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Turning potential into power with the YWCA

by Mehar Gujral and Katy Ma

On June 2nd, we had the opportunity to attend the first annual Potential to Power Symposium hosted by New York City’s chapter of the YWCA, a dynamic group of women with an inspiring history of eliminating racism, empowering women, and serving their communities. The event united intergenerational and multiracial voices to foster dialogue and action on issues facing the “21st Century Girl.”

Katy: The Potential to Power Symposium is one of my most treasured memories from senior year. It was such an incredible day! I got to catch up with my lovely SPARK sister Mehar and meet such inspiring women and girls from all over New York City. I also had the opportunity to speak on a panel alongside Allie Primak, a fellow girl activist, and Dr. Danielle Moss Lee, YWCA-NYC’s President.

Allie and I shared how we became involved in feminist activism, what feminism means to us, and the issues we’ve witnessed and experienced. Dr. Lee prompted us with questions like “How can we encourage girls to stand up for one another?” and “Do you think there is a role for boys in advancing gender equity? If so what is that role?” Afterwards, audience members came up to the microphones to ask questions. One girl asked how to share feminism with her conservative parents. Another woman asked us if selfies empower girls or promote self-objectification. It was challenging and thrilling at the same time!

Afterwards, there was a time when we sat with our assigned tables to discuss questions that we were given. The question “How can adult women better support girls?” was particularly interesting to me because as someone who is currently phasing out of girlhood and phasing into womanhood, I’m now learning how to support girls just as the adult women in my life have supported me. The two “influential women” at my table were Prim Siripipat, an ESPN anchor, and Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. Both were so gracious and eager to listen to our concerns and experiences. As women working in traditionally male-dominated fields, they had tons of advice and experiences to share with us. Our table had such fruitful and inspiring discussions that every time the MC called “Time!” we were really dismayed that we had to move on to another question so soon.

I am so grateful to the YWCA for giving us girls a supportive environment to speak up about feminism when so often, people try to silence us. It was an honor to be invited as a panelist and I really look forward to supporting YWCA in the future. I can’t wait to see how the Potential to Power Symposium grows with each passing year!

Mehar: Attending the Potential to Power Symposium was an amazing experience because I spoke to so many inspiring girls and women from across New York City, spent time with my awesome SPARK sister Katy, and delivered my first ever keynote! I had the opportunity to share who the 21st century American girl is, her aspirations, the obstacles she faces, and how women can be actively supportive in making her dreams a reality. I spoke about my personal journey that led me to identify as a feminist and how we must fight the negative, debilitating stereotypes girls face in the media. I said we must bring the cause of gender equity, equal representation, to the forefront because if you can’t see it, it’s near impossible to dream of achieving it. I told the girls in the room that our voices matter, that we are powerful individuals, and we can be even stronger together, united against the common challenges we face in America today. Lastly, I encouraged everyone in the room to expand their horizons by engaging someone of a different background in discussion because only through diverse collaborations can the best solutions for everyone emerge. It was a privilege to be given a platform to share my thoughts and experiences and to be the voice of the 21st century girl!

The Symposium itself was a great event; my favorite part was the question and answer period after each panel where the amazing women and girls in the room asked thought-provoking, relatable questions to the panelists. Some of the great questions and answers that stuck with me include: How to educate conservative parents on your modern viewpoints without arguing with or disrespecting them? Or how to reconcile the fact that your religion has beautiful parts that you love but is patriarchal in nature and gives less power to women? It was so great that the YWCA provided a setting for the airing of these questions and panelists like Katy were so adept at giving great answers. From giving my keynote to listen the NYC’s youth poet laureate, Ramya Ramana, recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” to meeting the “influencers” or successful women seated at my table, the first Potential to Power Symposium was an amazing day. I’m so glad that the proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the symposium an annual event, I’m sure it will be even bigger and better next year!

Leslie + Ben 5ever, or, how Parks and Rec saved me from Twilight

by Alice Wilder

I was in 8th grade. The most romantic thing that had ever happened to me was a sweaty slow dance at summer camp to Stairway to Heaven. And I wanted to be Bella Swan.

I owned every Twilight novel and read them religiously. On the weekends my friends and I would congregate in my bedroom holding our copies of the book, flipping through, arguing over which parts were the most romantic, whether we’d want to date Edward or Jacob. We agreed that Bella was pretty boring and didn’t make great choices, but we couldn’t hide our longing. I dreamed of someone loving me like Edward loved Bella.

