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The 8th Grade Feminist
Alice Markham-Cantor
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My 12-year-old neighbor grinned down at me from the tree house. “Girls aren’t allowed up here. They can’t get up here,” he boasted.

I glared at him with all the force my 10-year-old face could muster. He was standing on the trapdoor over the ladder, and there was no way I’d be able to budge his weight. So I went around the back of the tree house, climbed a fence, wedged my foot into a knothole in the tree trunk, and hoisted myself up so that I was clinging to the railing of the tree house. I swung my legs over and drew myself up to my full, very short height.

"Who says girls can’t get up here?”

The occasion was one of many when I was reminded—usually by a boy—that I was “just” a girl, and used it as motivation to show what girls can do. I wasn’t about to accept limitations placed on me because of my gender.

‘There’s No Sexism Anymore’

My older brother always wanted a younger sister, so we get along well. He treats me like a younger sibling, not specifically a younger sister. Since my brother was never sexist, I thought that other boys shouldn’t be, either. Whenever other boys contradicted my expectations by showing sexism, I noticed and challenged them. You could say I’ve always been a feminist.

I wasn’t labeled one, however, until 8th grade, when my English assignment was to pick a topic and give a speech about it to my class. I chose to talk about sexism, because it was something I often thought about.

I wanted to challenge the kids in my grade who thought sexism was a thing of the past, didn’t consider it a big enough problem to worry about, or were fine with the way things were. I had been bothered by these views at least since a current events lesson during 7th grade history class, when the topic of discrimination in the presidential election came up. We were talking about Hillary Clinton facing sexism when one boy—who I’d thought was sensible—rolled his eyes and told me, “Come on. There’s no sexism anymore.”

I stared. I thought of how I’d heard boys in my grade describe a girl who has more than one boyfriend in close succession or at the same time as a “slut,” while a guy who goes through girlfriends quickly is behaving naturally. If a guy has two girlfriends at the same time, his peers laugh at the boy’s ingenuity. I didn’t understand how someone could deny sexism persists when we’re surrounded by such double standards. I challenged this boy but he was not convinced, which needled me.

I was also a little frustrated with the girls in my class. Most of my female friends believed that sexism was still around, but didn’t seem to think that it was the pressing matter I did. Some almost seemed content to have boys look down on them. I didn’t understand how they could just let it slide.

Murdered by Family

And no matter where you stand on sexism in this country, women’s rights definitely need to be protected elsewhere. One thing I wanted my classmates to know about was honor killings. I became interested in the subject after reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. In this memoir, Ali—a Somali writer, politician, and activist—describes her experience of growing up in a culture where honor killings are not uncommon.

An honor killing is when a person, almost always a female, is murdered by family members for bringing “dishonor” to the family. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women and girls a year are murdered worldwide in honor killings. That’s more than 13 per day. Other groups believe that the number could be as high as 20,000 honor killings per year, which would be the equivalent of 54 women killed every day.

Today, honor killings most often (though not always) happen in Muslim families. The dishonorable act can be anything from speaking to a boy in public or having a crush on someone of a different religion or ethnicity, to refusing an arranged marriage. Sometimes the girl has “dishonored” her family by being raped.

The only way that the family’s honor can be regained is to kill the girl, usually brutally. For example, Samaira Nazir, 25, was a British Pakistani woman who rejected the arranged marriages her family proposed and fell in love with a man her family felt was not of a high enough caste. To prevent her from choosing a husband they disapproved of, her father, brother, and cousin stabbed her eighteen times in front of her 2- and 4-year-old nieces. Another example was the teenager in Saudi Arabia whose father caught her talking to a boy on Facebook and killed her.

Spreading the Word

No one in my grade, as far as I knew, had any idea what an honor killing was. I was determined to change that. I also wanted to clue them in to the fact that sexism still causes unnecessary suffering every day, even in the U.S.

The proof is in the numbers: In 2009, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average working woman earned only about 75 cents for every dollar earned by the average working man. It’s not just women who suffer because of this; since roughly 84% of single parents are women, lower wages for women means more financial struggle for single-parent families and children.

