The changing face of gender equity

Evan DaCosta (’16) is, without a doubt, a proponent of gender equity. To not support this movement would be, as he put it, “evil.” DaCosta however, along with others, is hesitant to label himself a feminist, despite his beliefs.

The word feminism is what bothers DaCosta. “When someone is a racist they want their race to elevated above everyone else, if someone is a sexist they want their sex to be elevated above everyone else, so the term feminist implies that they want females to be superior to everyone else,” DaCosta said.

Although this is by no means considered the official definition of the word – Angie Kukielski (’15), the student leader of Gender Equity group, defines it as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” –  it is implications similar to those that DaCosta highlighted that add to the more negative connotations surrounding feminism and feminists.

DaCosta, for one, believes a more appropriate word would be “equalism, or something along those lines, rather than feminism, because equalism implies that you want equality [and] it can’t really be misinterpreted.”

“The word has been corrupted to a point where I feel uncomfortable saying yes, I am a feminist.” – Gareth Rees (’16)

As feminism has become more prominent in the mainstream media over the past few years, so too has the connotation that seems to follow in its path. For Pippi De Ridder (’16) “as the issue has gained a lot more attention, I feel like people have taken it upon themselves to judge who feminists are and what feminists do,” she said.

And, while coverage in turn leads to more awareness, De Ridder believes there are more severe consequences to the stigma. “People tend to think that it’s a hostile word and it’s scary and they are afraid to identify as feminists because they don’t want to be seen as angry men-haters,” she said.

An active member of the school’s Gender Equity group, Emily Richter (’15) is also puzzled as to where the connotation stems from, as in her experience, this man-hating has never exhibited itself.

On the contrary, Juliana Smith (’16) recognizes that feminist “radicals” are a very real issue, and that although the stigma isn’t unbiased it is generally only a small percentage that give the movement this connotation. “I’ve met many people in my life who have identified as feminists but all they really cared about was being superior to men. Which I think goes directly against what feminism and gender equality even is,” Smith said.

Possibly the biggest problem stemming from feminism’s perception? The growing reluctance of many males, like DaCosta, to label themselves feminists and get behind the cause. Gareth Rees (’16) and others agree with DaCosta in that, “the word has been corrupted to a point where I feel uncomfortable saying yes, I am a feminist.”


Created in the 2012-2013 school year by English Department Head Meghan Tally and a group of students, the Gender Equity Club was formed as a safe place to discuss gender issues for any high school students that wanted to get involved. The group’s student leaders, including Kukielski, also created a Facebook group so that group members who could not regularly attend the meetings could stay up to date with the gender discussion and also share online sources.

Over the month of December – in which membership of the group jumped from 20 or so to around 80, discussion turned into heated, and sometimes very personal, debate on the Facebook extension of the Gender Equity group. With tension rising, many members of the group found it harder and harder to use the group for its intended purpose: a place where one’s opinions could be safely expressed. “Every time we would post this stuff… we weren’t trying to silence men or create this matriarchal world, [but people] would go ‘but you hate men’ every single time,” Richter said. “It was just like throwing yourself against a brick wall.”

While it would be inaccurate to call many of the comments made on both sides representative of the group’s ideals, Jack Neblett (’16) thinks the seemingly exclusive nature that many comments portrayed is something that manifests itself both inside and outside of ASL. If individuals are forced to think with a certain set of strict ideals, he feels it does not represent feminism. “When you see these radical ideas and you see the word feminism right next to it you are automatically going to [think] feminism is this extremism and I don’t want that,” he said.

De Ridder, who labels herself a feminist, would tend to agree, dismissing the notion that one must fill a certain mold in order to participate. “As long as you can come to agreement over the fundamental basics of the group, then it’s OK if you differ in opinion on other topics,” she said. “I really don’t think everyone should have to agree all the time because then what’s the point? You’re not going to get anything done. If everyone agrees, you’re not changing anyone’s ideas.”

Beyond his initial concerns about the safety of the space – he and others have since left the group – DaCosta was struck by a series of cases where members of the group dismissed issues regarding men, one of which was a discussion over the legitimacy of sexism against men. “They claimed to be very educated and not ignorant, but an [argument] that really struck me was ‘Sexism against men doesn’t exist’ and that, I think, tells you all you need to know,” he said.

Not only in the school’s Gender group but, in the greater sphere of feminism, the role of men and the importance of their issues has been a topic of much debate.

Richter argues that the group should be used as a platform to discuss holistic equity, not only issues regarding men. “It’s about gender equity, but, in my opinion, the disparity isn’t that men are oppressed, the issue is that, throughout history, women and other non-binary genders have been oppressed,” she said.

“If [men] want to be a part of the feminist culture and want to be [helping] women and gender equity, [they] need to take a step back and just listen to what we are saying.” – Emily Richter (’15)

For her, it is more than than just argument over whether male issues should be discussed; she sees a barrier in what men can understand about the feminist movement as many can’t experience some of what she and other women go through on a daily basis. “I can’t ride the bus home because I get harassed, I’ve been yelled at, I’m afraid that someone is going to follow me home,” Richter said. “Obviously that’s something that [guys] aren’t going to understand because it doesn’t happen to [them], but that doesn’t mean your experiences are invalid or your opinion is invalid,” she said.

One remedy to avoid said implications – a remedy that Richter adamantly stands behind, is listening. She urges men trying to aid the feminist movement to acknowledge that they have a privilege and to listen to those who are affected by gender inequality. “If [men] want to be a part of the feminist culture and  want to be [helping] women and gender equity, [they] need to take a step back and just listen to what we are saying,” she said.

While Rees understands Richter, the way this message comes across is what he takes issue with. “There are some issues that guys can’t understand,” he said. “But does that mean that we can have no say in any issues whatsoever because we can’t understand a few?”

This looming aspect in today’s feminism has also been a source of debate on the Facebook group, which Kukielski believes is a microcosm of the greater societal discussion.

A possible reason for the tension in the Gender group and in the greater, worldwide discussion? Kukielski highlights the acknowledgement of privilege and the difficulties it can cause. “Acknowledging privilege is really, really hard,” she said. “To truly create change, we must accept the discomfort of acknowledging the privileges we hold.”