An essay from Young and Feminist, a collection of feminist essays by high school students
To be a woman in the classroom is to be a paradox. A weird cohesion of wanting to learn about your passions yet being scared to voice what you know. Fear and knowledge both present, but never coexisting. This paradox follows us around every day. It is dangerous and it can inhibit us from going after what we really want.
Female classmates, myself included, often preface a very correct answer with an “I’m not sure if this is right but,” or a “I don’t know, maybe it’s…” In most instances, we are positive that we have the right answer, or know that what we have to say has meaning. We have studied, listened, understood, but that doesn’t really matter anymore. The underlying and irrational fear of being wrong and female at the same time overcomes the obvious intelligence and problem-solving skills. So, we don’t want to risk it. I try to catch myself after doing this and always tell myself to stop, but I still do it. It’s a very tough habit to break.
Initiatives like Girls Who Code, WITI, and Million Women Mentors exist to try and eliminate this paradox. They create change and do amazing work, but in the classroom, we still feel scared. We are smart. We are capable. We are beyond insightful. So why do we feel as if we are not?
Honestly, I wouldn’t blame us for it. We don’t really know any better, and how could we? It is what we have grown up with. We learned in elementary school classrooms that strong and white men were the winners in literature and history. We grew up fearing the “haha, you are so dumb!” remark coming from the shrimpy boy sitting across the room following an incorrect answer. I will never forget the teacher, who made all of the girls in the class answer a question in a row so that we could “prove” that we were listening. Rosalind Franklin, a groundbreaking chemist, made a revolutionary discovery about the double-helix structure of human DNA. That discovery opened doors for new methods to analyze the human body, but she had her theory stolen and took credit for by Watson and Crick, two male scientists who published the work without her consent. They gave no credit to her for the discovery and treated it as their own, and high school biology classes around the world are still taught that the two men discovered Franklin’s theory. Sexism is all around the classroom, and that is probably the worst place it could be. Classrooms are for learning, for discovery, where we begin to formulate our ideas and beliefs on the world. No wonder these sexist ideas have stuck with us. So, we decided to sit, nod, comprehend, and repeat, all while remaining perfectly quiet.
Many women carry these societal fears and behaviors into adulthood, hindering themselves from pursuing what they want because they assume that their success and femininity cannot possibly coexist. A childhood fear doesn’t subside, and the idea of “what could have been” begins to sink in. Older women often come to the conclusion that maybe being feminine or motherly and having a successful and important career aren’t compatible. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a foreign policy analyst and president of American Society of International Law, wrote about confronting the struggle with this “impossible” balance in an article in the Atlantic, when she expressed, “[M]illions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”
This idea of being scared is very tough to unlearn. Unlearning this internal fear takes a lot of mental strength, which is hard to come by in our current environment full of unrealistic beauty standards, social pressure, and a president who is not exactly on our side. It is very easy, especially right now, to find things that scare us, or justify why we should not express ourselves. We often find ourselves feeling helpless, and crawl back under the warm blanket that is knitted with our behaviors of silence. It’s easy to do and it makes us feel safe.
But the truth is, how are we supposed to become the strong female scientists, politicians, engineers, writers and directors that we deserve to be if we can’t share our knowledge? Collaboration is vital to success, so at some point, we have to force ourselves to express what we know, even if it feels daunting. That all starts in the classroom, because it is where we learn to engage with people and where we build the foundations of what we want the world to look like.
The capability and intelligence of young women have always been there, but it is up to us to make it known. The way we change the world is by changing the way we express ourselves. We should be proud of what we can do, and let no one take it away from us. As young and capable women, we have to begin raising our hands and voices, and feeling confident when we do so. Living in a city like Newton gives us an immense amount of privilege, and that privilege gives us a platform to be successful in voicing knowledge. So, why not use it? Let’s use it to not only speak up about social justice issues that we feel passionate about, but also to use our platform to put ourselves out there and voice the intelligent and insightful things that we have to say.