did feel like the apocalypse was near. I wondered what my daughters and her friends were thinking. The occasional girl thought it was funny, but most of the girls thought it was just stupid. My daughter argued to her friend that the photo and the myspace desensitized people. Still she maintained these boys were “nice” guys. In my day, you would never be caught dead with a guy who sang about knifing women – joking or not. But the rules have changed. Sexism disguised as humor is no longer challenged by my daughter’s generation. They’ve internalized the message that “boys will be boys”, even though many of them feel annoyed by it and secretly know that it is harmful to women.

    What was my role as her mother? Attempts to talk with the boys’ parents went nowhere. Many argued that it was none of my business. Did I have the right to reprimand someone else’s child? Would I tolerate these types of jokes if they targeted gays, blacks, Jews or immigrants? The answer was definitely no! In standing up for my beliefs was I overstepping my daughter’s boundaries? Ultimately I didn’t see keeping silent on the matter as helpful to her sense of empowerment.

    When I decided to confront her friend, he was not afraid to share his truth. “I can guarantee 100% that everyone who found it funny was laughing at us sounding like idiots, not at the violent images that were said.” But couldn’t this rationalization justify much of the world’s offensive humor? I argued that whether he intended to offend women or not, the imagery in his songs made people laugh at violence against women and the objectification of women. At times it was not pretty I resorted to calling him all kinds of names. He didn’t seem to take my feelings seriously without the tongue-lashing. To his credit, he was willing to discuss the matter for as long as I wanted. Eventually, after a long contentious debate, he did take down the myspace. “I can see how some people could find it offensive,” he conceded.

    My daughter has said to me that while she disagrees with her friend’s rationalizations, she doesn’t believe he is racist or sexist. She and I are in an ongoing debate about her responsibility in challenging this offense. I don’t think she did enough. I wish that I did not have to get involved. It certainly would have been safer for me to keep silent, but then again what lesson would I be teaching her. She and her female friends owe it to themselves and their gender to stand up for their rights even if it means feeling uncomfortable. But, then again if the adults don’t protest how are they supposed to know how?

    • The reason why men put women to down to feel big is because they know that we have always been bigger than them. They know that we secretly have all the power. When Eve took the apple and gave it to Adam, Adam ate the apple because it was from a woman. Men don’t like to admit that we have the ultimate power in this world. That is why men try to put women down. They try and put us down because they know if they don’t, the world would be fully in our control and not theirs. They don’t like not being in control. I am in high school and it has reached my mind that this world is more corrupt than I thought. If women aren’t good looking to men or sweet and nice and quiet and innocent, then men disregard them. I say to hell with what they think. I am tired of being an underdog when the supposed ones that are in control are bastards. It is not my fault that I now do not like men.

      ” Why do people say ‘Grow some balls!’ Balls are weak and sensitive. If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding!”- Betty White

  3. I don't know if I completely agree with you. I am in high school, and I do consider myself sort of a feminist (I don't tolerate sexism of any kind, at all), but I'm not really upset that woman's studies classes aren't offered at my school. I don't really think it needs to be a separate class in high school. While I do believe that we need to be proud of and learn about the way we fought for our rights, I think it could go too far, and once again separate us out and make us "different" again. It's that finding a balance between remembering the past and learning from it, but not living in it that we need to focus on. But, just as a side note, I very rarely encounter sexism in my day to day life. I'd like to know what you think.

  4. Dori Taback-Hazan says:

    Thanks for carrying the torch, Anna!

  5. Definition of Feminism: The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. Then by that definition I would say most secure, educated, worldly men are Feminists (Although they would deny it for lack of understand or fear of being emasculated). I would say I am a feminist by the strictest definition of the word. After reading this article by this high school senior I would take exception and fully disagree on a variety of points:

    To be continued:

    • Rob, I would respectfully submit that if a man denies being a feminist because he is afraid of being misunderstood or being emasculated, that he may not actually subscribe to a true belief that women should enjoy equal rights. My reason for posing this question is that I don't entirely understand why women who are socially, politically, and in all other rights equal to men is difficult to understand or threatening to masculinity. Perhaps men hesitate to identify themselves as feminist because of their own internalization of our social structure of gender discrimination.

