This year — for the first time in almost a decade — Staples High School offered a social studies course called “Women in History.” As students learned about the many roles and perceptions of women in US history, they also considered their own experiences.
Motivated by International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, and their experiences discussing feminism and sexism at school, class members created an interactive exhibit outside the cafeteria. Their 3-part “feminism wall” provoked many reactions.
In response, the class wrote an open letter to the Staples community:
It was shocking, we know. No warning. Red paper, black paint. We asked you to complete the statement: “Feminism is…”
From our perspective, we created a space for opposing opinions. We expected it to reveal the complexities and stigmas surrounding a broad movement. We were not looking for a particular response. We hoped that offering anonymity would lead to visible juxtaposition, contrasting ideas side by side.
Things played out differently than planned.
Phase 1. First, we stuck our own Post-its to the wall. “Feminism is… intersectional.” “… not just for women.” “…empowering.” “…relevant. “…something I thought I didn’t need.”
People noticed the sign. Some smiled. Some were angry. Most were confused.
‘When the period ended we walked away, not realizing the wall could not be left alone. While many people offered valuable insights across a broad spectrum ofo perspectives, others had written: “Feminism is… for fags.” “…retarded.” “…gay as fuck.” “…a waste of paper.” “…cancer.” “…autistic.” “…go back to the kitchen.”
Someone squirted moisturizer on the banner, an uncomfortable suggestion.
In phase 2, we asked people to complete this prompt: “Feminism isn’t…” An army of students, using their spare time to mass produce hateful and mocking Post-its, went so far as to claim it “property of the Staples meme group.”
All of this happened even though the wall was in a heavily trafficked public space — outside the cafeteria — with ourselves and administrators regularly monitoring it.
People told us we were stupid for doing this again. They pleaded with us to try something else.
But we left it up — on purpose. We wanted people to think. We wanted them to be uncomfortable. To be confronted with feminism and its varied reactions. That was the point.
Phase 3. As we hung a new banner, we were surrounded by students. We were bombarded by voices. “HOLD THE BANNER UP SO I CAN READ IT!” demanded one boy. “Where are the Post-its?” asked another.
“It’s not interactive anymore,” we countered.
“I’ll just get my own paper then.”
We tried to hang our exhibit as the crowd — mainly boys — desperately shouted their feelings, trying to speak louder than that one, big word.
The most common question we were asked during this process was, “What did you expect?” This was a subtle denigration of our hard work — as if the resulting disrespect, vandalism and disorder were inevitable. Clearly, we should have tried something else, presented our ideas in a way that wouldn’t create a hostile environment. But we didn’t.
To those who genuinely participated in our galleries: thank you. We don’t care if you are a feminist or not; we value your opinions. Thank you for offering your ideas, thoughts and quotes.
To the administrators, teachers and coaches who took the time to come into our class and discuss the many issues surrounding the installation and the condition of all students at Staples: thank you for your time, insight, candor and support.
To the many teachers who had open conversations in your classes: thank you. When the wall became a target of hatred, you gave people a safe outlet for further conversation.
To those who supported our exhibits but never participated: we wish you had.
To those who participated in the vandalism, the hatred, the bullying: please reflect. If there is one question we want the answer to, it’s this: Why did you react this way? People recognized that their behavior was shameful; they said that they were doing it “just to be funny.” Is that the reason for reckless apathy?
Do you think we were asking for it? Do you think that it’s our fault that other people responded inappropriately? Don’t you think we should address the real problem here?
We didn’t create a hostile environment. We exposed what already existed at Staples. And from this experience, we began to ask ourselves an important question: Are males and females equally supported in the community?
So even if you aren’t a feminist, that’s okay. We thank you for taking the time to read this. Really, we just want to know: Are you ready to have a respectful conversation about gender equality?
When you are ready:
- We would like to see gender equality studies taught at elementary and middle schools
- We would like to see Staples become a more inclusive environment of different perspectives and ideas across the spectrum
- We would like to see students, parents, teachers, administrators — everyone — engaged in conversations about real life issues in and out of the classroom.
We need to see a change.
The Creators of the Feminism Wall