“Less Feminist”

2018-2019 Rising Voices Fellow Mady Gelb (front row, left center) with members of the "Women of the World" club at her high school. 

The club fair at my high school is always on the first day of fall semester during the last block. All of the student-organized clubs set up booths around the gym and use candy to persuade naive sophomores to join their email list only to have none of them show up to any meetings. I was the perfect victim; I can’t even remember how many email lists I was added to and empty promises I made.

I actually only ended up joining two clubs that year: Jewish Culture Club and Women of the World. I loved Jewish Culture Club, but I was always looking forward to Women of World. I would beg my parents to pick me up after school so I could go, and if they couldn’t do it, I would beg one of my friends.

Women of the World was the club where I could talk about issues I really cared about, such as sexism and the wage gap. It was the club where I didn’t have to worry about saying something wrong or asking questions I thought might be silly or stupid. It was in this club that my feminism really blossomed.

At the beginning of my junior year, I was so excited to continue with the club. I went to the club fair and immediately started scoping it out. But Women of the World was nowhere to be found. I figured maybe they had forgotten to make a poster, so I wasn’t worried. They had the email list from last year and I was sure I would get an email soon about our first meeting.      

Then, radio silence—two months of it. I texted my friend Marjorie, and she hadn’t heard anything either. We decided to go talk to the teacher advisor for the club and see if she knew what was going on. She finally broke the news: The president had graduated last year and she hadn’t left the club to anyone.

We were surprised and disappointed, but we immediately knew what we had to do. We officially became the co-presidents of Women of the World. We set to work making posters and writing announcements for the morning show. We worked on a PowerPoint presentation on the origins of feminism. We made an Instagram and email and begged people to come.

Five people showed up. We were devastated. I couldn’t understand; we worked so hard, where had we gone wrong?

I was talking with my friends about how upset I was at lunch one day when I heard one of them suggest that we just make the club “less feminist.” “Like, people don’t really want to be associated with that you know?” she said.

My stomach immediately started churning. I smiled and nodded, and the conversation swiftly moved along. I couldn’t believe it. I knew my school wasn’t exactly the most feminist-friendly place, but I never thought I would hear my friends, my female friends, say they didn’t want to be considered feminists.

The thing is, my friends acted like feminists. We talked about sexual harassment, maternity and paternity leave, and the restrictiveness gender roles. I knew they supported women’s rights, so why wouldn’t they own this label and support my club?

A poll done by Refinery29 and CNN in relation to the 2018 midterm elections found that 54% of millennial women didn’t identify as feminists. It’s undeniable that the word “feminist” carries a stigma. It’s often associated with extremist leftist ideas, with man-hating, with many ideologies the average feminist wouldn’t agree with either.

From the moment I heard that comment, Marjorie and I had a mission. We were going to make our school more feminist. We continued putting our posters up, having announcements on the morning show, and conducting unapologetically feminist meetings. We held bake sales to buy sanitary products for homeless women. We tried to change our school for the better.

It’s still hard when people come up to me and ask “Why are you a feminist?” or “Why would I support the idea women are better than men?” or, my personal favorite, “So you hate men right?” It’s tiring to continuously answer questions I find silly and honestly kind of offensive. But I will always answer them: I’m a feminist because I want everyone to be equal, feminism is about equality, and no, I don’t hate men.

I give these answers because I know that people can change. I want to destigmatize feminism and clarify what it actually means, so that people can grow and come to my club meetings. Obviously, I can’t make everyone agree with me, but I think Women of the World is slowly making a change in my school culture. Some meetings are better than others, sometimes we have fifteen people and sometimes we have three. But no matter what, I know that this club has made an impact, and that makes me so incredibly proud.

When I graduate this year, I’m scared our club will die out. A lot of our members are fellow seniors and although Marjorie and I are going to try our hardest to make sure this isn’t the end, I’m hopeful that even if it is, there will be other girls like Marjorie and I who will seek out Women of the World and continue its legacy.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Feminism, Schools
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How to cite this page

Gelb, Madelyn. "“Less Feminist”." 10 May 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/less-feminist>.

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