Really, all a girl has to do these days to be considered “offensive” is exist.
Last week, Sophie Thomas, an eighth-grader at a the Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Batavia, Ohio, realized that her school photo had been altered to take out the word “FEMINIST” on her T-shirt. According to a local news report, the principal Kendra Young, thought the shirt might be “offensive” and “cause controversy.” Sophie and her friends organized quickly and asked people to share their support using the hashtags #KeepFeminismInSchools and #IDeserveFreedomOfExpression.
“This has become a news media nightmare and it’s based on false information,” explained School Superintendent Ralph Shell when we spoke on Friday morning. “It was an unflattering picture.” He could not say who had decided it was unflattering, only, he said, that the principal, photographer, and Sophie’s mother had agreed to make it “flattering.” Actually, what he first said before I asked him if he’d like to clarify his statement was, “You pinko-liberal tree-hugging communist media are making something out of nothing…” were his actual words.
I called the Thomas’ and Sophie confirmed that at no point did the school and her mother agree on the removal of the word. According to her statement to Women You Should Know, “Sophie went to the school principal, Mrs. Young, to find out why this happened. Mrs. Young, she explained, told her that the photographer had brought it to her attention and she “made the decision to black it out because some people might find it offensive.”
Young and the school have apologized. When asked by Young, “What do you want from this?” Sophie responded, “I want everyone to realize that we NEED feminism. I want you to have someone come into the school and educate everyone about feminism. I want us to go to the news station together and show the people that we are working together to make this school and our community and better place for everyone. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Apparently, it might still be given that Shell said that there isn’t a problem, that the facts are not facts, and that the kids all think, as he put it, that this is “funny.”
“Every principal in this school district is a woman,” he explained. Which is maybe not the best example since that scenario is thoroughly emblematic of major problems that feminism seeks solutions to: a sex-segregated labor force with a gendered pay scale and hierarchy—there are more women teachers, not very many women superintendents, and male teachers make more than female ones do.
“You’re going to write whatever you want anyway,” he concluded.
Which is true. So, I’m writing that all a girl has to do to be potentially controversial and offensive these days is exist, because we are all walking, talking poster children for feminism’s successes.
- You can now read and write.
- You might go to a fancy-schmancy school or to one with boys and men, at desegregated institutions.
- You can get a job, outside of the home.
- You can get a job, gasp, even if you are single.
- You can get a job, gasp, even if you are married.
- You can get a job, gasp, even if you are pregnant, although you may still not keep it.
- You can get a job for money, albeit still not equally, particularly if you are a woman of color.
- You might go into medicine, the law, bartending, the military or even space.
- You live in a world in which widespread child labor is now illegal, not everywhere, but in some places.
- You can work while you have an infant, although trying to feed that infant might get you fired.
- You can report discriminatory sexual harassment in the workplace if you experience it.
- You can rely on certain labor laws to protect you from exploitation, a term still too narrowly defined.
- You can open and use a bank account in your own name.
- You can own property in your own name.
- You can take out your own credit card, although chances are you still pay more to get one than the men you know.
- You are able to serve on a jury.
- If you have a husband, he is no longer legally allowed to rape you (in most countries.) In the United States the last law outlawing marital rape was passed in 1993 and some legislators apparently don’t realize that.
- It is possible for you to get birth control and not risk pregnancy, and relatedly very high possibility of death until recently, every time you have sex.
- You can, in some U.S. states and countries, get a safe and legal abortion when you need one.
- You have a better chance in some states of getting safe and affordable care after a miscarriage, although your pharmacist might still deny you the medicine you’ve been prescribed because of his or her beliefs about your moral authority and your ability to make ethical decisions about your own existence.
- You can plan your life according to your desires, needs and ambitions in ways women before you could not.
- You can ride a bike and probably drive a car.
- You can participate in sports and run in marathons, even in the Olympics.
- You can go to bars, but still might be blamed for doing so if you’re assaulted in one.
- You can legally parachute or skydive, except, no joke, unless it’s Sunday and you live in Florida and are single. Who knew.
- You can wear what you want, including pants, in most places, except part of Utah and San Francisco. Leggings in school that might turn on a boy or man who “can’t control himself,” nah.
- You can write books, make movies, write code, play music, protest injustice and engage in the public sphere in unprecedented ways.
- There are public restrooms that you can use, although not always legally or easily everywhere. And, chances are, there will be a line if it’s a “Ladies Room.”
