• February 28, 2024

I’ve Been To Over 20 Homeschool Conferences. The Things I’ve Witnessed At Them Shocked Me.

I am the creator of a girl empowerment business. We created curriculum kits that use the stories of notable women in history to teach girls about their worth and potential. I am the writer and researcher, and B, my business partner (and one of my favorite guy feminists), is the creative and marketing guru.

We work well together. When there is a disagreement, we listen, find common ground and solve problems together. Sometimes finding a solution feels impossible. Sometimes the solution turns out perfect.

Before the pandemic, we partnered with schools to deliver our curriculum. When the shutdown occurred, we lost those partnerships, but we found the homeschool crowd. This community accepted us wholeheartedly.

For the past three years, we’ve traveled to more than 20 homeschool conferences. Our company has a lot of supportive and excited customers. We even get return customers whom we love reconnecting with at these events.

However, there is a faction that prickles at our presence. B and I try to brush it off, but even the smallest splinter, when not addressed, can cause an infection.

A mom enters our booth in the exhibitor hall in Missouri. “OK, my daughter loves Harriet Tubman. Tell me what you got!” she says.

I explain our product, how we use historical women to teach girls about their worth and potential. The mother says: “But is it woke? I mean, I don’t want to teach my daughter about woke.”

I look around at our curriculum kits. They are all women who fought for equality. I think to myself, Hell yes, it’s woke. The irony is lost on this potential customer.

I pause and take a different approach.

In my head, I hear Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride”: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I understand what she thinks she is asking. She doesn’t want anything liberal, progressive, or written by “snowflakes.” But does she know that “woke” is not a bad thing?

“What do you mean, ‘woke’?” I ask.

She opens her mouth. Half-words and phrases stumble and tumble around. A few talking points from news sources fall out. Finally, she sighs. “I don’t know. Just tell me again what you write.”

In Ohio, a mom breezes into our booth.

“Oh my goodness, I love this. I am going to have to buy this for my girl!” she tells me. “I do have one question, though ― do you teach feminism? I mean, I believe in equality, but I am not a feminist, and I don’t want to teach it to my daughter.”

I take the approach I used in Missouri.

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“Well, do you teach that women are better than men?”

“No, I teach all genders are equal and should be treated as such.”

She buys three kits.

I am in Texas, my home state. A mom wanders in, picks up a journal, and reads about Kate Warne, the first woman detective.

“Where do you do your research?” she asks. I give her several sites. “That’s good, that’s good,” she says.

“Now then,” she begins again, “what is your slant?”

“Slant?” I ask.

“Which way do you lean?”

“Just historical facts,” I tell her.

“OK. But listen, I need you to do something for me.”

She reaches out and takes my hand. Apparently we are best friends now.

“Write about Biblical characters,” she says. “We need that. Especially the men.”

I tilt my head to the side.

“Well, we focus on actual women from history,” I say.

Wrong answer.

“Well, I will have to think about this.”

She drops my hand. The friendship is over.

"Our company banner draws most customers into our booth," the author writes. "Unfortunately, it also gets the most sarcastic remarks."
“Our company banner draws most customers into our booth,” the author writes. “Unfortunately, it also gets the most sarcastic remarks.”

Courtesy of Heather Stark

I am sitting in my booth in South Carolina. It’s been a long morning. Suddenly I feel a presence. I turn around, and slowly, into my sights, the face of an older man scrolls down. Chin, nose, glasses.

“You gonna do more?” he asks.

I hold off a grimace caused by his coffee breath.

He glances up at an illustration that highlights our historical women. I stand up and take two steps back, putting the chair between us.

“Yes, we hope to add two more women. In the fall, we will add the first Asian American woman accepted into the Army. Then we are working on a Latina in 2024.”

“Well, hopefully not Frida Kahlo,” he says.

“You never know,” I reply.

“No, she’s no good, a communist,” he tells me.

“She did a lot of good.”

“Not all women are good,” he explains.

“Not all men are good,” I respond.

He walks away and I exhale. I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath.

I’m still in South Carolina. A couple comes to the booth. They were here yesterday, and I talked to the wife. Yesterday, her husband stayed silent. Today he sees B and gets excited.

“Here’s a guy,” he says. “He is ready to answer all of my questions.”

I side-eye B while welcoming the couple back. I talk to the wife, and they wander over to look at our product.

A few minutes later, the husband walks over to B.

“My wife doesn’t know the story of Rosie the Riveter,” he says. “I’m gonna tell her, but I need you to fact-check me.”

B glances my way.

“Actually, Heather is the one who wrote the biographies.”

“Yeah, I know, but check me,” he tells B.

No one else is in the booth, so the husband stands in the middle. Center stage. He spreads his legs wide, slightly bending his knees, and his wife preps for the show.

“OK, he and I…” he begins. With both arms, he dramatically gestures to B and himself, a platoon of two. “We are off fighting the war. You and her —” he indicates us girls — “stay home and support us by making airplanes. We —” another swing of the arms to indicate the platoon — “use the airplanes to win the war and come home.”

