This year is the first that I decided to use International Women’s Day as a promotional opportunity for my artistic ventures. Feeling pressured to raise awareness and momentum for ...that’s what she said, I prepared my social media posts and email campaigns hastily in the middle of the day this past Friday March 8. I thought to myself, “I should have done this yesterday so I could post and send first thing in the morning. Now I am competing with media that has been going strong all day about International Women’s Day, and I’ll just be lost in the onslaught.” While these thoughts ran through my mind, I felt a pang in my chest. Something didn’t seem quite right. On a day meant to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women globally, I was sitting at my computer struggling with how to compete with other women for attention. It shouldn’t be a competition.
I began to reflect back on the first time I had learned of International Women’s Day. It was March 8, 2011, and I had just arrived to my hostel in Budapest, Hungary, fresh off an overnight train from Prague. My boyfriend and I were exhausted - we hadn’t slept a wink on our 9 hour train - and we were primed for a fight about what to do first: sleep or see the sights. Our host greeted us warmly, and showed us to our room. He gestured to a small potted flower in the corner and indicated that it was for me. “Happy International Women’s Day,” he said simply, and then left. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was touched nevertheless. It was a kind gesture. I left it at that. My boyfriend and I took a power nap and then headed off to the famous Roman baths of Budapest and I didn’t think of International Women’s Day again for a few years.
my delayed ascent to feminism
Many who know me now would be shocked to learn that my ascent to feminism was quite delayed. Not only did I not identify as a feminist until after graduating college, I actually opposed the feminist movement throughout high school and college. This is not unusual: in August 2018, Refinery29 released a poll of more than 2000 millennial women, more than 50% of whom do not identify as feminists. Similar studies have been released by Pew and Gallup polls, and the Spring 2016 Harvard Public Opinion Project poll clocked female millennial support of the feminist movement at just 49%.
When I think about the girl that I was in high school, I am sometimes at a loss to explain how it was that I did not support feminism. I remember, as early as grade school, competing with boys in gym class over strength and endurance - firmly believing that I was completely capable of outdoing them in push ups, sit ups, and flexibility, because dancers - and girls in general - were just as fit in mind and body as any of the athletic boys in the class. In 9th grade, I wrote my semester thesis paper on the real-life validity of the movie Mean Girls, stating a firm belief that girls are cruel to one another primarily because they are competing with one another to obtain an unrealistic Disney Princess fairytale romance with boys at school. These seem to be the thoughts and feelings of a feminist in the making… and yet, I couldn’t think of a word dirtier than “feminist” for many of my teenage years.
The same Harvard Public Opinion Project discovered that, despite not identifying as feminists, 68% of the women surveyed believed there to be a glass ceiling limiting women’s ability to advance in career and financial security. The study states:
“It seems that young Americans are reticent to attach themselves to the idea of feminism even when they perceive limited prospects for American women. While roughly half of the Millennial generation supports feminism, only 27 percent affirmatively identify as feminist.”
why do young women reject feminism?
As our political climate becomes increasingly polarized and heated, this seems to be the question circulating around many social activist groups. Most often, this seems to be an issue of branding. Julie Zeilinger, of Women’s Media Center, writes of an experience at Barnard’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute, at which she had the opportunity to ask 55 teen girls about their feelings regarding the term “feminist.” She says, “The biggest reason I have come across, especially when considering my own friends, is lack of understanding of what feminism actually is and/or fearing the stigma of the word. There really are so many girls who think being a feminist just means hating men, or thinking women are BETTER than men. Or they really just have no idea.”
This sentiment is echoed by numerous interviews conducted by Refinery29 as well as Babe.Net, with respondents stating, in a variety of ways, that “the movement it’s now become doesn’t represent my views” (Liat, age 20, Babe.Net). The Harvard Public Opinion Project notes, “The complicated history of feminism as a term and as a movement may turn some young Americans away from connecting themselves to the label. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that support for feminism among young Americans is so low and that identification as feminist even less common.” The only comment on the article, from user FreedomFirst, states:
“Bigoted, reverse-sexist, female supremacist, and fascist hatred packaged as 'equality' seems to be a hard sell everywhere but in Orwellian academic cesspools like Harvard wherein feminists bigots rule the roost. The constant lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations that feminists are infamous for also may be turning most Americans aways from this filthy term.”
then and now
As a woman who now proudly declares myself a feminist, this can be difficult to read. At the same time, I can’t say I don’t understand the theory. My younger self definitely subscribed to many of these lines of thought, though with far less vehemence and hostility. I think the real reason I so thoroughly rejected feminism for so long was much more complicated.
