A Case for Feminist Mentorship
Feminism was a foreign concept to me during elementary and middle school. To me,
feminism was something that existed in the early part of the twentieth century— only
during women’s suffrage. While I may have been naïve and ignorant, I did grow up in a rural town in Eastern Washington where conversations around gender equality never really existed. It was through Pinterest, during high school, that I learned the name to call myself when fighting with teachers about women’s issues, such as abortion, during class. It was also in high school that I wished I had someone by my side to help me understand these issues and feelings about my place in the world. Though there were plenty of strong women surrounding me growing up, but I never felt supported by them in my feminist endeavors.
Since then, I have adopted the label “feminist mentor,” as I feel mentorship is something the feminist movement is sorely missing. The feminist conversations we engage in are too often thought of as issues for adults only— though many of the problems that adult women face are issues that young girls are simultaneously facing. Shouldn’t we teach girls how to deal with sexism before they can pinpoint a time in their life that they realized they weren’t treated as equal? Wouldn’t the feminist movement be stronger if we didn’t only approach issues retroactively?
For me, the most important part of being a feminist mentor is a willingness to talk openly about difficult subjects, including consent, our bodies, and the potential of young girls. While being super explicit about certain topics is not likely to be approved by parents, I believe there are ways of discussing issues such as sexual assault that are comprehensible, and appropriate, for young people. I have many conversations about sexual assault with my twelve-year-old sister and the now-thirteen-year-old girl I used to babysit. Conversations such as these don’t need to be forced and should come up organically. It can be as simple as talking about consent, what the word means, and how the concept can be applied to classrooms and classmates. These conversations should happen with every child— and one may be surprised at how easily children understand the idea of asking before entering another’s space and letting others know if you don’t want them in your own. Creating a simple understanding of this word for young children and teaching them that it is ok to say “no” creates a solid feminist foundation.
With children— especially pubescent children with uteruses— talking about the body is an additional necessity for a feminist mentor. I remember the shame I felt when I started my period at ten-years-old, and when I ran out of pads in my backpack and was too afraid to ask the teacher what to do. Since my elementary school didn’t have tampon and pad dispensers in the bathroom, I bled through my pants and had to change my clothing at school. We should ensure that the young people of today understand the complexity of their bodies and never feel ashamed for inquiring about topics such as hygienic products. We can’t afford to not talk about it. So, for those of you with period stories, talk about them. Having a period should be normalized, not just on college campuses, but also in middle schools. When the girl whom I babysit had to be picked up from school a few months ago because she bled through her pants, I could sense that she was uncomfortable and told her about my own period story. Having a conversation in a public place, at full volume instead of hushed whispers, made a critical impression on her. I told her all about my own struggles with periods, and she then told me that she didn’t feel like she was “failing” anymore because she realized that she was not alone in her experience. This normalization of our bodies’ different processes should be commonplace.
Finally, I believe we need to learn to cater to young people’s interests, while giving them
information and resources about the things that they enjoy. We should be honest when we
talk about the lack of women in STEM, for example, but also be positive about creating
pathways for children to change mainstream, gendered narratives. The girl I babysit loves
robotics and is in the only female robotics team in her school district. At Christmas, I gave her a book about the history of women in science and their contributions. While she loved the book, she also felt that those women should not be relegated to “some other book” and should be taught alongside male scientists in class. With this inspiration, she later wrote an essay with her robotics team about what it means to be “girl-powered” and got second place in the world at the VIQC Girl Powered Online Challenge for talking about the lack of women of color in engineering.
While there are many ways to be a feminist mentor, these three topics of conversation have been pivotal for me and the young women whom I mentor. We need to have real and serious talks about the issues women face every day, normalize the idea of bodily differences through frequent, casual conversations, and make sure to engage with young people’s interests. These points may seem obvious, but these conversations do not happen often enough. We need feminist mentors to make sure these conversations take place before someone goes to college or leaves home— when and where the realities of gender inequality often become uncomfortably apparent.
Mattlyn is a QR staff writer and a senior at Northwestern majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies with minors in Latinx Studies and Film and Media Studies. She is also a Mellon Mays scholar at NU. She spends much time writing on queerness and race in media, with a focus on trans*-Latinx films. In her free time, she enjoys watching too many movies and creating excuses to visit Bennison’s Bakery.