The Story Behind Women’s Affinity

Uncovering the roots and past of a growing affinity space.

Seanna Sankar, Online Managing Editor

On any given DEIB period, you can find female-identifying students filing into the Blue Devil Deli where student leaders guide conversations on the struggles of being a woman in a high school. Members of Women’s Affinity (WA) take a seat at the tables in the Deli, with some lining the floor or grabbing a snack before the session begins. 


A typical meeting begins with affinity leaders and faculty handing out three colors of Post-It notes: blue, yellow, and red, which are used by members to signal that they agree, somewhat agree, or disagree. Leaders would take turns reading statements; then, members would respond by raising the different colored paper and open up for discussion. 


Since attending affinity spaces has been made mandatory as of the 2022-2023 school year, up to 85 members are in attendance at each DEIB block and engage in conversations related to being a woman making it the affinity group with the largest member population at Poly. Not only has attendance spiked, but the group, which is intended to stimulate dialogue and spark action, has increased engagement through working groups and initiatives this year. 


So, how did WA get to this point?


2018-2019: Women’s Summit


Conversations about WA started with an optional after-school Women’s Summit on November 6 2018. Attendance reached about 50 female-identifying students, faculty, and coaches with many different interests, backgrounds, and races. 


This initial meeting, which was followed by a second Women’s Summit in December of the same year, led conversations to transpire between current and former faculty advisors (Upper School history teacher Virginia Dillon, Director of Middle/Upper School Learning Support Juliet Moretti, History Department Chair Maggie Moslander, and former English teacher Sarah Whalen) about the trends they were noticing between frustrated female-identifying students were. 


The current installment of WA “has its deepest roots from this girls’ summit from back in 2018,” said Dillon. “It was a moment of catharsis that you could tell was really needed,” she continued. 


Dillon said, “[There were] a lot of emotions, [and] a lot of being upset [without] a safe space or outlet for it.” Dillon continued to explain that she noticed these feelings “across the board” from ninth to twelfth graders and that the summit confirmed the feelings of frustration and contempt women were having.


According to Dillon, conversations ranged from “relationships between upperclassmen and [underclassmen], classroom dynamics and whether female-identifying students were being heard, imbalance between the kinds of support (both in terms of resources and people showing up) for boys teams and girls teams, and why girls shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed asking a friend for tampons.” Many of these topics are still discussed in WA, along with conversations on the dress code, student dynamics, and other school-wide issues that affect women. 


2019-2020: The Turning Point


In the winter of 2019, the WA Big Sister Little Sister initiative was founded and led by Bailey Chapin ’20, a junior at the time. Chapin explained that the Big Sister Little Sister initiative, which paired female underclassmen with female upperclassmen, aimed to give younger students a role model to help them navigate the many different pressures of high school. 


Throughout high school, Chapin had her older sister, who was two grades above her, to guide her through high school where she described feeling socially dominated by men. Chapin noticed that other women at Poly didn’t have that role model, so she created the Big Sister Little Sister program to help guide female students through gender stereotyping, feeling comfortable in classes, social pressures, and power dynamics. “We also wanted to make these pairs for the older students to get a chance to pass on their wisdom, and to create a feeling of sisterhood and community at Poly in general,” she said.


The Big Sister Little Sister Program’s inaugural meeting, held on February 5th, 2019, was a bagel brunch held in Commons where attendees met their pairs. “The brunch was super fun. We got to know one another, and enjoyed some great breakfast,” said Chapin. The photos depict female-identifying students filling Common’s benches with smiles on their faces.


Olivia Hurley ’20, former co-leader of WA with Chapin, recalled a Women’s History Month forum she helped run in March 2019. In a Polygon article titled “Olivia Hurley: Artist and Activist” Hurley described leading the freshman forum as “an engaging conversation about women in Poly.” Hurley posed statements for the group to respond to; the article said, “The boys in the group expressed that they felt discriminated against by the activity and argued that because the students are girls, they can get away with certain activities the boys would not.” 


In a separate interview, Hurley said she was “so shocked at the internalized misogynistic responses [she] heard from [the] underclassmen” and the continuous “decentering from the conversation.” This discourse between both female and male students, according to Chapin, showed an overall miseducation on sexism. 


