It began with a vote. Then, a letter. And then, a “New York Times” article.
It was the spring of 2013 and Feminism=Equality (F=E) burgeoned into a flourishing movement, all at the hands of 12 Seniors from the Class of 2013 on an impassioned mission to achieve gender equality. In an interview with The Phillipian, MJ Engel ’13, Maia Hirschler ’13 and Jing Qu ’13, three students who were at the epicenter of Andover’s feminist movement, recounted their time at Andover as part of the charge to advocate for a feminist-based, post-gender community.
“I define [feminism] in two ways. One is more of the empowerment of women, but I think a more accurate definition for me is that feminism is more of a perspective and mode of thinking—kind of like a lens and also a critical-thinking toolkit in order to understand the world and its structures and its resulting inequalities,” said Engel, who attended Andover for all four years and is currently at Columbia University as a rising junior.
On January 19, 2013, Student Council voted 20-3 to change the Council’s structure to a Co-President model replacing the one-president system that had been in place since 1973. In the lead-up to the vote, Student Council held a number of closed door discussions, debating the merits and faults of implementing the proposed system. Engel saw the Co-Presidential model as a pivotal moment in Andover history that addressed the gender inequality that had become structurally propagated through Student Council’s election system.
Engel, who ran an unsuccessful bid for Student Body President back in 2012, said that she felt victimized during her campaign because of her gender, hearing derisive comments from strangers who implied that she was not qualified for the role of Student Body President. Engel thus became a fierce proponent of the Co-Presidential model, viewing it as a chance to curb females’ inhibitions from stepping into the race.
As the month dragged on, dissent against the new Co-Presidential model began to envelop campus. Hirschler, a four-year Senior from New York, NY, and is currently a rising junior at Yale University, recalled a conversation in the library between herself and Engel. Hirschler said that Engel confessed her fear that students weren’t seeing the new model as a way to fight and make right the sexism that had become ingrained in Andover’s culture.
“That sort of just opened my eyes and shattered the ‘Andover Bubble’ within the ‘Andover Bubble,’ ” said Hirschler.
On March 1, 2013, Engel, Hirschler and three others published a Letter to the Editor in The Phillipian, charging students to use the power of their vote to its fullest in the upcoming Co-Presidential election. The letter, which Qu and six others signed, examined the lack of female presidents over the school’s history and cited that absence of female leadership as the source of girls’ doubts to enter the race as candidates. Within a matter of hours, the letter sparked campus-wide debate, causing impassioned conversations in classrooms, in dorms, on paths and even online.
In the weeks following the letter’s publication, students filled The Phillipian’s Commentary pages with black ink, penning Letters to to the Editor to raise different perspectives and contrasting arguments. Even with Finals Week and Spring Break looming in the distance, the conversations did not die down; rather, they were ignited by pent-up emotions and the desire to discover truth within the matter. As students departed for vacation, they brought feminism with them to all corners of the world.
Over break, Engel, Hirschler, Qu and nine others began organizing for the term ahead, officially giving birth to the Feminism=Equality movement. Foremost a group of a friends, the F=E team worked harmoniously with one another to plan out a course of action to help further the campus discussion and implant a system of education within the student body.
“Our whole grassroots movement wasn’t engineered; everything was super organic,” said Qu, who attended Andover for four years and is also a rising junior at Columbia University.
On April 11, 2013, “The New York Times” published an exposé on Andover’s first Co-Presidential election, which ended with a face-off between Junius Williams ’14 and Clark Perkins ’14 and Farris Peale ’14 and Ben Yi ’14. “The Times” highlighted the gender compositions of each pair and focused on the tension that ran through campus regarding the race. Ultimately, Williams and Perkins took the victory. But, Hirschler said, the article legitimized the feminist cause at Andover and sparked even more dialogue across campus.
To foster a safe, organized and fair space to discuss feminism and its various intersections, F=E created “Feminism at Andover,” an active Facebook group that acts as a forum available for anyone affiliated with Andover. Members of the group often share articles, research and thoughts to engage the community.
Along with the Facebook group, the team created a website that shared F=E’s central principles, most commonly known for its “Experiences” page, where Andover community members could submit anonymous encounters with gendered microaggressions, establishing a collection of all of the times where sexism has prevailed at Andover despite the common force against it.
“When it came time to present at faculty meetings, [the Experiences] were unbelievably eye-opening both for us and the students we worked with and more so for the faculty. Like, when a girl walks into Math 600 and you say, ‘Oh good, we have a girl,’ that’s (a) a gendered comment but (b) also making that female student super aware of how she is representative of her gender,” said Engel.
Engel and Qu’s time at Columbia has inspired them to further their studies and activism at large. Concentrating in women, gender and sexuality studies, Engel has challenged and opened up her mind in many different ways, coming to understand some of the most complex nuances of feminism. On the other end, Qu is a volunteer for the school’s Sexual Violence Response system, providing confidential advocacy to victims of sexual assault, and is also involved in remodeling Columbia’s orientation program for next year.
“One thing that just makes my day is [that] I still get the notifications for [Feminism at Andover] and still see people continuing the conversation, bringing in articles about topics that I’ve never even thought about,” said Hirschler.
“There’s a difference between then and now, because I feel like Andover’s a lot more aware of these issues,” said Qu.
Editor’s Note: Maia Hirschler was the Front Page Editor for The Phillipian, Vol. CXXXV, and Jing Qu was the Director of Production for The Phillipian, Vol. CXXXV.