Merriam-Webster’s dictionary recently announced that “feminism” was the most searched for word in 2017. Several key historical moments last year prompted this spike, including the January 21st Women’s March and the recent #MeToo campaign. Our societal reckoning with the deeply entrenched patriarchal structure and institutional racism has been a long time coming. Although periods of mass protest and dissent tend to come in waves, these movements have always been fundamental to the story of America.
Long before the present resurrection of this emboldened feminist movement (forcing people to frantically Google the term), I sensed it coming as the teacher advisor of my high school’s feminist club, the Feminist Eagles. Our discussions about racism, the patriarchy, and power were ahead of the recent national conversation. The club’s evolution, from a safe space for sharing personal anecdotes, to an empowered bastion of activism was a microcosm for what has been occurring for many women and men across the country today. As I watch Feminist Eagles’ topics from two years ago make the headlines today, it is a constant reminder that high school-aged students are an essential component to this progressive agenda. If we want to dismantle the existing toxic power structures, it will be essential to tap into their ideas and encourage their growing involvement in the resistance movement.
From Knitting Club to Feminist Club
The first iteration of the Feminist Eagles started as a knitting club back in 2011. In our diverse public high school in New York City, to which students travel from every borough, fifty students regularly came to the after-school club to knit. While students, both those who identify as males and females, started to master their skills enough to knit scarves, they expressed a desire to do more with the club. By donating their creations to a charity, they added a philanthropic element to what was originally intended to be a laid back arts & crafts club. This was a sign of their generation’s activist nature.
By the 2014-2015 school year, students were expressing a strong desire to start a “women’s issues club.” There was an initial hesitance about calling it “Feminist Club” as a few students anticipated some blowback from their peers. However, by the spring of 2015, in their first bold activist move, the students decided to call themselves the Feminist Eagles. With both males and females interested in joining, they agreed that in keeping with the definition of feminism (the belief that both men and women should be treated equally) everyone was welcome. Representing primarily minorities, they also wanted to make sure that the club focused on intersectional feminism. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the early 1980s used to describe the complex ways in which different forms of discrimination like racism and sexism overlap, combine and intersect in the experiences of marginalized people. As we sat to plan for the next year’s Feminist Eagles club, I learned more about my students than I had all year when they were students in my U.S. History class. Before sitting down with each other, they had already been individually actively engaging with social justice issues, via social media networks like Tumblr and Twitter. Everyone was excited to discuss these topics with each other in real life.
For the 2015-2016 school year, we spent many sessions discussing the societal perceptions of feminism, including their fellow students and families. Predicting the recent #MeToo movement, the students also devoted many meetings to the discussion of the concepts of consent and catcalling. Since male students were also members of the club, they discussed ways that they could help stop the “locker room talk” and toxic masculinity that fueled unwanted attention and remarks. At times, students shared deeply personal concerns and, every time, the rest of the group was there to provide unconditional support and positive affirmation. At one point, some students feared that we were turning into a self-help group and had veered off course from our original mission of feminist empowerment and activism. This communal sharing of past experiences was just part of the process of arriving there.
One of the most inspiring sessions was when three students, fresh off the first semester of their freshman year of college, came to visit. Two of the three students were engaged in activism, one at the Howard University campus and the other at Brandeis University. The Feminist Eagles sat in awe. Their contemporaries were actively challenging the same institutions that we had been discussing every week at Feminist Club. A few months later, a group of the Feminist Eagles challenged a teacher about how she had explained the dress code. By telling the female students that they should cover up so as to not to distract the boys, she was simply perpetuating the objectification of women.
At the end of the school year, we started to think about other ways to move beyond our personal struggles to have an impact on the rest of the community. I sensed a palpable yearning among my students to channel their shared personal experiences, and desire for equality, into a larger organized movement.
During the 2016-2017 school year, the presidential election fortified the feminist club’s activist mission. Students wanted to go beyond complaining and take bold action. The morning after Donald J. Trump won the election, many of the Feminist Eagles club members sat in my classroom to watch Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. As expected, there was a lot of crying and anger. Through a stream of tears, one student expressed the collective frustration and pain that many others were feeling: “As a minority woman, I always knew that I’d have to work that much harder to get that seat next to that privileged white boy in college. Now, watching Hillary lose to Trump, what message does that send to us? She was one of the most qualified candidates in history. We watched how hard she worked to get on the stage with a man who seems highly unqualified for the job. Now what do we do?” They also could not believe that a man with multiple sexual harassment and assault allegations received enough votes to become the next President of the United States.