At the time, his obsession over keeping her safe was the most romantic thing I could imagine. How wonderful would it be to have a boy who loved me so deeply that he would endure constant pain and temptation just to be around me. How magical would it be to have the love of my life abandon me without explanation, only to reappear after my suicide attempt, when he’d tell me that he’d loved me the whole time. See, he disappeared because he loved me too much. Is that a Drake lyric? Anyway, this was my dream. I told myself that this all-consuming love would happen to me one day and life would be so perfect. The obsession dissipated as the books fell out of fashion, but the desire for that kind of relationship remained.

That changed when Parks and Recreation came into my life the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Leslie Knope is walking sunshine, a wonderfully intense woman who made the same kinds of mistakes that I did. Her relationship with Ben Wyatt, who enters the show as a state auditor, was never the “take off the glasses, let down your bun and stop caring so much about work!” plot that occupies most media about ambitious women. Instead, Ben falls in love with Leslie because she cares about small town politics and lives without cynicism.

When people claim that “healthy relationship” is synonymous with “boring” or “passionless,” I point them to the episode Smallest Park. Ben and Leslie had to break up because she’s running for office, and if it got out that she was dating her boss, her campaign would fail. When they broke up, Ben said it would be too hard to be friends and said they needed to be just co-workers. It was hard for Leslie to respect that and she acted pretty manic for a minute, not able to accept that the romantic part of their relationship was over.

Leslie and Ben meet up at the park they designed together and she apologizes to him for not respecting his wishes. Leslie tells him that if he doesn’t want contact with her she understands and won’t fight him. Then after the Mature Boundary Setting Conversation there is a Totally Romantic Moment–they decide to say “screw it” and make their relationship public, no matter the consequences.

My roommate Logan and I often talk about how the lines that make us swoon now are the ones where Ben tells Leslie how much he respects her work ethic and passion for local government. It’s amazing how being a feminist changes your notions of what’s romantic. Do you know what line in Twilight I used to love? “I can’t live in a world where you don’t exist.” In that section, Edward  also tells Bella that life was literally worthless to him unless she was there with him. That is so messed up ya’ll. It’s toxic and unhealthy and nothing to aspire to.

Leslie and Ben also had to break up even though they loved each other, but nobody threatened to kill themselves. When Ben has a great career opportunity in Washington D.C. Leslie encourages him to go, even though it’ll mean they’ll have to be apart for six months. At first she’s afraid of the idea but eventually realizes that since he made sacrifices for her career, she should do the same for him

See, this could have gone two ways: I could have grown up with Bella and Edward’s relationship as my model, and then moved on to Olivia and Fitz of Scandal. That girl would have thought that love was supposed to mean losing control of all decision making. That girl would grow up thinking that when a man abandons you it’s because he loves you too much. That you could have maybe one friend outside of your relationship. Instead I know that a good partner will encourage you to pursue your dreams, respect your decisions and trust you.

Leslie and Ben aren’t alone (although like, in my opinion they are the #1 always and forever). My Twitter followers told me that How I Met Your Mother’s Lily and Marshall, Bone’s Booth and Bones, and New Girl’s Nick and Jess are their healthy relationship inspirations. It’s also very much worth noting how few healthy queer relationships appear on mainstream television. There was a gay couple on Scandal, but their relationship was manipulative and emotionally abusive. Though Glee’s Kurt and Blaine are gorgeous and talented, their relationship lacks honesty and trust. But Orphan Black’s Cosima and Delphine are a wonderful example of a queer relationship, with the added bonus of bisexual representation. Members of SPARK’s Action Squad also gushed over healthy queer relationships on The Fosters, Modern Family, and Pretty Little Liars.

But we still need many more diverse healthy relationships. We talk a lot about the need for healthy depictions of women in the media, and that is absolutely true, but we also need to remember that many of us are getting into our first serious relationships, and these models matter. We can (and should) have presentations in high schools about healthy relationships, but having couples like Leslie and Ben on TV matters too.

Research Blog: Objects don’t object, or, how objectification discourages activism

by Christin Bowman

Here at SPARK, if there’s one thing we all love, it’s activism. We protest and picket and petition for change.  We struggle to take sexy back with a fiery passion that burns deep within all of us – a SPARK that ignites us (pun very much intended).

