Turning a School Girl’s T-Shirt “Controversy” Into a Feminist Moment

Superhero kid. Girl power conceptMaybe thirteen-year-old Sophie Thomas didn’t think she was being all that brave on a normal school morning when she slipped into a black T-shirt as part of her outfit for class picture day. Maybe she’d even forgotten her photo was going to be taken. But when Sophie, who attends Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Ohio, had her class picture taken wearing a tee shirt with the word “Feminist” proudly emblazoned across the front, she couldn’t have known she’d create a national stir.

Choosing that shirt on that day was a brave move for a girl because, as many people know, there is a lot of negativity around the word feminist. Being a middle-schooler, she might have expected to get push-back from some of her classmates for making a true fashion statement with some ideology mixed in. But there were no “mean girl” moments for Sophie, unless you count the decision by her school’s principal to have a little airbrushing done to the final image.

The school’s principal, Kendra Young, had the word “feminist” erased from the final printed photograph reportedly because it might be “offensive” to others. There are no Clermont school rules that prohibited Sophie from wearing her “feminist” shirt and she was breaking no dress code regulations. So why would a school principal think the word “feminist” was offensive? I don’t know exactly, but I have an idea.

Feminism is an unknown or misunderstood idea to many people, including educators. At a time when so many women, including a good number of celebrities, including Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, routinely make comments like, ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist’, the word feminism is considered offensive by many. Why? Because the history of the women’s liberation movement and the facts about how things have changed for women in the last century, are rarely passed down through generations or formally taught. I was surprised to see that the term “Women’s Liberation Movement” isn’t mentioned in my daughter’s 4th grade Houghton Mifflin textbook.

I travel the world talking about the importance of teaching the facts about the Women’s Liberation Movement to K-12 students and I’ve learned that many people are not aware of what actually happened during the women’s movement. Kendra Young’s action is a perfect metaphor for our current problem of omitting the history of the women’s movement from school curricula.

Sophie’s middle school principal erased “feminism” from a photo thereby erasing the connection to feminist history.

When an educator makes a decision like Young did, it puts us on the path with a clear destination: erase the women’s movement, cast doubt on the word “feminist.” Why is feminism important? Without feminists and the women’s liberation movement where would we be? Feminism is a school of thought that sees the world through the lens of gender and, clearly, with all of the sexualizing of young girls and women in media and the constant struggle for girls to see themselves as leaders, feminism is still needed today. What’s become known as the Women’s Liberation Movement is a vital part of American history that changed our country positively and dramatically.

Here are just a few things that feminists changed that I’m guessing many young women don’t know because they didn’t live through the time and so much of how things are different for women today, compared to just four decades ago, isn’t being taught:

— Before the Women’s Liberation Movement all newspapers across this country had classified employment ads that were separated into columns labeled “Female Help Wanted” and “Male Help Wanted.” For the most part, the lower paid jobs were in the female columns, and the better-paid positions were in the male columns.

— Women couldn’t get credit cards in their own names until 1975. Single women also were prohibited from obtaining mortgage for a house because banks wouldn’t lend to them. And there were few legal protections for women when they were divorced by their husbands.

— It was perfectly legal for a university to decline admission to a woman if administrators believed they already had enough women enrolled.

— It was feminists who added the word “sex” to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, thereby freeing women from employment discrimination by giving them legal power to fight it in court.

— Title IX, which prohibited discrimination in all schools thereby adding equality to sports and changing the lives of all women and men, was created because of feminists.

These are just some of the changes feminists made for us and there are so many more it would be impossible to list them all. The women’s movement affected every corner of our country. You couldn’t escape it if you wanted to.

So how do we fully teach our girls about leadership and how women have helped to change the world if we aren’t teaching the women’s movement? How do we impress upon young women that leadership is within all of them and they don’t need to expose their bodies with the false idea that sexuality is power? The omission of the history of the women’s liberation movement from our schools is a powerful message that says to young people that women’s accomplishments aren’t important. The principal of Sophie’s school has now agreed, after talking more with Sophie and her mom, to make sure more is taught about feminism in that school.

Sophie had the correct response to the principal’s erasure of the word “feminist.” Sophie didn’t go quietly, she shouted it out to the world. On Instagram, Sophie announced her plan to ask classmates to show their support at school by making and wearing their own feminist T-shirts. She effectively said, this is our history and as a girl I need feminism. And she’s right.

Although my daughter is just ten-years-old, her first response to Principal Young’s action was “why?” She couldn’t understand why the word “feminist” would be offensive. Then again my daughter has spent the last ten years of her life immersed in the history of feminism as she has often traveled the country with me. She understands the history of the women’s liberation movement and she is not afraid of the word feminist.

Give a girl the facts, and what other conclusion can she come to?

Jennifer Hall Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films, including Ghostbusters 2 in visual effects, and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming! Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project. To schedule an interview with Jennifer or talk with her about booking her as a speaker, she can be reached at jennifer@feministstories.com.

Image via Depositphotos

  • mommygrrl

    I love that she asked “why”? I only hope that her school principal gave her a legitimate, grown-up answer and not a dumbed down response (if she responded at all). Good for her.

  • lrfcowper

    The history of women’s liberation is important for boys to know, too. Let’s not ghettoize women’s history as a girls’ subject.

  • walterunderwood

    How could any school principle not know about the Tinker decision? They should be fired as incompetent on the spot. This is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. This is not just a feminist moment, this is an attack on the the fundamentals of our country. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinker_v._Des_Moines_Independent_Community_School_District

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