  6. 1. The following statement: “Another scoffed when I said I was interested in attending a women’s college. Why is there so much animosity toward such a simple, important ideal—that women deserve equal rights?” I disagree with this statement because attending an all women’s college is not an equal right. There are about 60 all women’s colleges in the USA and only 4 all male colleges, a male would be hard pressed to have equal admissions opportunities to such a small pool in comparison to a women. In addition, the person who “scoffed” probably was being derisive to the author or some other “stereotype” about an all women’s college, or about feminism in general (a commonly misunderstood concept), not about or towards the simple ideal that women deserving equal rights, I believe that connection is flawed.

    to be continued:

  7. 2. The following statement: “Women’s contributions still don’t get as much attention as those of men. In my history textbooks, there is only a paragraph or two on the feminist movement, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is always stuck in the sidebar. My English classes have ignored female authors almost completely; all books assigned are by male writers” I completely disagree with this statement entirely. Perhaps my history text books from school and every high school one I have looked at (about 7 different ones over the last 10 years are all slanted in the opposite direction) dedicated at least 8-10 full pages to the women’s movement. In most cases this part of history took up an entire chapter. For comparison, all of WWI or the Great Depression warranted the same attention.

    to be continued:

  8. Again perhaps I have only seen the more “equal” history books. As for the all male authors there is a very good reason for that, about 90% of all high school level reading book lists are comprised of men simply because they wrote more well renowned books and a great quantity of male writers existed before about 1900, this is just statistics. Drawing a conclusion that this is due to female authors being in any way “disregarded” or not being given due attention is in my opinion most likely inaccurate.

    to be continued:

  9. 3. The following excerpt: “High schools overwhelmingly disregard the subject [women’s studies]; a survey I conducted of 12 Los Angeles public schools found that none of them has any kind of women’s studies course available”. I agree with the statement, but disagree with the conclusion. I am confident none of these 12 schools had “men’s studies” courses either. The author goes on to say that 3 of 12 private schools surveyed had woman’s studies courses offered, which again, I am confident to say, none of them provide “men’s studies”. The author goes on to say that this is a “shame”. I believe since the ratio in of women’s studies courses offered to men’s studies courses’ offered is probably in the ration of 8 to 1 I believe it is more than “equal”.

    to be continued:

    • Sharada says:

      With all due respect, I believe that the reason some schools offer women’s studies classes is because almost every history, science, etc. textbook focuses almost solely on the actions and discoveries of men and hardly goes over the accomplishments of women in history. This leads us students to believe that men are the only ones who did great things in the past, when this is completely untrue. While men had more freedom to do things in history, many many women still managed to break these societal barriers but have never been mentioned in the average high school and college textbook. We have women’s studies because it allows people to learn about the great women of the past that we would have never learned about otherwise.

  10. Beautifully written, Anna. Great observations, interesting information about the classes schools offer, wonderful suggestions about education etc. No blaming or whining. I really appreciate the stance you hold out here, an invitation for women to keep up the good work. Sometimes I think "if you aren't outraged you aren't paying attention!" But, sexism, like other oppressions, (racism, anti-semitism, classism, adultism) has been part of our culture for a couple thousand years and has been almost embedded in our cells at this point– we've internalized so much of it that we do it to ourselves and I think often don't or can't recognize it in the world around us because it is so pervasive. Strength is a beautiful and wonderful thing in a man or woman, so is love, respect, intelligence– let us call for these glorious human traits in all us of, huh? It ain't easy these days on our planet, but with young people like Anna thinking these good thoughts and putting them out into the world, I am reminded that we're headed in the right direction. Thanks!

  11. Kylie Lowe says:

    Thanks, Anna, for sticking up for feminism! We need to let people know what it's really all about. I'm a 3rd year social work student at a private college, and I struggle to help my peers, professors, and parents really comprehend what feminism is (and, for that matter, what social work is). It's hard to take a stand for what you believe in, but you have some strong women (and men!) backing you up. Feminism is the answer to the yearning that we have inside us to create a world that is full of equality, mercy, hope, freedom, and truth. Never back down from that!