Being an activist isn’t always easy. In fact, it usually isn’t easy. Every day, we fight against a world in which sexualization is rampant and nobody seems to care about it. As activists, we expect certain things to get in our way – it’s par for the course. A petition we start never really takes off. The editor-in-chief of a magazine refuses to meet with us. We can’t decide whether to ignore those street harassers or to give them a piece of our minds. These are barriers we know we will face, and we prepare ourselves to keep pushing anyway.

But not all barriers are so predictable. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more women and girls protesting the sexualization they face in our society? You might think (at least I did) that being subjected to sexual objectification on a regular basis would be more than enough friction to light that spark to do something about it. Why wouldn’t everyone want to get on board?

Dr. Rachel Calogero, a researcher at the University of Kent, wondered about this too. But Calogero had a trick up her sleeve. She believed that the reason women didn’t sign up in droves to tear down the system is because they see the system as inevitable, and therefore good enough. This idea, known as system-justification theory, suggests that women come to see themselves the way society sees them, and so they justify the status quo.

What if, Calogero wondered, self-objectification (or seeing ourselves as objects) leads women to justify the system? In other words, maybe what’s going on with so many women is they’re looking at themselves from this outsider perspective, and that makes them empathize with that perspective and then makes them more likely to justify it.

Calogero took this idea one step further. In her recent study[1], she asked first, whether self-objectification leads women to justify the system, and second, whether justifying the system leads women to engage in less activism. After all, if you convince yourself that the system is just the way things are, why would you try to change it?

To test this hypothesis, Calogero did an experiment. She put women into two groups: one group was asked to write about a time in which they felt sexually objectified; the other group was asked to write about what they would do if they won $50. In this kind of study, the first group is called the experimental group and the second group is called the control group. We know that writing about being sexually objectified causes women to think about themselves as sexual objects, so being in the experimental group caused the women in that group to self-objectify more than the women in the control group. The women in both groups then answered questions about system-justification and their intentions to engage in feminist activism. By comparing these two groups, Calogero was able to find out whether self-objectification led women to justify the system more, which in turn led women to engage in less activism.

I’ll be blunt: her findings are depressing. In my activist haze, I had figured that women exposed to our damaging sexualized world would sooner or later end up right there next to me in the picket line. It’s only a matter of time, I thought. It turns out – oh the bitter irony – that our sexualized culture may do the exact opposite. Rather than create activists, the constant sexualization of women in our society actually discourages them.

Calogero’s study provides evidence that living in a world that sexualizes women and causes us to self-objectify may in fact put a psychological damper on fighting back. She argues, “Self-objectification guides women’s attention to their appearance and leads them to comply with traditional gender roles, thereby garnering their participation in the very system that maintains their disadvantaged status” (p. 317). In other words, when we focus on our appearances instead of how we feel or what we are capable of, we are using our energy to strengthen a system that harms us when we could be fighting against it! As much as I hate to say it, it makes sense. I mean, my brain freezes when I’m being ogled by random guys. Rather than being outraged that the sexualization of women in our society is teaching these men that they can stare at my body all they want, I feel like running away to hide. And sometimes, I don’t just feel bad for a minute or two – I feel bad for weeks or months, constantly thinking about how I appear to others, rather than focusing on how unacceptable it is to be sexually objectified on the regular.

Lucky for us, there is some good news. As activists, we are living, breathing proof that existing in a sexualized world doesn’t keep all of us from fighting back. But let’s be clear: being activists doesn’t make us immune to sexual objectification. After all, we are only human; I’d be lying to myself (and you, dear reader) if I said I never worried about my appearance or looked at myself from an outsider perspective. But somehow we SPARKers have still managed to find the strength and the passion to resist that oppression. Now that we know what a struggle that really is for so many girls and women who are not fighting alongside us, I think Calogero’s research should be a call for us to support each other even more. Every little piece of activism adds fuel to our fire, and every girl can be an activist stoking the flames. A friend who signs a petition is an ally in our cause. A classmate who speaks up against sexually harassing language is a champion for us. Our activist allies are all around us, just waiting to be encouraged. Our culture may be like a blanket of ash on our psyches, but when that little fire inside of me meets that little fire inside of you – inside of all activists and activists-to-be – we together can SPARK a change.

 



[1] Calogero, R. M. (2013). Objects don’t object: Evidence that self-objectification disrupts women’s social activism. Psychological Science, 24(3), 312-318.

