By Hanna Miller, Conference Intern
In the tenth grade, I read The Bell Jar, and that’s where I learned the word “feminism.” Feminism, fem-in-ism . . . feminism. For days, I rolled the three-syllables around in my head, in my mouth. I said it aloud, and it sounded unfamiliar, but not unfitting. After I took the time to learn more, I did it. I took the big leap and decided that I was a feminist. I didn’t want any boys holding the door open for me. I was done with cheerleading; it was objectifying. Pay for my movie? Yeah, right. I didn’t wait tables part-time for nothing.
Growing up in the deep South, all of these positions were controversial, but as a sixteen year old, I was hungry for learning and for hope. With little direction but full of passion, I delved into a world that made me feel a bit less alone in an environment that could be quite oppressive. I read anything “feminist” that I could find. Although I love my home in the South, without literature, I would have never found the spark that spurred an interest that fuels a passion which has landed me in DC for the summer with a leading women’s organization. Everyday, this passion for and belief in equality allows me to make well-informed, confident, freer decisions – and I found it in free access to my school’s library.
Flashback: sixth grade, changing classes in a sweltering hallway. Lockers slammed, we whispered, and at twelve years old, I learned that a classmate of mine was pregnant. I didn’t realize then that unwanted, unintended pre-teen and teenage pregnancies were going to be the norm for most of my peers. At school, students did not learn an informative sexual education; rather, we learned an abstinence only curriculum informed by local church groups. Most girls didn’t know about contraception. It was as if puberty was more than the shy giggles we girls chortled behind boys’ backs, more than the trickling rumors about our secret packages nestled in our backpacks. It was as if puberty meant a greater secret — a threat for most, a promise for some. As girls left school at early ages to because they were having babies, attendance rates dropped. Public funding became less. Education grew poorer. Options were limited, again and again.
To return to high school, when my social positions encouraged me to become more informed about women’s issues such as unintended teenage pregnancies, I understood that my school and my hometown were facing a true crisis. How could community endure if girls and young women were having children they couldn’t support or take care of? Was a girl’s or a woman’s biology her destiny? Was sexual health really a moral issue, or was it actually a concern of public health? Why couldn’t women simply know all of their options? Why was that immoral?
The mention of institutionalized comprehensive sexual education made heads jerk and angry, uninformed words spew. Thoughts jumped directly to abortion. Taking preventative steps in order to nurture community was mistaken for a legal medical procedure that many in my community judged “immoral.” While I believe women should be the determinants of their own well-being, contraception and sex education are not abortion and should not be confused for it in any argument. When this inaccurate confusion is created, girls and women lose the agency to explore their options and to make well-informed, confident, freer decisions about their bodies and thus their well-being.
Much how free access to literature opened my mind to new ways of thinking and empowerment, comprehensive sexual education for all students in the US (and especially the South) is the key to preventing unwanted teenage pregnancies, to building healthy communities, and to finally quieting the ridiculous claims that contraception and abortion are one and the same. Taking the time to teach about each contraception and abortion is the difference between a healthy community and one that suffers from moral stigmas, disempowering its women and denying them their right to free access to information. Sexual health is not a moral issue but an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and to have agency in our own well-being. The next time there is a march for freedom, let’s all do our research beforehand so that we all may join hand-in-hand as a happy, healthy, well-informed community.