- You can be a woman priest, albeit an “officially” excommunicated one.
- In some states you can legally marry someone of the same sex.
- You can vote. Something that didn’t happen for all women at the same time, but varied by socio-economic class, race, and ethnicity.
- You are, in many but not all places, less likely to suffer from sexual double standards and cults of purity that fuel inequality.
- You can bring charges of rape against perpetrators, not as a way to seek property redress for your father or husband, but because your rights have been violated. Even, FINALLY, if you are a single woman in California. However, the fallacy of “he said/she said” continues to govern our lives when it comes to rape, and rapists can still sue for custody of children conceived in rape in more than half of states.
- If your spouse assaults you, you can call a shelter, something that still happens more than 65,000 times a day.
- You can use the words “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment,” and “domestic violence,” and people will understand what you are talking about.
- If you want and need a divorce you can get one.
- If you divorce and have children, you can get parental custody, something not true less than 150 years ago.
- You can learn, in some schools but not all, that the abolition of slavery and the legal liberation of women had the same roots and were led by feminist abolitionists of all races and genders.
- You probably believe your equal rights are protected by law, even though, as Chief Justice Antonin Scalia likes to point out, the Constitution does not say they are. The Equal Rights Amendment was never passed.
- You can go to college with a better awareness of what schools’ institutional tolerance for rape looks like, and know that they are being forced to confront the problem.
- You can run for political office, if you retain your confidence after the age of 9–the peak year for girls’ political ambition in America.
- You can hope for better societal acknowledgement of the value of your care labor and, hopefully, structural appreciation for the invaluable labor you provide so that others can do their work.
- You can enjoy personal, intimate relationships with greater stability and better, more mutually enjoyable sex.
- You can use the Internet because of stuff like algorithms and spanning tree protocol.
- If you are lucky, the world might be coming to terms with environmental degradation and its global human costs.
- You can drive in cars that now take into account the fact that you don’t have the “average male body” so that seat belts now will save you instead of kill you.
- You can read headlines such as “Females Ignored in Basic Medical Research.”
- You can provide for your children and define your family without compromising your emotional well-being or physical security.
- You can assume that, at least legally if not entirely culturally, in some parts of the world you are considered fully human.
- You can wear a T-shirt that says “FEMINIST” on it and people all over the world will defend your right to say not only what you think, but that what you think is that women should have equal rights to define culture.
As a bonus, I’ll add you can Google Ye Olde Conservative and find that he has used the expression “ privileged cisgendered heterosexual males” without putting it in quotation marks.
Our entire lives are shaped and have been improved by feminist goals that someone, somewhere, including schools, considered dangerous and “offensive.” This includes many boys and men who lead fuller, richer lives less circumscribed by toxic, hegemonic masculinity.
“Feminism,” as Dale Spender famously said, “has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions…for safety on the streets…for child care, for social welfare…for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law.”
But, these are early days. The facts are, a) these are vitally important, but first steps, in the long-term; b) for most women in the world this list is not remotely a reality and c) many of the ways in which these successes have manifested themselves locally have exacerbated gender inequality globally. Nonetheless, we all live in safer, healthier, more peaceful and equitable societies because of them.
And, for the record, the sex of the principal is irrelevant. Many women, as immersed as men in our culture, can and do hold anti-feminist ideas and many men are ardent feminists. It doesn’t take a conspiracy to either locally, or globally, perpetuate institutionalized male dominance and patriarchal norms. Just life. And, in no small part, schools that don’t teach the history of female endeavors, share women’s cultural contributions, or require teacher training in implicit biases are doing just that. Students have to go out of their way to learn about the history and ongoing reality of gender discrimination, and the intersections of race-based, sexuality-based, disability-based and gender-based oppressions.
Gender inequality in the United States is a stark reality and bad for everyone. Now, Thomas and her friends are selling T-shirts. Feminism is just getting started.
The same people who care about “safe” issues such as girls in STEM, stereotypes and their impact on children, the “boy crisis” in education, eating disorders, confidence gaps, and other symptoms of deep systemic violence can and should push their concerns to their logical conclusions. This includes, notably last week, that when young men openly rape women, as happens over and over again, for example, people should stop being surprised and consider how that’s related to the fact that all the principals in a school district are women, but so few of the superintendents.
Those aren’t separate issues, they are the same one.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.