the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Francesca Carnovale '24
This is a reprint of Francesca Carnovale’s essay, read at the Nov. 5 Friday Nights at Westminster featuring Jennifer Haigh. The essay won the 50 Years of Coeducation essay contest sponsored by the English department.
Obviously. It was the first word that came to my mind when I heard it was the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Westminster School. Obviously women have the right to the same education as men. Many women before me have paved the path for me to attend school, and I am very thankful to both those women and men for giving me equal opportunities. But on the day Mrs. White, Westminster’s first female head of school, announced at assembly that the blue and gold flags placed with pride all around campus were for the 50th anniversary of coeducation, I was both proud and irritated.
Obviously, I understand how that may seem very backwards. It makes sense to me to acknowledge the celebration of 50 years of women at Westminster, but I don’t think we should force this topic into the curriculum, often when it just doesn’t fit. As I had gone through the first couple of weeks in school, I noticed how often women or coeducation slithered its way into the conversation like a snake slowly surrounding its prey. It squeezed us tighter until we were suffocating, but we had to comply for fear of its socially lethal venom. The conversation was uncomfortable, even for the profound young women in the class, because they knew it was only being brought up by teachers who were told to bring women into the conversation for this one year. It was times like these where I began to wonder if the reason three out of the four candidates for the head of school were women. I remember kids talking about how the only reason the school was looking for a female head was because of the 50th anniversary. Though it may have been a factor, I do not believe that is true. I respect Mrs. White for her courage to become Westminster’s first female head, and I believe she is extremely qualified to do her job. The fact that people could even think that because she is a woman her bar is somehow lower makes me disappointed in Westminster for undermining all the work women put into having their voices heard. Mrs. White has a very tough job, and I would like to commemorate her for her strength to bring a new and positive outlook to life on the hill.
Obviously, part of the student body felt that there was a slight political factor hidden behind those blue and gold flags. They are like a little campaign for all the tours that visit campus. I would prefer we have one chapel talk, or one assembly, or even a guest speaker on coeducation, than all of this advertising, plus continuously interjecting the topic into our classes. Teachers who felt the same way as I do told the class upfront that the curriculum this year was geared towards the topic of coeducation. As thrilled as I am that women are being represented in what the student body is learning, how it is being presented feels overdone and forced. In a history or English class that is discussing a time period in which women did not have rights, it is an overcompensation to say that the men of that time should be deemed misogynistic. They were not misogynistic, that was just the time period in which most of society was sexist and racist. When we read in class a piece of literature by a male author who uses the pronouns “he,” when he refers to human existence as a whole, we do not need to outwardly condemn him for that. We do not say Neil Armstrong must hate women because he said, “this is one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.” To the country as a whole, and particularly American private schools, why do we try to protect our children from the possibility of being offended, by teaching them to be overly sensitive, and shutting down conversations we do not wish to listen to?
There were times when I sat in a Latin class where we had to make the argument that the Romans were just slightly less misogynistic than the Greeks, when obviously both civilizations gave women almost zero rights. It wasn’t until I listened to Mrs. White’s talk on the 50th year of coeducation, and how Westminster was a safe space for women, that I really thought about why we should be celebrating. My first thought went to SWE, Society of Women Engineers, and all women in STEM. While schools in many countries have done a wonderful job at giving women equal opportunities, they have failed to keep young girls interested in math and science. As a kid, most of my female friends were told that math and science were boy things, along with the color blue, legos and cars. I was a different case. I knew the order of the planets before the alphabet, and my father always told me, “math and science were the most important subjects.” I loved to build and I was a full-on engineer when it came to legos. Now I have doubled up on sciences since sophomore year taking both Honors Chemistry and AP Physics 2, and I am pursuing aerospace engineering and astrophysics. I look at my path and think how we don’t need SWE because we need a safe space for women, we need SWE to promote women in STEM, because girls are so often discouraged by math and science at a young age.
While school work and classes had brought up this topic, they were obviously not the only places on campus where the theme of feminism lingered in the back of students' minds. At the start of the year, the W-Book no longer separated the dress code into sections for boys and girls. Westminster had started to accommodate non-binary students and realized how overemphasized the gendered dress code had been in the past. This was a huge step towards undoing a longstanding and outdated tradition that does not reflect the wants and needs of the student population. But as with most socially ineffable topics, especially one so deeply woven into society such as gender, one step forward usually results in two steps back. A few weeks into school Westminster saw how some people were taking advantage of this new dress code and decided to not only revert back to the old way of thinking, but to conduct not one, but two meetings to discuss this topic. These meetings were sectioned into boys and girls, forcing non-binary kids to come out to their teachers. This was not only uncomfortable for them but for the groups that attended the meetings as well. In the girls' meeting, actual topics of confusion were brought up such as why we can wear leggings under skirts but not without them, or why our shoulders are seen as a ‘distraction.’ Instead of addressing these questions, teachers chose to focus on the second layer rule. In this meeting I brought up the question, “if this is a one-gendered dress code, why are there two meetings?” Later that day, a freshman I have never met came up to me and thanked me for asking that. Even though this question still goes unanswered, I feel better knowing that this is a topic Westminster students are passionate about. I don’t really care if this is fixed before I graduate, but I want it to be fixed before the current freshmen do. Westminster is learning that it is going to be much harder to grab the snake by the head without being bit, then leave it there long enough to asphyxiate you. But it's the only option, so the best thing to do is be prepared. Make an antidote, and just go for it, because this problem is not going anywhere.
The last portion of feminism that needs to be addressed is the stigma around being called a feminist, and what the actual definition of feminism means. When I say, I am a feminist, I do not mean, I hate men. I simply mean I believe in the equality of all people. When some boys are asked the question, ‘are you a feminist’ they respond with ‘no,’ but if you ask if they believe in the equality of men and women, they say, ‘oh well, of course, yes.’ That’s a problem. Because of social media, extremist groups have started campaigns such as the ‘kill all men movement,’ which are unacceptable, and actually go against the beliefs of feminism. These groups preach the eradication of men as if reversing oppression is going to somehow cancel it out. This is not what feminism means, but because of this view, many male students and faculty feel it is not their place to speak out about the topic for fear of being attacked or ruining their reputation. These groups corrupt the name of feminism by eroding its values of equality. Pseudo-feminists believe in slandering men and putting them down to get a leg up, when real feminists believe in women pulling themselves up to the same level as men through their own work ethic. As a woman, I don't want the job because it looks good for your diversity statistics or because you’re afraid of being accused of hating women if you don’t give me the job. I want the job because I am qualified for it. Being handed a job by a man is almost worse than him fighting to keep me out of it, because if he fights for it at least I know he views me as competition, someone on the same level. Men shouldn’t feel as if they don’t have the right to vocalize their views on feminism. Equality means everyone, so we should listen to everyone.
This is obviously not a very easy task, but big changes start with small steps. I hope that on the 100th year anniversary we do not insert women into the conversation by over advertising for that one year, but to acknowledge the progress and changes we have made. To my understanding, it was common sense that we would not need a celebration of coeducation if the right of educating women was a standard. Obviously not.