Janet Jakobsen, who served for 15 years as Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women and current Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies professor at Barnard, explained the psychology behind this idea of misogyny. “Because of unconscious bias, which is the way in which our social relations inform how we react without thinking about it, people don’t necessarily see themselves as being sexist, and yet they are. This is true across the board, both men and women,” Jakobsen said. 


Hurley noted that the forum was a “big turning point” toward the evolution of WA. The forum was followed by another “women-only” conversation, where Hurley “was inspired to create a women’s affinity group,” noted in the article. “Every other school has a women’s affinity group, so why don’t we? In Poly, since women did come second to men, we’re still easing our way into the school. We’re definitely here, but there’s still something to do about it.” 


Jakobsen also noted that although a WA space can be beneficial to most, “it needs to be recognized that they don’t work for everybody in the same way. Some people feel put in a box [which is] not helpful, or sometimes the [affinity] spaces are created in ways that do tend to put people in boxes. Sometimes they reinforce stereotypes rather than undoing them.”


The group expanded within the next year (2019-2020), however WA and their progress was cut short when COVID hit in 2020.


2020-2021: Comfort and Support


Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, WA continued under the leadership of seniors Talia Beiler ’21, Tessa Marker ’21, and Liz Bensianov ’21. However, since affinity spaces were held virtually for most of the year, the group was “a bit more casual,” said Dillon. “We would play games, have lighter chats, [and] talk about current events,” she continued. The space served as a comforting space to foster conversations. According to Marker, “the main goal of the affinity space was to provide a community where [women] could feel more comfortable and also learn that they aren’t the only ones who might be having issues.” 


Beiler said in a text, “In the first half of high school, Women’s Affinity helped me find the language to discuss and feel comfortable speaking up about issues I had individually faced but didn’t know how to articulate. Hopefully, as a leader, I was able to cultivate an environment in which the same could be said by younger girls in the group.”


WA talked about “a wide range of topics from politics to Poly issues,” but the group’s focus that year was “the lack of pads/tampons available in the bathrooms at the time and [we] worked with Nurse [Zuercher] to try and fix that issue in the spring,” wrote Marker in an email.


Beiler said that the affinity space “was definitely effective in accomplishing goals related to bolstering young women’s confidence in speaking up and addressing women-related issues,” however, if she could change one thing, she wishes it were “a bit more actionable.” She continued, “I would say for most clubs at Poly that’s one thing I noticed [was that] there was a lot of discussion and spreading of awareness of social issues which was important […] but not necessarily enough concrete steps provided to make a greater collective difference.”


In response to Beiler’s comment of making Poly a more “actionable” environment, current Co-faculty Advisor Jenna Peet explained that it is hard to change the culture in a community when its members are used to the way things are. “[It’s] not impossible, but it takes a lot of effort and courage from people,” she said.


“It’s hard to call someone out when they say or do something offensive, [or] break out of the thought or behavior patterns we’ve internalized from systems of oppression, like the patriarchy. But, we need to lean into those discomforts to make change happen,” said Peet.


Peet continued, “Talia and her predecessors usually chose some timely theme or issue that they wanted to explore in a given meeting, and we had a more discussion-based format — which worked really well while we were all dealing with COVID and needed a sense of community.”


2021-2022: What Next?


In the 2021-2022 school year, WA racked up about 100 members at their first meeting alone. After such an unexpected turnout, faculty advisors moved the group to the Richard Perry Theater because their assigned “classroom was overflowing with students,” explained Peet. Filling up one-third of the space in the lower section, hand upon hand went up during the group discussion. 


Faculty advisors Peet and Dillon expressed that their surprise at the attendance quickly turned into dismay as they heard the struggles that so many young women faced: feeling like they were not being heard or treated well by their peers. 


According to a Polygon article titled, “Discussion on Gender Unfolds at Poly,” the WA’s first meeting of the year “sparked a series of informative discussions regarding experiences of sexual harassment and assault faced by women at Poly Prep.” For Peet, it was also heartwarming that women were able “to come to the affinity as a way to find that solidarity.”


There was no form of leadership in these opening meetings after the previous year’s senior leaders graduated. WA was a much smaller group before “[WA] introduced working groups in October 2021 because we saw such a huge surge in membership that fall,” said Peet. There weren’t any younger members of WA, so “we kind of put the group out there without knowing the response or if the group would even continue,” Peet said. 


