Feminist, Femin-ish, and Femi-NO! Feminism at Stuyvesant
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There has never been an equal number of female and male students at Stuyvesant. For 65 years, Stuyvesant was an all-boys school. It wasn’t until 1969 that the first female students were admitted after 13-year-old Alice de Rivera filed a lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education for violating the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.
“The morals of Stuyvesant are being corrupted!” one male student that same year wrote in an editorial for The Spectator. Yet the majority of students cheered de Rivera forward, and the first co-ed class graduated from Stuyvesant in 1972.
But sexist notions about girls’ roles within Stuyvesant and within the world didn’t simply break in two with one bang of the gavel. Forty-eight years after the first girls graduated from Stuyvesant, people are still in the process of defining and understanding what, exactly, it means to be a feminist.
To sophomore and president of Stuyvesant Girl Up Lianne Ohayon, “feminist” is a title to be proud of. “It means you’re a changemaker, an upstander, and it’s honestly really frustrating that again, it has a negative or derogatory connotation to it. It’s a social movement, fighting for gender equity and leveling the playing field for women,” Ohayon said.
This positive interpretation of feminism is the spine of English teacher Eric Ferencz’s senior elective Women's Voices, in which students examine contemporary issues surrounding women. “The most frequent definition of feminism that I know of […] is equal protection under the law for men and women,” Ferencz said. “In order for that to occur, there needs to be an acknowledgment of thousands of years of history of an unequal power balance that can influence the way that we perceive equality.”
Speaking on behalf of those who oppose feminism, an anonymous male sophomore asserted that feminism is nothing to be proud of and that equality is both undesirable and unachievable. “[Feminism] is something that cannot and should not be achieved,” he said. “If feminism means the complete equality of men and women, then I would say no because I would say that that’s impossible because men and women are different.”
However, to English teacher Lauren Stuzin, these differences are a product of societal norms rather than a reflection on substantive reasons. “People are just people,” Stuzin explained in an e-mail interview. “It’s society that tells us we are wrong for something about our identities, and in every case, whether its race, gender, [or] sexual orientation, it’s the same society.”
Ferencz believes that it is this same society that perpetuates toxic masculinity, leading to the rejection of feminism. “I think there’s an extension of how there is this curious element of patriarchal culture which tells young men that they can dictate other people’s experiences to them,” Ferencz said. “If my masculinity is defined by my mistreatment of women or my using my privilege to have certain powers over women, I don’t want to be a part of that masculinity.”
The anonymous sophomore feels that feminism threatens masculinity by attempting to eliminate traditionally masculine gender norms. “Whether it’s about chivalry or fatherhood, like the hero myth of the male who goes on the quest to pursue his destiny, feminism wants to eliminate any type of association of gender with that,” he said.
To Ohayon, however, eliminating gender associations is essential because of the depth of misogyny in our language and culture. “It’s really disturbing that our society has internalized the words ‘pussy’ as being weak and ‘having balls’ as brave,” Ohayon said. “And a lot of it’s been spread because of social media or other videos.”
Social media can be easily used to weaponize feminism, churning out artillery in droves. “Hyperboles like #KillAllMen (#KAM) often do more harm than good, even if it’s obviously not literal,” sophomore Levi Simon said. “Malicious content creators can take statements like these and paint feminism as a nefarious, angry plot to destroy masculinity and the West.”
Simon’s point is crucial to understanding why feminism is often a polarizing subject. Almost invariably, mentioning the word “feminist” conjures images of an aggressive, man-hating lesbian and “the feminazi” or “the radical,” whose sole purpose is to create a society where men are crushed under the heels of women.
This caricature crosses industries and cultures alike. “I remember this excerpt from Taylor Swift’s doc[umentary], [in which] she explained, ‘If a man does something, he’s strategic. If a woman does something, she’s calculated. A man can react, but a woman can only overreact,’” Ohayon explained.
Similarly, senior Meril Mousoom finds that her cultural expectations and South Asian background have significantly affected her ideas as a feminist. “I come from a culture where […] it’s really expected for [women] to be housewives. So there’s like that cultural expectation. So you grow up with your mom being a housewife and your sisters being married off, and your sister is also going down the same path,” she described.
But some view these gender roles, especially motherhood, as an important principle to uphold. “[Motherhood]’s something that should be heavily encouraged. And if that means saying, ‘Don’t go to work, don’t participate in the workplace completely, and be a housewife,’ then that's what the implication is,” the anonymous sophomore said.
Moreover, the anonymous sophomore believes that these gender roles apply to non-binary individuals. “Even if you don’t have the tendency to [be cisgender], and it’s not natural, then you should do it anyway out of an obligation to preserve the stability of the society,” he said.
Sexuality and gender roles are just two of the many societal factors that overlap in feminism. Current feminist ideology acknowledges the concept of intersectionality, the idea that social categorizations, including race, class, and gender, create interdependent systems that form certain advantages or disadvantages. “As a trans person, my definition of a feminist is someone who identifies, resists, and fights all oppressive and discriminatory forces, those that affect people of color, queer and trans people, disabled people, and women,” Stuzin said. “We need to change the system for everyone—it cannot and will not change for only a few. Liberation for women is liberation for all oppressed people,” they explained.
Mousoom also prioritizes intersectionality in feminism. “We also have to realize not every single person [who] experiences sexism is binary because there are some non-binary people [who] look like they are AFAB, assigned female at birth,” Mousoom said. “So they do, or they did experience sexism, and it could even be worse, and it probably is worse than [for] most white women.”
Similarly, Ohayon believes that feminism must become more inclusive. “So what I want to emphasize is to pursue inclusion. That’s the only way we can move forward, and we have come a really far way since 100 years ago, whe[n] it was predominantly white women, and white women only who were included in feminism,” she said.
An anonymous male junior offered a similar perspective. “While a case can be made that perhaps [women] are the most prominent victims of gender inequality, I believe the perceived neglect, and sometimes actual neglect, of other groups [has] created a lot of enemies and can lead others to radicalize against gender equality,” he said in an e-mail interview.
From 1969 to 2020, Stuyvesant’s culture has come a long way in its willingness to discuss, share, and empathize with others, especially on stigmatized topics like feminism. It is fortunate that there seem to be fewer Stuyvesant students squealing about how female students corrupt the morality of Stuyvesant. After all, female students now constitute around 43 percent of the student body. We’ve moved onto a more intelligent form of discourse. “It does seem to be the standard among students of raising themselves up to a certain quality of discussion, and I really do appreciate that,” Ferencz said. “There’s always respect; there’s always this perception of the importance of respecting the other person [whom] you’re talking to, and I think that that goes a long way.”