  12. Carol King says:

    Anna, Thanks for letting us know what's happening in high schools. But, especially, thank you for listing concrete actions people can take. It's important to define the problem but we have to take the next step to effect change. Keep it up.

  13. As a 50 year old woman I found this article very insightful. I too look around me and survey how many women are at the conferences in my profession (science) and the "whos who" in the business world in my local paper (San Jose/Silican Valley). I am sad to hear that they are still looking at the same authors for many decades ago…there are many non-white male authors that have something important to say to our youth. I pointed this out at one of our school meetings, with some examples, but I didn't see any change the following year. Thank you for your practical advice and I agree. It is our obligation to bring a wider world to our children.

  14. Anna, I appreciated this post so much. Your passion brings me a great deal of hope. Your insight into some deeply entrenched social structures was spot-on. I respect and applaud your efforts to provide education and bring change. As I read, I thought, "I've _had_ these conversations!" Keep up the great work.

  15. screwing yer courage says:

    Here's another good suggestion: Re-ignite the Riot Grrl and Queercore movements! Team Dresch, Bikini Kill, Tribe 8 and other bands did a lot for many teenage girls in the late '80s to mid '90s and I was there to see its effects. 7-inch singles are now downloads, and 'zines are now blogs, but the idea is the same. There's really not much like Riot Grrl going on today (some of that radical spirit has been subsumed in the mostly ultraleftist folkpunk movement, whose bands are far too often drab and predictable musically) but the annual Ladyfest events are still happening and do involve groups like The Gossip and Sleater-Kinney. Queercore has continued but it no longer has the alternative-media attention that it once did, and its energy seems to have redirected into various subgenres (especially dance music). Push this kind of music back into the spotlight via the blogosphere, Youtube and satellite/internet radio and you'll have another amazing wave of teenage girls no longer content to hold their boyfriend's jacket or downplay their sexual preference.

  16. Toni Myrup Frank says:

    I am Anna's grandmother, and proud that she's carrying the torch I carried in the late sixties and seventies when I edited the "women's pages" in a daily newspaper. I covered the so-called "women's movement" during one of the most exciting times for women of all ages. My daughters' lives are different and better than mine because of this so-called movement. My granddaughters' lives are better for the same reason. Anna's contribution to feminism will continue to help women achieve full equality.

  17. Maria Peeples says:

    Thank you for this article! As a self-identified feminist in high school, it is definitely easy to relate to some of the frustrations present. Always, but especially at a young age and in a school environment, it can be ostracizing to be in-tune to feminist struggles and history when they aren’t taught in class and when our peers are often times unaware. Luckily, there are a ton of young feminists out there working hard for reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood Federation of America even has a Young Leaders Advisory Council that I'm lucky enough to be involved with! We're out there, we're just taking different approaches and all generations of feminists need to band together to keep on fighting the good fight. Kudos to the author of this piece.

  18. Martin McReynolds says:

    Anna's report is passionate but well-researched, well thought out and well written. It reminded me of two perhaps related issues — racism and civil liberties (or lack of them). I'm an old retired male person now but as a callow middle-class white college student I was quietly skeptical of the push to celebrate Black History Month in the 1950s. I had no idea of what black history was since I was only aware of a few figures who had achieved fame of one kind or another — the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the baseball player Jackie Robinson, a couple of actors, a vague awareness of Booker T. Washington, etc. I eventually came to realize there was a vast amount of history I had never been exposed to, which to some extent has since become more widely known. Why are there black-issues studies but no white-issues studies? Because I and most other members of the dominant race had been studying nothing but white issues all our lives, ignoring the rest of the story. The struggle for racial justice has made remarkable strides in the last 60 years but it's far from over.

  19. Martin McReynolds says:

    (adding) I'm not optimistic that sexism — the tendency to stereotype, classify, patronize and disrepect — one sex by another, will ever be totally eliminated. But remarkable strides have been made in the United States and many other countries. It's encouraging that young people like Anna are determined to keep up the struggle. The comparison to the general civil liberties field may not be totally useful but my feeling is that the struggle to preserve freedom of speech, assembly, association, and other basic elements of democracy is one that will never be over. It has to be fought every day because there are forces — governmental, economic and political — that will always find reasons to restrict these freedoms.
    So, even though it has been vital to knock down racial barriers through, agitation, legislation and education, there's no reason to feel satisfied with the results so far. Similarly, there's been real progress on sexism but the battle isn't over, as Anna has found in her conversations with her peers and her investigation of school curricula, and has so effectively reported.

