My Fight To End Sexist Harassment In Schools
In the summer of 2015, I discovered feminism. While I had previously been aware of the fight for gender equality, I had never really educated myself on the movement and its values. Like many others, I was aware of the stigma that clings to the word “feminist” but was not entirely aware of its actual definition. For that reason, I was not exactly jumping at the opportunity to brand myself with the title. But then, I spent ten days at Barnard College’s Young Women’s Leadership institute, and everything changed.
At YWLI, I was surrounded by young women who proudly fought for the feminist cause. At first, I was intimidated by their knowledge and worried that what little I knew about the movement was inadequate, yet that trepidation soon passed as my fellow young feminists, my class on feminist leadership led by an engaging and inspiring professor, and the daily workshops focused on developing young female leaders inspired me and encouraged my enthusiasm for feminism to flourish.
My mind raced with new and exciting concepts. We read bell hooks, and learned about concepts like gender binaries, intersectionality, and privilege.
I also felt this movement influence me on a deeper level: . My confidence blossomed and I felt myself becoming a more self-assured young woman. Before attending, for example, I had always been extremely shy and would mentally lecture myself on things like the importance of classroom participation. But to my surprise, I eagerly dove into class discussions at YWLI. The empowerment of the community was contagious, and I went home a new person that summer.
Feminism had changed me for the better and for this reason, I hold the identity very close to my heart. It helped me become more happy and confident than I had ever been before, and I was eager to share the movement that inspired this transformation. The pain I felt when it resulted in positioning me as a target for my peers, as a result, is one I will never forget.
I decided to bring feminism to my community by founding a feminist society at my high school: Forsyth Feminist Society. The concept of equality had been so easy for me to accept that I assumed introducing the ideology to my peers would be similarly simple. But this assumption turned out to be blissfully ignorant.
For the first half of the year, the Society was neither enthusiastically accepted nor bitterly rejected. The club managed to obtain fifteen members, a good number of whom actually showed up to the meetings. While the meetings were small, there was an intimacy and excitement that left me energized and proud of the impact we were making nonetheless.
But the society also had its “haters” from the beginning. When our meetings were called out during the morning announcements, senior boys would make little quips, and continued to do so throughout the day. They were clearly ignorant about feminism, but still managed to sense a threat to their privilege, so they resolved to defensively use the club as fuel for their churlish humor.
This underlying tension eventually devolved into chaos when our club decided to develop a social media presence in February. I had realized it was difficult to draw people into meetings, so decided to turn to social media — a medium which nearly every student used regularly — to do so. We made Instagram and Twitter accounts in order to spread our message.
I remember when I heard about what they had done. “Have you seen the Twitter?” my friend asked as she passed by in the hallway.
These words felt like they were hitting me in my chest. I went to my study hall, my head spinning. Sure, those guys had been poking fun at my club all year, but this attack was worse. They wanted to make our community, our beliefs, a joke. Did they realize what they were implying by treating feminism like a joke? Did they understand the implications of saying the movement that had finally given me the confidence I needed to use my voice a joke? Was I the joke?
I looked up the page. I immediately knew this account was a personal attack from the profile photo: A black and white picture of Ernest Hemingway smirked at me from my screen. I had been quite vocal about my dislike of the author and his writing in my AP Language and Composition class, mainly due to his sexist portrayal of female characters and obsession with what I interpreted as toxic masculinity. To this day, I internally flinch at the mention of Hemingway.
I did not want to bring Forsyth Feminist Society down to their level, but I wanted to show that their refusal to recognize their privilege as well as their refusal to use it to fight oppression was immature and unacceptable, so I tweeted a response from my personal account: “Wow I never realized being privileged white boys has been so hard.”
For the rest of the day, my phone pinged with tweets fighting me. Some were from people I knew, others people of whom I knew, and some were even complete strangers. I was called a “feminazi bitch” and told I will “rot in hell.” That night, I sat in bed physically shaking until I grew tired enough to fall asleep. This account and its consequences were harassment.
Eventually, I decided to ask the school’s administration to help confront the harassment. I am grateful that they stood by me and had the account shut down. But I know that not every young woman who has faced online harassment is so lucky, and I want this administrative support to exist in all schools.
So I decided to try to do just that: I used my position as an Action Team Member with the organization Day of the Girl to start a campaign aiming to prevent gender based harassment within schools. We have named the campaign “In Solidarity” to show victims that they are not alone. Day of the Girl has worked to develop a faculty training toolkit so that youth activists may have a role in ridding their schools of harassment. Anyone interested in the campaign may reach out to Day of the Girl through our Facebook and Twitter.
We would love to help you begin making your school a safe place!
More articles by Category: Feminism, Misogyny, Online harassment, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Sexual harassment, Social media