Say it loud! Tips for successful public speaking

by Julia Bluhm, Montgomery Jones, and Izzy Labbe

There are few people who enjoy public speaking. From the stress of writing a speech to the nerves of the big day, it may seem like public speaking leaves little to be desired–but it’s not true! By sharing your voice with others, you can teach them something new, maybe make them laugh, and even inspire your audience (and yourself!) to take action. Don’t let the groans of kids in your English class convince you that public speaking is stupid or embarrassing. We’ve put together some advice to help you succeed at public speaking and enjoy it! With enough preparation, practice, and the right mindset, public speaking can be extremely rewarding and empowering.

Preparation and Practice

Julia’s advice: when you start planning what you want to say in your presentation or speech, think about ways to make it engaging to your audience. Do this in a way that seems natural to you: a lot of people use visuals like photos and videos media to supplement their presentations and keep their audience interested, others tell jokes or use humor, some do both. I like telling brief stories to keep the audience interested, whether they’re from my own life or are stories that I have heard from others. I recently spoke at my school about the issue of digital retouching in the media, and I told a story that a professional digital retoucher once told me about his experiences. If you personalize your speech using tools that you feel comfortable with, it will feel more natural to you, which will in turn make you feel less awkward.

Also, plan whether you want to write your speech word for word, or have bullet points to outline what you’ll say. I always memorize at least some parts of my speech, because I feel a lot more comfortable and prepared that way. This just consists me saying the same few sentences over and over again in my room, until I remember it. You definitely don’t have to memorize your presentation or talk! Often times speeches that aren’t memorized sound more casual and less rehearsed. Just do whatever feels more natural for you! Once you start running through your speech, practice it in front of someone and have them time you. Most people talk faster when speaking in front of someone.

Dealing with Nerves

Izzy says: every time I have to give a speech or present something, which is a lot, I feel this sort of bubbly mix of nerves and excitement. My objectives differ depending on what I’m presenting, but no matter what, I always want to leave the audience satisfied and thinking, “Wow. That girl knows what she’s talking about, and how to present it in a way that really resonates with me. Also, her dress is adorable and she looks like a movie starlette.” Anyway.

I think this is a common goal of all presenters–well, maybe not the starlette part. But every speech should have a goal, and I think that all presenters have the capacity to do well and really make their audience respond and get the desired effect. But nerves get in the way! When you want people to like you and get your message, it’s hard not to feel the pressure. Here is what I would suggest: Think about your audience. Who are you presenting to? Are they your age, younger, older, or a mix? Do you know them personally? I always use humor to curb my nerves, starting with a little joke or just a cute, awkward laugh that’s probably more awkward than cute, but let me live that fantasy. When the audience sees you relax, they relax. No matter how formal the event- I don’t care if you’re talking to pre-schoolers at daycare or meeting the Queen- you need to remember that people are not judgmental robots who exist only to criticize you. They want to be moved by you.

Montgomery offers this: people say “what’s the worst that can happen?” Well, the worst thing is that you are embarrassed in front of your audience, right? But what if you take the sting out of the fear?  Before you even step to the podium, build your confidence up so high that no one can tear you down! Think of an ‘A’ you got in history or how cool your new shirt is. I like to pretend my confidence is almost like a shield, deflecting any negative energy and surrounding myself with love. I create a mantra to repeat so as to maintain that forcefield during the actual talk. Again, this should be before you even go up there.  But it’s imperative that you have a positive mindset before presenting!  That alone can completely change the atmosphere.

Giving the Presentation

Montgomery says: I usually stand up as straight as possible! And I don’t see the audience naked, but rather as friends that are hanging on to my every word. Quickly scan over the audience before you speak.  If looking up from your notes is difficult or if you have no notes and just wish to look down, I suggest finding three eye points to land on in the audience.  One in the middle, one on the right side, and one on the left.  Everyone will think you are looking at them, and engaging with the audience is essential to productive speech.

One thing I always forget to do is smile! Try to look like you’re enjoying yourself if even for a moment. Perhaps remember a small joke before you start, something to lighten the mood!  We tend to get very serious when we present, which is important, but you want to look like you’re happy to be there because then the audience will be happy to be there!  If you lose your train of thought, I suggest you either skip over the part that is giving you trouble (they will never notice) or do a slight chuckle and a nod of the head. I call this the “cheesy politician.” It’s that “aw shucks” thing that is endearing but also allows you to keep your cool and buys you a few seconds to collect yourself.  I do that sometimes so as to say “whoops, onward I go and I’ll have a good time while doing it!”

Remember, everyone occasionally has some bumps in their performance. The important thing is to just keep on moving. You will feel really proud of yourself afterwards. Just be yourself. Relax. Chill out. And remember: presenting is fun! (Really!)

How I lost my voice

by Angela Batuure

I went to a weird elementary school. It was a hybrid between co-educational and single sex classrooms. The idea was that as children grow older, the differences between the ways boys and girls learned beomce more distinct: kindergartners and first graders had co-ed classes, but from second grade to 8th grade, the classes were split into single sex classrooms. At seven and eight this never seemed strange to me, and I assumed all schools followed this model, until at soccer practice a girl on my team was telling a story about how a boy in her class was trying to convince everyone that Spiderman was the best superhero. I asked her what a boy was doing in her classroom, earning laughter from my teammates and a concerned glance from my male coach.

A benefit of this single sex environment, especially at a young age, was that there were no boundaries in the classroom. I was outgoing and opinionated and I had a comment about everything. I wasn’t the exception; all my peers were like this. Class lectures were more of a discussion and when a student didn’t understand something, she didn’t have a problem asking the teacher six times to explain it again. The idea of leadership wasn’t a concept because everyone was an equal contributor, so when in 7th grade my school tried to implement presidents, all eighteen girls in my class ran.

When we were in 8th grade however, the school decided to mix classes only for math, separating students based on math level rather than gender. I remember all the girls huddling with excitement at what this new change would mean and planning out all the new jewelry we would wear on the first day of integrated classes.

In my new hoop earrings (stolen from my mother’s jewelry box that morning),  I sat in the front of the classroom with my best friends, excited to show the boys how smart we were being the only four girls in the advanced section of the integrated classes. That day, our teacher handed out a pre-test to gauge the class level. With the excitement of having the boys in our class, and the excitement from the earrings I swiped from my mother (which I decided made me look very mature), I breezed through the pre-test and finished first. When I returned to my seat after turning in my test I felt something hit my back and saw a crumpled note lying on the floor next to me.

I picked it up, sure it was a compliment of my intelligence and speed, a marriage proposal, or whatever else 8th grade girls thought 8th grade boys could provide. Not wanting to get caught with the note, I kept it in my pocket until five minutes before class was out when my teacher had her back to the board.

I goofily smiled as I unraveled the note, planning how I would tell my mother about my new boyfriend and hoping she wouldn’t be too mad about the earrings.

Show-off.

I felt the room spinning and my smile fade as I repeatedly read the words on the page. Show-off. Show-off. Showw-offf. Showwwofffff. My tears hit the paper, blurring the letters in my eyes and the words on the note. I sat in my seat motionless, not even realizing class had let out and all my friends had left. I heard a chair scoot up next to me and my teacher whisper “what’s wrong?”

I silently handed her the note and dug my head into my arms on the table, wondering where I had gone wrong in my life.

After a few moments she laughed softly and I raised my head, confused.

“What? Are you really going to let a stupid boy tell you who you are and how you life your life? Angela, never let a boy–or anyone for that matte–justify your existence. ”

I took her words to heart and continued participating as much as I always did in class, deciding boys were just a big stupid disappointment anyway. When I switched to an all-girls high school in 9th grade, I realized I was surrounded by other girls who didn’t mind showing off that they were intelligent or arguing with each other in class discussions or even running for leadership positions because they thought they were the best candidate no matter what anyone else told them.

When I transferred to a co-educational boarding school at the start of 10th grade I quickly learned, just like I had on the soccer field in second grade, that my educational environment was not the norm. I tried to apply my comfort in a single sex classroom in the coed classroom and quickly learned society wasn’t okay with this.

A few weeks into my first term at my new school, a teacher pulled me aside after class and told me that I needed to “participate less and give others a chance to talk.” What?  I left the classroom confused and not understanding what she meant by participate less. But I had things to say! Did she mean just not say them? Why would I do that? In class the next day when we were discussing our reading, my teacher asked a question and by instinct, my hand shot up. Her eyes met mine, she gave the smallest shake of her head and I slowly dropped my hand down. She gave a small nod and called on a boy.

I couldn’t understand my teacher’s request for me to contribute less in class. I thought back to the moment in 7th grade when my teacher told me I should never justify my existence based on what other people, especially boys, thought about me. Did she mean teachers too?

I slowly began to realize however that what my English teacher said was true. In comparison to the other students, especially the other girls in my classes, I talked in class five times as much. I convinced myself to talk less, telling myself that it would give others the opportunity to participate more. But  by junior year I learned that I had taken my teachers’ advice too much to heart.