  20. No no no, that's all wrong! Well, not the second half, but the "People think all feminists are radical" isn't because they don't know about how women are discriminated against, but because they just think feminists are, y'know, radical. And if you actually step back a bit, you can see why.

    Take, for example, that girl's comment. That feminists are bra-burning crazies. That's because, when most feminists want to try stop fiction portraying most women as over-emotional and obsessed with prettyness, they complain about individual cases of fictional women like that. The problem with that is that, to an outside observer, it looks like feminists hate over-emotional, pretty-obsessed women. Hence, it looks like feminism = bra burning.
    The problem isn't just a "that's how it works", it's that feminists don't like a general case situation (women are portrayed /too much/ like that), and complain about ANY individual cases of it happening. Which is like worrying about how minority races are so under-represented as main characters… and trying to solve it by banning white protagonists from future shows.

    Similarly, the stereotype of "man hating" comes from how so few feminists talk about sexism against men at all. And the stereotype of "irrational" comes from… well, a lot of things. But to take a point very close to home – this single blog entry. Back to the first quote again: it's about how the speaker said she does support equal rights, but thinks feminists are nuts. What you took from that was that she was being hostile… to equal rights. When she was actually criticising your kind. Doesn't look good.
    All those impressions aren't because people never looked into feminism, but that they DID look into it… and didn't like what they see. It's because of those… less than stellar feminists. The ones that don't really know HOW to be good feminists, because the people that pressured them into being activists never said there could be a wrong way to do things. In fact, I don't think this blog ever said anything like that!

    • No you’re wrong, man ! People do think feminist are radical because they ignore the problems that are going on…just because it’s not the 70s or 60s anymore it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anymore sexist men on this Earth. So thank you very much ! V,,

  21. Great post! I am in high school as well and am constantly disappointed by the lack of Women’s Studies education. This year I studied World History and we spent exactly 15 minutes on Women’s Studies the whole year, with an extremely limited discussion of women’s suffrage which ended with my male history teacher admitting that he “has never taken the time to learn much about women’s studies.” As a result of this lack of Women’s Studies education, both boys and girls have extremely negative views of feminists, like the “bra-burning” thing that Anna mentioned, and even the crazy idea that identifying as a feminist will convince people that you are a lesbian. Given these circumstances, I think it is crucial that high school girls take it upon themselves to bring women’s studies and feminism to their schools by starting clubs (mine launches this year- so excited!) and building a community of activists both in school and on the internet.

    I am starting a zine called Grrrl Beat and am looking for contributors! More information here:


  22. I am a high school student, and although I consider myself a feminist, I don’t consider feminism my main attribute, and “feminist” isn’t the first word I’d use describing myself. I think people just have so many misconceptions about feminism, and I think quite a few girls are feminist but dislike the term. I have trouble being moderate, because I’m more feminist than the average girl in my school, and yet, I don’t feel feminist enough around feminists.


    Point being- I think lots of people in high school are or would become feminist if not for the stereotypes of feminism.

    • michelekort says:

      You\’re right–people are afraid of the STEREOTYPES of feminism. But they\’re stereotypes, not necessarily accurate. And those stereotypes are purposeful: They\’re designed to keep women from feminism, keep women from banding together for their rights. As a high school student, you can help smash those stereotypes. OWN the word \”feminism\” and let people know that you are NOT a stereotype but simply a woman who is against oppression and in favor of equal rights. And in terms of being \”feminist enough,\” it\’s certainly OK to be a free thinker and choose to support exactly the sorts of things you want to support! I\’d say there are basic feminist principles, but there\’s also lots of debate around certain issues. Stay strong!

  23. madison ainslie says:

    okay so im only in middle school and ive been a feminist for a year now and i think that if you want women`s study courses that you should get them on your own instead of just deciding high schools should have them. many high schools are offering soooo much already that they just can’t offer women’s study courses. i do however, agree that textbooks should elaborate more on the feminist movement

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