I always thought of myself as an ambitious person, and yet I had trouble speaking my mind.
Economics was one of my favorite classes in high school. It was a place where students were allowed to share their opinions. We discussed current and controversial topics like immigration, the economy, healthcare reform, affirmative action. I had strong feelings about all of these issues, and yet I often stepped back during a debate so I wouldn’t seem like the “crazy girl with lots of opinions,” which I often heard my peers describe one girl or another behind their backs. It did not help that there were only two other girls in my class.
Stepping back in economics class was part of a larger realization for me. I always thought of myself as an ambitious person, and yet I had trouble speaking my mind. The boys in my class raised their hands unabashedly while I often hesitated when I wasn’t certain of a response. They would challenge opposing views; I often yielded to theirs before I even knew my own.
I attended a boarding school in Massachusetts, so all of the students lived in dorms. I started talking with my friends about how I was feeling, and it turned out many of them felt the same. It’s funny, because many people talk about the gender gap as an outdated issue – especially on a campus. But the issues we noticed seemed to touch every aspect of our lives: in class, where girls didn’t raise their hands as much; in dorm life, where girls would immediately be called “sluts” for hooking up or hanging out with guys; even in student leadership. Our school had been coed for 40 years, and yet only four times in our history had a woman ever been elected class president.
I started meeting with a group of friends -- 11 girls and one guy -- to talk about these issues. Over the spring semester of my senior year, we drafted an article for the student newspaper about female leadership on campus, and helped organize forums about gender issues on campus. We attended a slumber party in our women’s studies center, where we broke into small groups with underclassmen and talked about what it is like to be a girl on campus. And we launched a Facebook group, called “Feminism is Equality,” to serve as an open forum for students to talk about gender on campus. It now has over 1,000 members -- students and alumni.
That forum rang with notifications deep into the night. We’d post links to articles about current events on and off campus. During our student body election, students debated in comment after comment about whether gender should play a role at all. Inspired by the discussion on campus, a group of male faculty members had hundreds of “FEMINIST” T-shirts printed, and organized nearly the entire school to pose on the front steps in them.
On the last Friday of the school year, co-ed groups of us went to freshmen dorms to discuss feminism with the hopes of destigmatizing the word. We gave a presentation to the entire faculty explaining why students need feminism on campus -- and were met with a standing ovation.
I began my freshman year of college this year, once again a small fish in a much bigger pond. I don’t have a core group of friends yet, and am still gaining my footing. But I stay in touch with my fellow feminists from my high school class – all of us now scattered across the country. And when I raise my hand in class, I think of them. I’m determined not to lean back.
A U.S. Marine Corps officer shares her lean in story from Afghanistan.
Susannah Rose Stokes
1st Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps