“Women In History” Class Learns Powerful Lesson

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.”

The first phase of the “Feminism Wall.”

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.”

Some of the Post-Its on the wall.

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.”

Post-its cover Phase 2: “Feminism isn’t…”

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 “Feminism Wall,” Phase 3.

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. 

More reactions to the “Feminism Wall.”

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.

Sincerely,
The Creators of the Feminism Wall

12 responses to ““Women In History” Class Learns Powerful Lesson

  1. Dave Feliciano

    Yes, teenagers are often times insensitive, occasionally cruel! Sometimes caring compassionate and not clones of the parents or community. Like us the exeperiances and choices in life will mold and shape them. By and large they are great people on the threshold of a wonderful adulthood, after prolonged childhood of privilege. Some of them will amaze us, in expected and unexpected ways. Be good to them they will ultimately decide what nursing home you will be finish your final years.

  2. Beth Berkowitz

    It seems that the truth comes out, as this world, our country, our town, has not evolved very far. There is still a lot of work left to do regarding educating all people with regards to respect and how to appropriately respond to explain their opinions in a non-hateful way.

    Unfortunately, many males in our world, especially our country are fearful with the realization that many many females are smarter and more driven to succeed, more mature and therefore, will probably get the jobs they thought they should get. They are fearful of not having “power”, which is another part of the whole issue surrounding politics lately as well. It also comes out as prejudicial against many minorities as well. White men do NOT want to loose their power as they already fear loosing their hair while women usually get more beautiful as they age, men get less attractive and the only thing many of them have going for them is that they can earn more money which creates power and if they happen to stay in shape, often they are physically stronger than many women, as they are usually taller than most women. There are always exceptions, but no one likes feeling like they are “loosing” anything and if they loose power to control women, and society and they loose the ability to earn more money, whcich also makes them feel like they have more “power”‘ they feel less and they “may become the second class citizens” that they are trying to keep women and minorities. If women took over control of government and were able to push along laws/bills that would restrict men’s abilities to make their own decisions regarding their bodies, what do you think they would have to say then? Those men who abuse women and rape women and then expect the woman to Continue a pregnancy from those encounters, that the woman had no say in getting pregnant, if they were made to have a procedure to make them impotent or have to receive an injection inabling them from having sex, what would they say then?

    These ideas are a bit harsh, but so are the ideas of forcing women to not have any ability to make their own decisions about their bodies. I’m not saying I believe in abortion, but that’s my choice and not the government’, the church’s or any one else’s decision to make.

    It all revolves around power and when power comes into play no one wants to give it up. That’s why wars are fought, that’s why our world is in the current situation. If people were more considerate of others as a whole, this world, our country and our community could be great again. Proper communication with a respectful give and take as these students originally intended is what is needed.

    • Let’s see, in one comment you have managed to blame, disparage and divide by using gender, skin color, age and income…and end it with….”If people were more considerate of others as a whole, this world, our country and our community could be great again.”

      Impressive.

  3. When I started to read this post, I was excited to read how the Staples community would respond/behave. Initially I was a bit disappointed in the way it went down, but then I realized that the negativity displayed was actually a positive. We need to bring to light issues, which many people probably don’t don’t fully appreciate — especially high school kids. Kudos to the creators for forcing a conversation on such an important topic.

  4. David J. Loffredo

    As the father of three teenage girls, I think it’s two things:

    1) The first and most influential woman in most boys lives as they grow up is…their mother. My guess is that a lot of these gentlemen have zero respect for Mom, and that translates into how they think about girls their own age.

    2) This is the first generation that grew up with porn at their fingertips, and you see the manifestation of that in many of the comments (not to mention the hand lotion) left on the board

    Ladies don’t worry, you’ll get the last laugh, these a$$holes won’t evolve fast enough over the next several years and by the time you’re all graduating from college they’ll be moving back home with Mommy (if she’ll have them) while you’re moving on with your careers.