Conversations in affinity groups have helped a wider conversation on gender to transpire at Poly. In fact, these talks prompted the creation of an Instagram account titled @womxnatpolyprep. In November, many students used the platform to express how they felt about the safety concerns and judgment of being a woman at Poly. One post read, “I feel constantly self conscious of my body at Poly Prep. The boys have insane standards for female beauty and judge everyone accordingly.”


But as the school year progressed, attendance dwindled. Sophie Taylor, who stepped up to be one of the leaders, prefaced, though, that it is “easier to have ten people who actually want to [make a difference] than fifty people who are there just because they’re being forced to.” Sometimes the number of attendees would increase if there was a major event or troubling issue in the community that needed to be addressed in a safe space. 


According to Taylor, the goals of WA have not changed over time. “[Our] goals [have] stayed the same of just supporting one another,” she said. Schoenberger added, “I think we live in an environment where women don’t feel uplifted.” To address this issue, the two founded specific working groups alongside others to take smaller actions in the community by educating and supporting women.


Schoenberger described WA’s work as an “upward curve by the end of [last] year” based on how many projects that were being set in place. This series of events played out into this year’s meetings and thus created more prominent initiatives.


2022-2023: Today


WA is continuing these working groups from the previous year, helping transition the affinity space into smaller groups with specific goals. These groups include an Eating Disorder and Mental Health initiative run by Taylor and Sophomore Reese Roaman, a Small Discussion Group run by Juniors Alba Niccolai and Elena Piquet, a Sexual Health and Harassment Reporting initiative run by Seniors June Dorsch and Sasha Lifton Lewis, a Whole School Programming group run by Schoenberger, and the reinstallment of the Big Sister Little Sister mentorship run by seniors Maeve Igoe and Tasha Ellis.


The different groups focus on different topics, but “they all revolve around solving or mediating issues at Poly and offering a place for support where people know that they’re not alone in their struggles,” said Taylor.


Junior Eleanor Brown, a member of WA, said “I like how Women’s Affinity has made their intentions clear. They’ve organized groups focusing on different issues. While it’s a place to express feelings and ideas. They also want to take action which feels really reassuring.”


In the Eating Disorder and Mental Health group, Taylor and Roaman’s Focus is “educating others, whether it’s students, faculty, or parents, on making sure people have support systems ready in the event that anything traumatic or troubling happens,” explained Taylor, “as well as overall destigmatizing mental illness and eliminating myths and misconceptions.”


Dorsch and Lewis are aiming to make the reporting process more understandable to the general Poly community and easier for the people reporting sexual harassment and/or assault. “We hope this year we can provide students reporting incidents a support system of student volunteers who can help them with the emotional trauma they are facing…we also want to publicize ways students can report and how the process works,” they said in a joint email statement.


The biggest issue leaders face since their first meeting is not hearing opinions from everyone. For example, when there are at least 70 kids in a room, leaders are not going to be able to hear from everyone and not everyone is going to want to say something. “Not only does that make it harder for us to gauge the full opinion, but it also is complicated for people to want to raise their hands when they feel like they’re talking to a group that maybe they don’t know everyone there,” said Taylor.


Future Goals


As WA continues to progress and develop, their goals do too. “I think the initial goals were mostly just to give students a space to connect, to talk, to face issues and questions together. I feel like that’s still the primary goal, but I think the group also is focusing a lot on how female-identifying students can feel empowered both in and beyond the school environment,” said Dillon. 


Faculty advisors help support students to talk to other faculty and administrators on how they believe issues are being poorly addressed, solicit ideas on how to make small changes towards the community, and give feedback for the future. “It has been really empowering and I’m excited to keep that going,” said Peet.


The affinity group hosted an assembly for Women’s History Month in March that spread awareness on how coeducation at Poly came to be, women’s history trivia with candy prizes, and presented a video from Vice President Kamala Harris, the United States’ first female Vice President. 


For the future, Taylor said, “Our overall objective always remains to create a safe space for women and non-binary individuals to discuss their struggles and hopes for the community…We hope to make progress through our working groups which each have their own projects to better the community.”