He looks triumphantly at B. “Is that right?”

I am baffled by this 10-second World War II reenactment. An awkward giggle escapes me. B looks at me and I shrug my shoulders. B’s on his own with this guy.

He clears his throat and says, “Well, there’s more to it than that, but yeah, I guess.”

The couple buy the curriculum and tell us they are opening a co-op school.

Back in Texas, a woman walks by. She stares at the booth and looks at me. There are tears in her eyes.

“This is amazing. Please give me one of everything,” she tells me.

She does indeed buy one of everything. She thanks me for the diversity and representation. She whispers: “You don’t see this type of curriculum at homeschool conferences. Instead, you see those types of things.”

B and I look at where she is pointing. At the next booth, a company is selling books with rhyming Bible stories. Their banner sports a cartoon version of white Jesus with six-pack abs, biceps for days, and nail holes in his hands. Around him are brown-skinned people with large, crooked noses.

We are stunned into silence. Later, B and I wonder what rhymes with Jerusalem.

Another city in Texas. A woman and her older mother walk into the booth. They pick up products and make comments, but neither acknowledges me.

One picks up a journal that tells the story of Sarah Grimké. On the cover, it says “Follow Your Heart.”

The younger woman turns to her mother and says, rather loudly: “You know what (insert daughter’s name) said to me the other day?”

“What?” her mother asks.

“She said in Sunday school she learned you can’t listen to your heart, only to the Lord, because your heart lies to you.”

The younger woman finally looks at me and says: “Even my daughter gets it. She is only 9.”

She puts the journal back, and they leave. I don’t tell her a girl’s heart is the only thing that speaks truth.

The author discussing the stories of historical women with an intrigued customer at a homeschool conference in Texas.
The author discussing the stories of historical women with an intrigued customer at a homeschool conference in Texas.

Courtesy of Heather Stark

We’re in Florida. I walk down an aisle and notice a red glare, a tinge that no other aisle has. It takes me a moment, and then it hits me: This whole aisle is political organizations. None of it has to do with education — just politics — and every booth has some red in it.

I pass some signs that read “Ron DeSantis World.” B says it looks like they’re mimicking the Disney font. Several booths are conducting podcast interviews. I look up the podcasts on my phone and see that each one spreads conspiracy theories.

I pass another booth where a man and a woman are talking about gun rights… at a homeschool conference. Then I pass a Moms for Liberty booth. My stomach drops.

We’re in Missouri again. We are selling a lot of product — in fact, we had our first mother and son make a purchase so he could learn about Sacagawea. It made me happy.

A voice comes on the intercom: “All boys are welcomed to the _____ booth for a push-up contest.”

Boys of all ages go to the booth and form a circle. Their heads are in the middle, feet on the outside. The contest starts. There is a lot of yelling and grunting. Girls stand around the circle watching. I wonder what they are thinking as they watch the boys. There isn’t a contest for girls.

I’m in California. It’s our last conference for the season. I threw up again from the anxiety of anticipating more offhand remarks and rude questions. This morning I am presenting to a full room. I am discussing ways to build confidence in girls. I am 20 minutes into the presentation when a woman interrupts me.

“When are you going to talk about God in all of this?” she asks.

Her rudeness throws me off. I take a breath and smile.

“God is wherever you want God to be. I can’t tell you that,” I reply.

Two other women get up and leave.

Later, one lady comes back to apologize. She admits that walking out of my presentation wasn’t very Christian-like. Sometimes I forget I am around Christians — “Do unto others” doesn’t get universally applied at these conferences.

That evening, I finally tell B that I am throwing up before the conferences. He asks if we need to stop going. I want to say yes, but I don’t.

Although throwing up is new, this conversation isn’t. One thing about B — he will follow my lead. He gets the double standard without me needing to verbalize it. Deep down, neither of us is ready to be forced out. So once more, over drinks, we hammer out reasons why we want to be in places that cause strife.

“We make a lot of money at these events,” I say. It feels dirty coming out of my mouth. B nods and orders another round.

“Your thing is changing the conversation,” he says. “Changing the conversation on beauty culture. Changing the conversation on how we raise empowered girls. How about we change the conversation about feminism at these events?”

He gets that look in his eye, the one that signifies he has a wildly genius thought.

“What if we actually start talking about feminism instead of avoiding the conversation? Maybe the workshops you give could be why feminism is good. You could be the woman that blatantly teaches about feminism… at a conservative homeschool convention. It’s brilliant!”

I laugh out loud, partly intrigued, partly because I think he is insane.

“We will get canceled,” I tell him.

“For all the right reasons,” he replies.

The bartender brings over two dirty martinis.

Heather Stark is a business owner, podcast host, public speaker and feminist writer. Grace & Grit, her girl empowerment company, helps girls discover their worth and potential through the stories of historical women. She is the author of “Her Story: A Hilarious & Heartfelt Conversation About Why Beauty Milestones Should Be Options, Not Expectations.” She lives on Padre Island, Texas, with her family.

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