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What Happened When We Started a Feminism Club at Our Catholic Boys School

Photo: Graham Oliver/Getty Images

In October 2017, Matias Benitez asked his friend Matt Chen if he’d be up for starting a feminism club together at Regis, the prestigious Jesuit boys school on the Upper East Side where they were both sophomores. The two boys were concerned with sexist comments they overheard in the hallways, and felt that their conversations about women in the classroom (when they had them at all) were superficial. On February 27, 2018, the boys launched HeForShe, named after Emma Watson’s feminism campaign. The club continues to host about a dozen boys every week, where they talk about gendered treatment of teachers, safety at school dances and host occasional joint meetings with Marymount, a nearby girls school. On the occasion of the club’s anniversary, the Cut caught up with the boys — now both juniors; Matias, 17, and Matt, 16 — about the progress they’ve made, the school’s reaction, and how they want Regis to change.

Matt Chen: Before I’d come to Regis, I was not friends with any boys. I’d just been friends with girls, solely, for like 15 years of my life. Even sleepovers I had with girls. So when I came to Regis it was like, what’s going on? Why are you talking about girls in this way? Someone said one of the female teachers looked “frumpy.” Where did that come from? What’s the point of that? I felt like a duty to my friends, almost. Like all of my girl friends. They all have a dignity that for some reason sometimes boys don’t see. I feel like it’s necessary for me to say something, like, no. What you’re saying about them is wrong.

Matias Benitez: There’s an ego that comes with being in Regis. There’s this whole idea of “Oh, we’re smart.” I’ve known so many different people in my life. And then I come to Regis and I realize that there’s people who have only male siblings and have also gone K through 8 in all-boys school.

MC: The curriculum is not built to educate us about feminism in the past or in the present. Maybe one of the books we read in freshman year was by a woman. [James Kennedy, a longtime English teacher at Regis who is now a school spokesperson, could not confirm the boys’ freshman readings.]

MB: The first time I heard the term “feminist” was when my sister was thinking “Oh, what is feminism?” and I was part of that discussion. She went to Stuyvesant and they have a feminism club. We joked, like, “wouldn’t it be crazy if Regis had a feminism club?” So I texted Matt, because I knew he was a feminist, too. He had gone to the Women’s March.

MC: We founded our group as #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein happened, then there was Dr. Ford’s testimony at the Kavanaugh hearings, and the Covington Catholic school boys happened.

MB: When we proposed the club, the administration was like “Isn’t Spectrum covering this already?” That’s the LGBT club. And we were like, um, not really because this is different.

We’ve had meetings where people will be, like, why should I care? We can’t change much, so why care? Like this society is set the way it is. They’ll kind of give up. We try for the opposite of giving up. We met with a group at another school, at Marymount, called Black Girls Rock. They talked about this intersection of being black and a female. Being in a minority — I’m a Filipino-Australian immigrant, and Matt is Chinese-American — kind of teaches you the ideas of privilege. And it makes you watch for the ways it happens in other ways. Like when my sister talks to her friends, she’s always like “Get home safe,” which is like something I’ve never experienced.

MC: The Covington thing I didn’t follow that closely. But I remember feeling with the Kavanaugh hearings that it really had a lot of relevance to us as another Jesuit institution.

MB: We had a whole meeting about Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford.

MC: One day a student from Regis could be a Supreme Court nominee. I was relieved that our school is much different from that fratty, partying environment described in Kavanaugh’s hearings. Although something that we’ve talked a lot about is the dances that go on, the Regis dance for freshmen and sophomores [which all students are invited to attend]. It’s a few times a year. It’s such a weird environment because it’s just this one mass of people in the auditorium, in the complete dark. You can’t really hear anything. It’s not a good situation.

MB: There are parts of the auditorium where people would go. Like, small alcoves to hook up. Teachers bust students for drinking, but they don’t really think about grinding or hooking up. They don’t talk about consent before the dance. There’s an assembly about consent, but it’s not until junior year, when school is half-over. That makes no sense. At the dances, we’ve heard that people have been, like, touched inappropriately. One of the first things we met about in the club was turning the lights on at the dances. Like, awareness. They turned the lights on the next dance. [Kennedy, the Regis spokesperson, told the Cut that they have not received reports of students being touched inappropriately. He added that intoxicated students have been turned away at the door to dances and that “the lights have always been on; we decided to turn more of the lights on and that was based on student feedback.” He also said that “healthy relationships” are a part of freshman and sophomore guidance, as well as a sexuality course required for sophomores, but could not confirm that consent was taught in those moments.]

MC: That was a big victory.

MB: Regis is questioning its whole curriculum. For the first time since it was founded in 1914, it’s mapping its future; it’s called the Strategic Plan. And we were discussing, in HeForShe, whether it should even be a boys school anymore. Stuyvesant only became co-ed because of a big lawsuit a long time ago by a 13-year-old girl. That can’t be the only way this happens.

MC: We have John Francis Regis Day every year. It’s about a special topic. Last year was poverty. This year it will be about women. I honestly do think that we influenced it a little. We had our first joint meeting with Marymount’s feminism club, Women in Our World, and it was really enlightening. There was a lot we didn’t know about, like how men on the subway will touch girls.

MB: Or catcall them.

MC: Connecting through feminism made it so I’ve definitely been able to see what a platonic relationship with another boy can be like. And how it can be different from, and sometimes better than, ones with a girls.

MB: One thing I’ve learned is really how to stand up for myself and what I believe in. I didn’t really say what my political views were before. I didn’t want to upset anyone. But now I say them more. I don’t really have many deep discussions with my friends. In high school, all you really talk about is school or something funny that happened. But you don’t really have very deep discussions.

MC: We were discussing Othello in English class, a monologue Emelia gave and how the patriarchy affects her views. And then today somebody was asking me to read their thesis statement for the paper that we’re writing; he’s doing an analysis on that same monologue and he was like “Does this make sense? Can I say this about toxic masculinity?” That never used to happen before.

MB: During Regis’ Open Houses, the clubs normally set up tables to show visitors what they do. So I set up a small stand for HeForShe, and not many people came up to speak to me. The only people who came up to me were the mothers, who were probably confused to see a feminist club in Regis. And there was one mom who was telling me that she went to Catholic school and was weighing either choosing a secular high school or a Catholic high school for her son. I think there is an idea that Catholic schools are a little antiquated and out of touch, but we’ve been able to question and discuss a lot of societal problems in the club. Isn’t that the point of education?

Why We Started a Feminism Club at Our Catholic Boys School