During midterm reports, my Junior year English teacher commented that, “Angela writes well. She needs to participate more in class.” I stood in my dorm not understanding how things had changed so much in just a year, from going from someone who participates too much to someone who participates not enough. When had I decided to let society change who I was? I promised myself I would change that.

In English class the next day, I tried to force myself to participate. I would raise my hand then drop it down, reminding myself that what I had to say was probably stupid and wouldn’t contribute to the conversation. When, after the third time of backing out of participating, my teacher called on my before I dropped my hand, I mumbled something related to the text. Immediately I could feel my blood rushing and my face reddening. My palms began to sweat and I grabbed my pen, drawing a large, thick circle on my notebook and wishing I could escape into it. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I carved into the wooden desks, reminding anyone who sat there next of who I was.

It was a painful process trying to teach myself how to speak in class again.  I found myself clinging on to the responses of my peers. If someone said they agreed with what I had said, my confidence soared and I would try and raise my hand more. The few times people disagreed, I would hide my head and draw circles on my page.

In college with large lecture halls filled with 200+ students, the idea of speaking up is intimidating. While I can’t say I participate nearly as much as I did when I attended an all girl’s school, I try to be a voice in the classroom. Every now and then, I still draw circles on the page, but I try and remind myself that I am the only person who can ever justify my own existence and the way other people perceive my intelligence most definitely does not.

#ReadWomen in school and beyond

by Madeleine Nesbitt

Despite the fact that the first known novel was penned by a woman, the devaluation of female-produced literature has presided over the literary arts since they came to exist. Women continue to go by initials in hopes of being taken for a man (example a: J.K. Rowling), and the 2013 VIDA Count points out that women are only 29% of book reviewers in Harper’s, and a notably awful 21% of authors reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.

In January, the hashtag #ReadWomen2014 called for recognition of the merits of women’s writing, and since then, other movements, like We Need Diverse Books, have noted further flaws in the publishing industry.

The fact remains, however, that the majority of books deemed ‘classic’ are written by men, and that female writers have a long way to go before the supposed meritocracy of the literary arts actually becomes one.

Take, for example, my English curriculum. I have been reading books for school since seventh grade, which gives me a solid four years of experience. In that time, it’s no struggle to count the number of women’s voices included in that mix: two. That’s right, besides Harper Lee and Mary Ann Evans, women authors are nonexistent.

So: the texts that teenagers are compulsed to read are rarely written by women. These are the books that teens are most likely to be exposed to, the books that we are forced to take in whether we like it or not. These are the books that supposedly have academic merit.

What this means for students, and especially girls, is that women’s voices aren’t necessary or wanted in academics. It means that women’s writing is seen as less valid, and that if you are woman who writes, you can never be as good as a man.

The omission of women authors is not based on how much well-written, academically appropriate material by women is available– while there may not be as much female-authored literature as there is male, there is plenty enough that having an English curriculum completely devoid of any women’s voices, as I did this year (my sophomore year of high school) is incomprehensible.

Every book by a woman read in school validates a teenage girl who might have thought her writing wasn’t good enough, and that is exactly what is needed. At a time where publishers complain that the disparity between published works by male and female authors is due to a lack of female writing, representation of female writing in high school curriculums is necessary to validate and inspire the next generation of female authors.

A woman’s voice is incredibly important to girls in the classroom– and even though we didn’t read any books by women in class this year, I saw the change that a woman can effect– it’s just that she was within the text, and not writing it.

There are a total of three boys in my English class, which means our many of our class discussions a feminist slant, and never was this more evident than when we read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. At this point in the year, we had been starved completely of female characters– we had read three books about groups of teenage boys, which had probably had a grand total of five female characters combined, none of whom had come anywhere near to being “main.” We didn’t all love Hawthorne’s style, but everyone wanted to talk about Hester Prynne, the stubborn protagonist.

Our discussions about Hester and her on-and-off beau, Arthur Dimmesdale, were probably the best we had all year. We talked about slut-shaming and the stigma of female sexuality (albeit in less overt terms), about the trials of being a single mother, and about now Arthur Dimmesdale is a man-pain jerkbag. The presence of this one well-developed female character lit up the classroom for a few weeks– imagine what more women’s voices could do for a room full of teenage girls.

This is why we need to #readwomen– not just 2014, but every year. I need, and my peers need to hear from female authors, need to know that women’s writing will and should be taken just as seriously as men’s. We need to see our future in writing, and that future comes with an understanding that recognition is not solely for men.