The numbers are shocking. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, one in six women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime — about 17.7 million women. With this in mind, Elisse Johnson, a 16-year-old junior at The Meadows School, formed the Women Empowerment Club.
In a recent interview at a Starbucks near the Summerlin school, Johnson talked about her inspirations and goals for the club over ice water as euphonious jazz music played in the background.
“I’m kind of nervous,” she said quietly as she sat back in the corner of the coffee shop. However, Johnson appeared confident as she began to share how the club is grappling with the societal issues women face today.
Growing up, Johnson noticed differences between men and women in social and professional situations. She believes learning about these differences and encouraging young women will allow them to succeed.
“I want to show young women that it’s possible to be in Congress,” she said. “It’s possible to be a successful businesswoman despite the image we usually see of an older male in these types of jobs.”
Johnson started her club out of concern for some of her female peers. Johnson noticed a lack of respect some boys have toward girls.
Johnson says girls struggle with body image, and this “perfect” body image is promoted through the media. She feels disturbed when other girls are ostracized for their looks.
“When looking at magazines and things that are on the Internet, young girls are continually faced with this image of a particularly thin model who is beautiful and that’s the only way we see women portrayed,” Johnson said. “Magazines don’t feature women who are particularly known for their intelligence.”
Also, Johnson said that indifference toward women is a major problem. On a daily basis, she said people are indifferent about the harmful jokes they make toward women, whether in the media or in professional settings.
“Indifference to the media’s portrayal of women and the discrepancies between men and women all lead to a continuation of the problem,” Johnson said.
Johnson plans to educate her peers by featuring documentaries, speakers and presentations of gender roles in society during school assemblies. One documentary she plans to feature is Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s “Miss Representation,” which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Also, Johnson plans to educate her peers on how to protect themselves against physical abuse.
“One in three women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes,” she said. “It goes back to the notion that men believe that women are mainly for their sexual disposal. I think one thing we can do to counteract that is to have self-defense classes.”
Johnson has some martial arts experience, which gives her confidence in potentially dangerous situations.
“I’m not scared of anyone who is larger than me,” she said.
Johnson also plans to set up volunteer services at Safe Nest, a nonprofit agency founded in 1977 that provides confidential assistance to individuals experiencing domestic violence.
Although women have constitutional rights, Johnson believes women’s empowerment goes beyond the legal — it’s political, cultural and social.
“Even in modern societies other than the U.S., there’s a huge difference between male and female roles,” she said. “Women in the U.S. have more opportunities, and they must take the opportunity as a responsibility to extend values of equality to other nations.”
Johnson said feminism is a unifying entity; it allows women to come together and stand up for their values.
As Johnson’s teacher and club adviser, Colleen Slater praised Johnson’s progressive and dominant role in both the club and the classroom.
“Elisse is an excellent student,” Slater said, who is a European history teacher at The Meadows School. “She works very diligently and her work is always very top-notch. She’s always an active participant in class. She brings her whole self into everything that she does.”
Slater hopes the club will bring awareness to the community about issues that young women face every day.
The Women Empowerment Club, though, is not limited to females. Freshman Louis Sandoval, one of the club’s few male members, wants to learn from the 23-member club and make a difference in society.
“I’ve grown up with a lot of women in my life, and I’ve been influenced in a lot of different ways,” he said. “There is a lot of unfairness in the world, and I’d like to alleviate all of the negative connotations about the term ‘feminism.’ ”
Johnson plans to major in gender studies in college, although she’s undecided about schools. Johnson says education about women is essential before entering any career.
“People think that feminism is about ‘man-haters’ or extremists and that is definitely not the case,” she said. “I wish people would educate themselves about what feminism is.”