An even bigger problem is domestic abuse. More than three women per day were killed by a husband or boyfriend in 2005, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures. And in 2008, over half a million women suffered non-fatal violent attacks at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. To me, this suggests that a large number of men see women as something to be controlled or manipulated by physical force.

I thought my peers should know what women continue to go through in the 21st century. So I wrote the speech and delivered it to my English class.

When I sat back down, a boy two chairs away leaned over. “Alice,” he said.

"What?”

image by Amanda Garcia

He looked at me for a minute. The expression on his face was partly taken aback, and partly—admiring, maybe? “Damn,” he said.

Not Getting It

Immediately I became known as the resident feminist of the 8th grade. Oddly enough, in boys’ minds the label “feminist” seemed to go hand in hand with the label “lesbian,” and soon boys were asking my friends if I was gay. They weren’t trying to be smart; they genuinely thought I was. It didn’t bother me, but I was puzzled that they automatically associated the fight for women’s rights with not liking men.

It was as if they thought that straight women should be content with male dominance, and that a woman would only stand up for other women if she was attracted to them. This is a rather lopsided assumption—do men only stand up for each other if they’re gay?

I guessed that the boys in my grade must associate feminism with the belief that women are better than men, instead of the idea that we’re equal to them, which is how I’d define it. Or more disturbingly, maybe they got that feminism is about equality, but had trouble conceptualizing an equal partnership between a man and woman. Maybe they thought that if a woman wants to be treated equally she must not be interested in relationships with men, because how can equality happen in such relationships?

Silent Girls

For whatever reason, certain boys seemed to enjoy provoking me. One in particular would call out, “Hey, Alice. Women suck.” And I heard “Want to hear a joke? Women’s rights!” more than once.

I knew most of them were just trying to be funny. I usually just said “Hilarious” as sarcastically as I could. The stupid comments were just boring and annoying, while a few of the more clever ones were mildly amusing.

The girls remained pretty silent. Overall, I almost got the feeling that they didn’t care, or that some thought I was making too big a deal of this. Not many of them were like, “Right on—what can we do to change things?”

I felt almost sad that they didn’t feel any need to speak out for the rights of other women. Then again, I don’t recall the girls or boys in my grade getting especially worked up about other political causes, either. Maybe they just didn’t believe they could make a difference, which isn’t true.

Or maybe they were concerned about scaring boys away. One of the criticisms I’ve heard of feminists is that men find them “too hard to like.” When I heard that for the first time, I thought, “Excuse me? Why? Because we’re not subservient? If that’s what you ‘like’ in a woman, I’d advise you rethink your tastes.” A man who seeks out women who won’t challenge him is not only cowardly, but will have a much more boring life.

The idea that a lot of men might prefer subservient women concerns me. It means a lot of women probably make themselves more subservient to get a date, and if women play along with inequality, the genders will never be equal.

New Understanding

I refuse to be subservient. I will speak my mind, and I will challenge sexism.

After I gave my feminism speech to my classmates, I was one of eight students selected to give their speeches in front of the entire grade, teachers, and some parents. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the podium and looked out into the dark auditorium.

“How many of the girls in this room have talked to a guy in public? All of you.

"How many of you have talked to a guy on Facebook?

“How many of you don’t want your father to make you marry your cousin?

“You could all be dead right now.”

I continued, talking about what women go through, in other countries and our own. I finished with, “So next time you think sexism is over, think again.” As I stepped down, there was silence for a moment; then everyone started to clap.

Afterwards, a girl I didn’t know very well came up to me. “Thanks,” she said. “I didn’t know. I’m going to be a lot more aware now.” Two other girls said the same, and even a teacher.

I heard a few more “Women suck” comments, but I didn’t let them bother me. All the name-calling was worth it because a few people told me they understood something they hadn’t before. The 8th grade’s feminist, to me, was a title to be proud of.

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(NYC-2011-05-03)

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