The next night, I walked past a rally of about 50 high school students in front of the Trump Hotel at Columbus Circle. They held signs (“NOT MY PRESIDENT”) and shouted out a series of phrases that have now become commonplace at the countless rallies over the past year (“Climate Change Is Real,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Love Trumps Hate,” “Pussy Grabs Back,”). In the crowd, I spotted three of my students from the Feminist Eagles. Emboldened by their passion, these students became the new leaders of the feminist club, adding a more activist spirit to our activities for the 2016-2017 school year.
My own goal was to figure out how to channel this new fear and anger in the Age of Trump. The Feminist Eagles spent a few meetings processing the election results and this new “Trump Era.” However, they then forged on ahead to other topics. The students wanted to take action. The school social worker took a small group of students to the Women’s March in New York City in January. They reported back at our next session with photos and stories about partaking in the history-making moment.
Then, in the spring, students wanted to promote Sexual Violence Awareness Month in April by participating in Denim Day. (An annual campaign for the past 19 years that was triggered by a rape case ruling in Italy.) They wore jeans and handmade buttons that stated, “Ask Me Why I’m Wearing Denim.” After that, many students voiced their desire for self-defense training, so I brought in an expert to teach them how to feel more empowered in potentially dangerous situations.
By the spring of 2017, as a collective group, we spent more time discussing ways to change the power structure and less time worrying about what other people thought about our feminist mission. When I recently asked the club if they would identify as activists, they responded in the affirmative, but anticipated that once they were on their own in college they would be taking even more action. (According to the American Freshman Survey in 2016, first-time, full-time college students in 2015 reported greater likelihoods of participating in student protests and demonstrations while in college compared to students surveyed the previous year.)
Throughout the summer and autumn of 2017, the content of our Feminist Eagles conversations back in 2015 started to make national headlines. As I surfed through my Twitter and Facebook feeds, it felt like rest of the nation was finally catching up to our feminist club discussions. While I watched the #MeToo campaign unfold, I saw several parallels to the Feminist Eagles experience. As more and more women shared their personal stories with sexual harassment and sexual assault, it empowered more to do the same. From the personal, came a collective movement that has been starting to actively dismantle the power structures that have held back women and minorities for centuries.
In a recent NY1/Baruch College Poll, one in three women in New York City reported being sexual harassed. In the same poll, a jaw dropping 53% of women under the age of 16 reported experiencing sexual harassment and 84% between the ages of 18-29. These statistics align with what the Feminist Eagles had been reporting about their experiences navigating through New York City as young women.
As adults, we have a lot to learn from the younger generation. There has been a wave of high school protests in the past few years, even before the 2016 election. This phenomenon echoes the post-World War II era in the United States. In the 1960s and early 1970s, high school activism was at its peak. According to Gael Graham’s comprehensive account of these movements in her book, Young Activists: American High School Students in the Age of Protest, in a 1969 survey published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 59% of responding high schools reported unrest. (p. 5) Natalia Mehlman Petrzela in her book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, masterfully unpacks and analyzes how the California public school system housed two major fronts of the 1960s culture wars: sex education and Spanish-bilingual education. In her examination of how “the fights in and about the classroom” helped shape the “family values” movement of the 1980s (p. 4), she highlights the role that high school students played in these battles. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, over ten thousand Mexican-American teenagers participated in walkouts to protest educational inequities in the California school system. (p. 41)
The current day high school activism is sometimes occurring on campus, yet primarily taking shape online and on the streets, echoing and sometimes predicting what makes the news. In present day, high school-age students are actively participating in the surging protest movement in the United States. Even before Trump’s election, there was a growing number of teen protesters joining the Black Lives Matter Movement. A group of 21 children are currently suing the government over climate change. Football players and cheerleaders in high schools across the country have been participating in the #TakeAKnee protest. Hundreds of undocumented high school students recently took over the Hart Senate Building to protest for the protection of over 700,000 illegal immigrants who are vulnerable to deportation since the Trump administration’s removal of DACA. The One Mind Youth Movement was a group of Native American teenagers who started the Standing Rock Keystone Pipeline protest last winter. High school students were also “in the mix” of the recent protests over the FCC’s removal of net neutrality protections. These are just a few examples of the many teen protests taking place around the United States.
In November of 2017, the recipient of the National Teacher Award, Sydney Chafee, expressed the importance of teachers empowering students to use what they learn in the classroom to promote change. In her speech, she said, “When students engage in activism, when they engage in the work of changing the world, they build critical thinking skills and they build leadership skills…” Although a fully comprehensive narrative has yet to be constructed, I suspect that current day high school students will soon be recognized as the new activist class. With the encouragement of high school educators, we can channel this growing teenage activist spirit into meaningful learning opportunities. That way, we can better amplify the voices of this new generation of change makers.
Sari Rosenberg is a United States History High School Teacher in New York City and a member of a team writing a new history curriculum for the New York City Department of Education. She currently writes the daily #SheDidThat Women’s History posts for Lifetime. @saribethrose for twitter & instagram.