  5. Ladies, kudos to you for stepping up and then standing your ground. You’re experiencing the push back that TEAM Westport encountered when we launched the white privilege essay contest this spring for Westport students. The furor over that still continues. We’ve stood our ground too. I was a professor at the City College of New York in the early 70’s when we started the college’s first Women’s Studies Program and the first Black Studies Program which included African American Literature. How sad that Staples is just catching up to Women’s Studies – and there’s still no African-American studies or African American literature.

    • Peter Gambaccini

      How sad that there are so very few African-American residents.

    • The English department has offered African American Literature in the course catalog for years, and there are many teachers who would love to teach it. However, the course has not run in some time due to a lack of interest. I’m not sure when last it ran, but I’ve taught here for 9 years and don’t recollect its ever having run during my tenure.

      I say this not to correct you so much as to point out that the school and our department have tried hard to offer an Af-Am Lit course. However, courses only run if families and students sign up for them in sufficient numbers. What that says about our community is certainly up for interpretation and worth some deep introspection.

      In other courses, fortunately, African American writers are featured prominently. In Contemporary American Literature, for example, we have substantially developed the reading list over time to include a truly diverse group of writers, and this fall, two sections even traveled to Manhattan to see Anna Deavere Smith’s _Notes from the Field_. In addition, in the spring, two other sections traveled to Manhattan to see August Wilson’s _Jitney_.

      Also, Dr. Hamer, I wanted to thank you and the rest of TEAM Westport for fostering such important conversations. I think it’s incredibly healthy for our students to turn a critical eye to their potential biases and advantages, and your group’s efforts help us immensely as educators.

  6. This is not the open minded, academic, talented, and inclusive atmosphere I experienced at Staples.
    What happened?

    Heaven help your LGBTQ kids.

  7. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    I learned about Barbara Jordan, Margaret Chase Smith and Ella Grasso in the 70’s in high school (Staples) and as a college freshman (Springfield). I was brought into this world by by Grace V. Gorham, MD of Norwalk the 1st woman obstetrician in Connecticut that was not some type of midwife. The last two CEO’s of Xerox and the current CEO of IBM are women, not to mention those of Archer Daniels Midland, Hewlett Packard and General Motors. There are 27 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 and 24 additional female CEO’s in the Fortune 1000. “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.

  8. Owen Spangler

    What this article fails to tell you is that there was a separate “Gender Equality” board set up in another, more private part of the school. Kids could have put whatever they wanted, and it would be likely that nobody would ever see them do it, compared to the cafeteria. There were no threats of “Smile, you’re on camera!”, there were no cameras or teachers in that section of the school. I went and looked at that board every day, and barely saw anything negative. Most of the post-its said “Better than feminism”,”Why didn’t they put this outside the cafeteria”, “Is a cause I can support”, “Something that we should work together for” etc. It worked pretty well in my opinion. Everybody knew what gender equality was and supported it.

    The problem is, Feminism, as a word, has been given a bad rap. It’s kind of hard to find where this started, but over the years, misandrists and other people that have put the cause in a negative light have slipped into people’s YouTube and Facebook feeds. Feminism is associated with the countless protesters at universities, censoring ideas, triggers, and other things.

    Berkowitz’s comment is what comes to mind when many high school students think of feminism: “Unfortunately, many males in our world, especially our country are fearful with the realization that many many females are smarter and more driven to succeed, more mature and therefore, will probably get the jobs they thought they should get. They are fearful of not having “power”…” This comment demonizes all males, regardless of their position or beliefs. Berkowitz may have good intentions of gender equality, which I’m sure she does, but what she’s said is the very reason that these comments appeared on this board, not because of any malicious intent by the students. The male students either feel misrepresented, slandered or can’t take the cause seriously. That’s the problem we have here.

    Look, I’m not condoning what people put up on the Feminism Board, it’s wrong to put comments like that up there. However, you have to realize that most of this are jokes by kids trying to impress others, or just venting their feelings about the radical sect of misandrists incorrectly classified as feminists. I highly doubt that any of the students that put jokes up there actually believe that women are less of a person and deserve unequal rights. Everyone here, this article included, is taking this way too seriously while leaving out important details and other views on what happened.

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