Girls at VUHS make their presence known

VERGENNES — It’s not unusual for more than 200 Vergennes Union High School students and staff members to meet in the school auditorium at an assembly. After all, 462 students attend VUHS.
But this past Wednesday morning’s meeting was different.
Almost all of those gathering in the auditorium were female, almost all wore red, and they represented a large majority of the girls and women who attend or work at the school.
The event was the brainchild of three VUHS students, seniors Aliya Hugo and Charlotte Haigis of Ferrisburgh and junior Peighton Duprey of Waltham, and it honored “A Day Without a Woman,” a protest set for this past Wednesday.
“A Day Without a Woman” was suggested by the organizers of January’s Women’s March, which drew millions for marches in Washington, D.C., and around the country. It was hoped this would be a way to show the value of women’s cultural and economic contributions to society and protest discrimination.
The three students enlisted the backing of Principal Stephanie Taylor — who they said made some helpful suggestions — and Assistant Principal Jay Stetzel.
Female students and staff were asked to wear red, the chosen color of Women’s March organizers. As well as being asked, but not required, to attend the assembly, female students also had the option to remain silent for the day — or as much as they chose — as an act of what Taylor called symbolic withdrawal from the community.
Originally, Hugo and Haigis wanted to skip school in honor of A Day Without A Woman, but they readjusted their goals after an interaction late the week before with one of their teachers.
“We were sitting in our AP Language and Composition class,” Haigis said. “And I yelled across the room, Aliya, are we still going to skip school next week for A Day Without a Woman? And our teacher, Karl Steen, said, “It doesn’t make sense. You should do something different.’”
The plans firmed up when Duprey came aboard.
“I was still pretty set on skipping school, and I wanted to get more people to skip school with me and Aliya,” Haigis said. “And what ended up happening is Peighton Duprey wanted to be involved as well, and we ended up creating the idea of the assembly, just projecting it through the school and educating people about it rather than getting everyone to skip the day.”
Hugo, sitting down with Haigis and Taylor the day after the event, explained the logic.
“It was hard for everyone to skip school that day, and also if a bunch of students were not in school, the day would go on without them, and they won’t really make a change, and we wouldn’t really have a voice,” Hugo said. “So by bringing everyone together, and taking out the politics and everything, and even just recognizing that we have so many female members of the community who do so much for us, we made it stronger and made us have an even bigger voice.”
They planned the assembly early last week. The three organizers spoke first and described the agenda, which opened with the conclusion of a Cheryl WuDunn TED Talk, “Our century’s greatest injustice,” about the global struggles of women.
Then they opened up the floor of a planned 20-minute meeting for comment. 
“I asked some teachers to put something together to break the ice,” Hugo said. “And after that some high school girls felt more comfortable talking, and the middle school girls felt more comfortable talking.”
They were surprised by the result: About 20 people spoke about topics that included supporting each other, achieving goals and recognizing female staff members, with a special shout-out to front office workers Diane Marcotte and Betsy Sullivan.
“Everyone felt pretty comfortable expressing what they wanted to say,” Hugo said, adding, “I honestly didn’t expect that many people to talk … It was awesome”
Taylor described the comments as positive, with a common element.
“It was certainly an underlying theme that we had to recognize that so often girls and women are in competition with each other at times, especially around social and emotional stuff,” Taylor said. “They recognized we needed to be kinder to each other.”
While the females gathered in the auditorium (those who did not attend did homework in classrooms or the library), Stetzel met with middle school boys in the middle school gym, and male teachers filled in for female teachers in high school classrooms. Gender issues were discussed, as they were during the week at morning meetings — Stetzel sent out a memo asking teachers to bring up the topic there.
Not all the boys in school understood the issues, said both Taylor and organizers, but some came around with help from teachers.
“There was some controversy in the class I was sitting in during three block,” Haigis said. “It was more the boys didn’t understand.”
But when the teacher explained, Haigis said, she could tell they were thinking, “OK, I understand now.”
Haigis believes the absence of girls from classrooms helped make the point.
“That was also why we wanted the assembly, because we wanted it so the females would be removed, and it would be a fully male school even though we were still in the school,” Haigis said. “So not only did we want the auditorium and the assembly to educate and talk to one another, we also wanted to have it to remove ourselves from the male presence and have them feel the effect of us not being there.”
Haigis and Hugo credited administrators for their support, noting it was Taylor who came up with the idea for optional silence.
“I think the overall success of it was behind the fact we were supported,” Haigis said. “If we had gone in there and people really weren’t feeling what we were saying it wouldn’t have been as successful.”
Taylor, on the other hand, said the points were better made because the events were student-driven.
“The beauty of this is it was student voice,” Taylor said. “To have students come and suggest it is exactly the kind of civic awareness I want to create in our student body, active participants in their communities.”
The organizers said they are realistic about the long-term impact of Wednesday’s events on male perception of women’s issues, although Hugo said she heard a lot of dialogue in the 24 hours following the assembly.
“You’re not going to be able to really change their mindset on it, but I guess you can maybe influence it,” Hugo said. “It was mostly about getting respect.”
But given what Haigis called the current climate of “mixed emotions about everything,” the taking of women’s contributions for granted, and unequal treatment of girls and women, they felt compelled to act.
“I think if we were satisfied and content with our treatment and where we were in terms of this issue, economic and community, we wouldn’t need women’s marches and assemblies to communicate with each other and support one another, when we don’t feel supported 100 percent by the male part of our community,” Haigis said. “So, no, I don’t think we’re OK with where we are right now.”

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