To put it simply: high school sucked. I know that is not an uncommon opinion, but when I say that high school sucked, I mean it really, really sucked. And it sucked predominantly because of the behavior of the girls around me. Prior to high school, I was quite the social butterfly. I remember struggling in grade school to narrow down lists of friends to a reasonably sized birthday party guest lists. In middle school, I ran about carefree with a variety of friends. I loved to go to the movies, to Starbucks, to the mall, on hikes through the woods, with any and all friends. By the time I turned 16, while others in my grade planned elaborate Sweet Sixteen formals, I wanted nothing more than a simple dinner out with my family, my boyfriend and my one female friend. There is a picture of me at a pre-Prom picture party senior year, sandwiched awkwardly amidst 18 girls posing prettily for the cameras. My smile conveys a level of terror - I remember being pushed into that picture by my boyfriend. I remember feeling an intense anxiety; I would have rather been invisible than stand in that line of girls. This past November, Avon High School held the 10 year reunion for the class of 2008. I wasn’t invited, either having been forgotten entirely, or simply not wanted.
I have previously written publicly about the bullying I experienced in high school, and at some point, I will share that writing again here. For now, though, I will keep it simple. For nearly a decade of my life, boys were not the enemy. Girls were. Girls called me names. Girls said horrible things to me. Girls excluded me, teased me, and harassed me. Boys were my safety net. My best friends were boys. Boys always let me sit at the lunch table with them. Girls were mean. Boys were funny. Girls hated me. Boys loved me. My beloved Grandmother said to me once, when I was 20, that in the end, my female friendships would be the most important relationships in my life. I didn’t believe her. At that time, I was still dating the boy I thought I would marry. He was everything. He was the most important relationship in my life. Girls were unreliable. He wasn’t. He was safe. He was enough, and I didn’t want more. It hurt too much to want more.
Now, less than a decade later, I have already found that she was right. When I think about who makes up my community now, it is almost exclusively female. When I think about who I trust the most, who will always be there for me, who I can count on to love me when I can’t love myself - the overwhelming majority of people who come to mind are female. It took a long time to unpack and recognize the true nature of the boys that I always surrounded myself with. It took me even longer to work through the deep-rooted self-loathing and internalized misogyny that made it easier for me to keep these boys around me than to trust the girls that tried to befriend me. People can be good, people can be bad, and people can make mistakes. That extends to both genders and to folks who do not identify with one gender or another. At this point, I have learned to analyze better the context surrounding each person’s behavior.
Contextualizing the past, understanding the future
I will never excuse the behavior of my high school bullies. What they did to me was wrong and brought on a life-long struggle with self esteem and self worth that I did not deserve. That being said, the woman I am today can look back on the girls they were then and understand the context surrounding their behavior. It is easier to call another girl a slut than it is to feel comfortable and safe exploring your own feelings about sexuality. It is simpler to say horrible things to another person than it is to investigate how you feel about yourself. It is very difficult to grow up a girl who values and respects herself and other girls, in a world that overall does not seem to value or respect girls or women at all. We live in a world that scapegoats women, repeatedly, for all kinds of offenses, big and small. How can such a world foster a favorable view of a movement designed to support this seemingly deplorable gender? Whether you are the bully or the victim, the heart of the matter remains the same: girls are bad. Girls are mean. Girls are hysterical. Girls are illogical. Girls are passive aggressive. Girls are ruthless. Girls are weak. Girls are not boys. Even if you agree that competent women should be able to run the world, this is a system that is designed to question the intentions of those who are “too loud” or “too fierce” in their desire to do so. It is easy to make “feminism” a dirty word. Haven’t you noticed how easy it is to dirty anything female?
When I think about the girl that I was before high school, the girl I became throughout high school and college, and the woman that I am today, it is almost incredible to see these three very distinct phases in my life - almost as if I lived several lives condensed into a few decades. It has been, in many ways, excessively exhausting. And yet… I believe it has given me the clarity to understand others in a uniquely patient way. It makes me sad to think so many young women reject a term meant to bolster their value on a global scale, but I understand it. I think that perhaps because I understand it, I can rectify the misunderstandings that have so confused the feminist movement. I am still working to learn and grow, and I am far from a women’s history expert. I am incredibly grateful for the work other individuals have done to create enough space for me to continue to learn and grow, to reflect on these experiences, and to attempt to continue to encourage thought and change surrounding these topics. I am grateful for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, and other holidays and annual dates that shine spotlight on female achievements while also reminding the world that we aren’t quite “there” yet - the place we want to be. There is more work to be done, and we don’t have to compete with one another to complete that work. After all, the point of feminism is to make more space for everyone at the table, isn’t it?
written by: kristin wagner
Published March 14, 2019
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Top Cover Photo: "shell" by I.J. Chan, Image by Haley Abram Photography