Feminism at Stuyvesant

Stuyvesant was a male-only institution for longer than it has been co-educational. How have the gendered restrictions of its past extended to current student culture?

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It is difficult to imagine a Stuyvesant without female students. Yet not even six decades ago, girls were barred from entering the school. Only male sports teams played for Pegleg glory, and only male faces crowded the halls of the East Village building. But in 1969, thanks to Alice de Rivera’s heroic activism, Stuyvesant finally changed the trajectory of its history and opened its doors to female students.

Stuyvesant was founded in 1904 as an all-boys trade school. As the school began to rise in the ranks as one of the best schools for math and science in the city, it also became more selective with the number of students admitted. In 1934, Stuyvesant implemented an entrance exam to restrict the number of students allowed to attend solely based on scholastic achievement. Not surprisingly, female students were still barred from gaining entrance to the school.

In 1967, then 13-year-old Alice de Rivera, who is now a women’s rights activist and physician, filed a lawsuit against New York State’s Board of Education. She claimed the Board had violated the 14th Amendment equal-protection clause by barring her from taking the Stuyvesant entrance exam on the basis of sex. She was called a “crusader in miniskirts” by the Daily News; other outlets also fixated on her clothes and appearance in their coverage of the lawsuit. The sexism of these comments reflect the history of Stuyvesant itself; for more than half the length of its existence, Stuyvesant operated as a single-gender institution. The lack of reform wasn’t keeping with the times, either: sister schools like Bronx Science became co-ed over twenty years before Stuyvesant did.

Now, about half a century after de Rivera’s lawsuit, female students have carved out their roles as leaders of the school. Many of the most powerful positions at Stuyvesant today are held by females, including the posts of Stuyvesant Union President and Vice President and both positions of Editors-in-Chief of The Spectator.

Though these are steps in the right direction, they should not blind us from the fact that gender inequality still persists at Stuyvesant. “Being a female, especially at Stuy, has changed my perspective on what being a female actually means,” Zoe Chin said, senior and captain of Stuyvesant’s wrestling team. “There is a huge divide [between] what is expected from females and what is expected from guys.”

Chin explained that this double standard is especially prevalent within her Principles of Engineering class, which she estimates to contain only four or five female-identifying students. “When we are split into [...] groups, there is one girl per group. Oftentimes it is frustrating, especially when you have such good ideas of your own, [and] since this is such a male-dominated class, [male] voice[s] seems to be more powerful than yours,” Chin expressed. 

High school is a transitional period in every student’s life. A collection of moments spent in a classroom can greatly influence social and emotional development. If a class feels unwelcoming or uncomfortable in high school, it is possible that the student will be hesitant to pursue the field in the future. This unequal distribution of females and males in certain classes can discourage females from entering male-dominated fields like engineering. 

Senior and Girls Who Code president Sophia Dasser shared similar sentiments. “[Computer Science] is definitely a male-dominated field, and I do feel as though I need to overcompensate in order to prove myself as opposed to my male counterparts,” she said. Dasser stated that there is a clear disparity between the number of females and males in her AP Computer Science and her post-AP Computer Science classes.

However, Dasser noted that it is not Stuyvesant’s fault as much as it is a societal problem. “I think Stuyvesant in general encourages learning and encourages growth,” Dasser said. “As someone who never thought they would be very stem-orientated until sophomore year, [I] was a product of [this encouragement]. I think teachers make it clear that they want everyone to succeed.” Dasser added that every computer science teacher, regardless of sex, has shown support for Girls Who Code. Just until last year, the club had a male faculty advisor. 

Yet at the same time, Dasser admitted that STEM is a field in which women must overplay their feminine characteristics and underplay their true abilities so that they don’t appear too dominant. “I think a lot of times people will often say [to women who are dominant in their field] that [they] take things too seriously or that [they] try too hard,” Dasser added. “I feel like a guy would never need to feel the constant need to be really nice or really bubbly just so they don’t seem aggressive or dominating.”

Gender inequality has not only manifested inside the classes geared toward traditionally male-dominated fields, but has also impacted females who participate in extracurricular activities that are typically male-dominated. “As a female [wrestling] captain myself, I have had to work way harder than maybe I would have to if I were a boy. [Especially in wrestling], when you step on the mat, you aren’t expected to win,” Chin said. She admitted that she feels added pressure to prove herself as the only female captain alongside three male captains.

Nonetheless, Chin perseveres and uses her leadership position to make sure the other females on her team are comfortable. “If [female wrestlers on my team] have something to say, I listen to them 100 percent, and I don’t let them feel intimidated about being in an [male-dominated] team,” Chin explained. The increased burden to prove oneself as a female echoes across accelerated classes and extracurricular activities.

This prompts the question of how male students act in female-dominated classes. English teacher Eric Ferencz teaches an elective, Women’s Voices, in which students examine power dynamics, representation, and gender roles from a female perspective. “I think [the class is] about two-thirds female and about one-third male,” senior Preston Thomsen said, who is currently taking Women’s Voices. “Last year, one of my senior friends asked me if I was a feminist and I said, ‘Yes’ without even thinking about it.” This aspect of Thomsen’s identity, along with a series of rave reviews of the class by his friends, prompted him to take the elective this year.

Yet in practice, a class called “Women’s Voices” may not appeal to male audiences as much as it does to female students. “I think a lot of men are afraid of being labeled as a ‘feminist’ because it's not really a ‘masculine’ title to have,” Thomsen admitted. He added that “feminist” has also been used as a derogatory term aimed at certain activist groups, which could have contributed to the negative connotation surrounding the word.

Women’s Voices is not exactly the elective that students may perceive it to be. Until he entered the class for the first time, Thomsen was expecting a largely third-wave white feminist dominated curriculum. “I was shocked that we didn’t read any [feminist literature] or books by famous female writers like Virginia Woolf,” he explained. “We read The Handmaid’s Tale. We read Sula, which is about an African American woman and her friend existing outside the traditional standards of friendship. We read the essay version of Crying in H Mart. And we are currently reading Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen.” Thomsen added that before the course even began, Ferencz made sure to emphasize the importance of reading books about females of different backgrounds and ethnicities, which provides a more holistic understanding of the female perspective than does an examination of modern-day feminism.

From its founding in 1904 to now, it is undeniable that Stuyvesant has made strides in bridging the gap between female and male students. The school has incorporated electives like Women’s Voices and allowed girls to flourish and take on leadership roles. Still, there remains much to be done. And while the solution to existing gender disparities may rely on a broader change in society, the discussions and discourse should start here, in our daily classes and clubs. Only in this way can we become a more informed and empathetic student body.