My Catholic, Private High School Helped Form My Future Feminism

I think I am an outlier when I say that I loved high school. I really and sincerely did and not because they were my ‘glory days’ or anything like that. I loved it because, and not in spite of, going to an all-girls, private, Catholic high school. Going to my alma mater wasn’t necessarily a ‘dream’ of mine. It was a family obligation. My aunt went, my sister went, so I had to go, begrudgingly, and started as a freshman in a hand-me-down uniform.

Being a freshman (freshwoman?) in my new school was completely overwhelming. I was surrounded by massively intelligent, athletic, talented young women and everyone was just so sure of themselves. Now, this may have been some upperclass-women adoration, true. However, all of my fellow classmates were thriving and enjoying high school as much as one could, surrounded by misery. This brings me around to why exactly I blossomed into an unknowing feminist in my tender, formative high school adolescence. Our high school was hard. I’m talking 6-hours-of-sleep-a-night, crying-because-you-have-so-much-work-to-do, classes-that-aren’t-APs-only-because-the-teacher-doesn’t-want-to-follow-a-curriculum hard.

This sort of environment was a massive pressure cooker because, like I mentioned, my classmates all kicked some serious butt in their own unique ways. But without the stress of having to deal with boys or picking out what outfit to wear each morning, we had our schoolwork and our classes. We had only learning to focus on and our teachers made us devote ourselves to it. Participation wasn’t optional and you had better have done the reading the night before. This setting made me engage with my teachers and classmates and figure out how I could keep up. I got to marvel at some of the young women in my classes because I saw up close how their brains were working. We processed enormous amounts of information and needed to be prepared and ready. It sounds a bit cheesy, but knowledge became our power. We knew we were smart but having to apply that day in and day out in a seriously rigorous environment was empowering.

And so this being worked to the bone not only busted my ass more times than I’d care to admit, I learned what I was capable of. I didn’t have a lot of time or energy to spare because I had to be present and ready. Stripped away was the typical fanfare of homecoming dances and passing by your crush in the hall. Coming into this sort of environment and having to work that hard-filled me with this sense of assurance and confidence that hasn’t left me since. However, I couldn’t name it until a conversation a few years after I graduated.

I was talking with a family friend who had a daughter approaching the end of middle school and they were examining her high school options. He was candid with me about his worries about the high school’s demands and culture (private school = privileged, he was not wrong) and how his daughter would do. But once I started talking to him about my experience and the friends and memories and experiences I’d had, he was taken aback. I don’t think he expected my enthusiasm to be quite so pure and unrestrained. I eventually said aloud that being forced to work so hard and believe in your abilities that much gave me the confidence to do anything. This environment essentially fostered me into adulthood, in a way. I plainly said to him that my alma mater was raising their students to be feminists and they didn’t realize it. All these capable, driven, exceptional women I went to high school with knew what they could accomplish and thrived off that. We didn’t have a male yardstick to measure off of. My classmates and I simply got down to the business of knowing, doing, and excelling more. We weren’t going to be held back and already had the determination to go forth.

It didn’t click totally for me that I became a feminist in high school until after I’d left. And I know that it’s a sort of feminism that wasn’t totally informed and intersectional, I fully admit that. It wasn’t named and parsed out by my teachers and classmates. A sort of foundation was built, though, in the classrooms I learned and worked in. We were being academically challenged and worked beyond belief together but we knew we had to keep going.  Going to the high school I did, I gained an empowerment that I find to be rare in the world and I know without that, I would not be the capital F, Feminist that I am today.



Katharine Donohoe : lives and works in Virginia. She (sometimes) has very little chill but enjoys the simple things like GChat, Trader Joe’s frozen snacks, and listening to a healthy amount of podcasts.