09/12/2012 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The 'F' Word

Carly is a member of the Junior State of America (JSA), a student-run political awareness organization for high school students.

Normally, when I tell people I'm a feminist, they look at me like I just confessed to murder. No, I don't hate men. Yes, I do shave my legs. No, I'm not a lesbian. Yes, I wear makeup. No, I don't spend my spare time burning bras. Yes, I think being a mother is a real job. After the awkward question-and-answer session, the general response I get is, "Why? What exactly are feminist fighting for now, anyways?"

The perception of gender equality is just that -- a perception. Going beyond abortion, an issue still debated in both the mainstream media and the feminist community, many citizens and politicians fail to regard sexism as a real issue. Just look at Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape," mass marketed T-shirts with "make me a sandwich" sprawled across the chest, the pay gap, Rush Limbaugh calling a young women he's never met a "slut" repeatedly on his radio show, the list goes on and on.

Of course, there has been significant progress. According to the Census Bureau, 25 percent fewer men received college degrees than women in 2009. Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman is a best-seller, Mitt Romney proclaimed being a mother was both a harder and a more important job than his own, and women are beginning to be more accepted into male-dominated fields.

If we've made all this progress, what's the problem? It's hard to pinpoint, yet sexism seems to manifest more socially than politically. If more women are graduating, then why do less than one in five companies have 25 percent or more women executive officers and more than one-quarter have zero? There is always the argument that women don't generally go into the business field, that they are more inclined to choose career as a nurse, teacher or social worker. But why? It's clear why women generally don't go into careers that involve manual labor, as biologically, men are generally stronger than women. Yet, even in the professional, intellectual, and strategic fields, gender confines women to maternal careers or a future stuck against the glass ceiling. It's how we're raised. Girls play with baby dolls and boys play cops and robbers. When children play house, the girl pretends to stay home to cook and clean, while the boy goes to work; she's always waiting for him at home when he returns. Girls take home economics while boys take wood shop. When a man is flirtatious, he's celebrated; when a woman is flirtatious, she is condemned. If a father stays at home to raise his children, he's not a man. If a woman returns to work too soon after her child is born, she's not a good mother. Despite this, western civilization consistently claims that we've reduced sexism to a proportion small enough that it doesn't affect the contemporary culture.

So then, why the stigma about the "F" word? Why the criticism when we say, "Hey I'm a feminist, I believe in equal opportunities for men and women and I'm willing to fight for them!" That's what feminists are -- not bra-burning, man-hating extremists. Feminists are people who aspire for a world where women aren't cornered into traditional and maternal gender roles, and men are not burdened by the obligation of masculinity. Men and women are different, that's a fact. So guys, relax. Feminists don't hate or judge you for what's in between your legs, they just expect you to return the favor. And girls, don't feel that becoming equal to men is the equivalent of binding our breasts and denouncing our gender -- rather, it's dispelling the equation of femininity and weakness. Equality isn't about gender, and that's all the feminist movement is: the fight for equality.

So boys and girls, say it loud and proud. I'm a feminist -- and there's nothing wrong with that.