Growing up, I was very awkward, very smart, and very un-feminist. If you had asked me at thirteen what I thought of feminism, I would have recited some hackneyed cultural stereotype about bra-burners and told you that gender equality was achieved when women won the right to vote—mostly because I had hardly learned anything about feminism in school. It wasn’t until I was seventeen and started following feminist bloggers that I began to understand that many of my deepest insecurities and feelings of inferiority were actually the byproducts of structural inequality and internalized sexism.
For me and many other girls who grew up in the early- to mid-2000s, there were no major feminist role models. We experienced our adolescence nestled between the Third and Fourth Waves. We were too young to be impacted by the Girl Power movement of the 90s, and the recent rise of feminism to a culturally explosive status was a little too late to save us from our teenage insecurities. Instead, we were taught to measure our humor, cool-ness, or successes against those of men, and we believed we were somehow lacking because no one told us the very constructs of humor, cool-ness, and success were biased against us.
Education professor and activist Lyn Mikel Brown’s Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists is essential reading for this lost generation of feminists. She explores what it means to dig deep into intergenerational activist work between women and girls. We are at the perfect age, just at the cusp of fully-fledged adulthood, to take in Brown’s message about the importance of activism through mentoring. We are young enough that we can still remember the indignation of being a teenage girl, but old enough that the younger girls in our lives could see us as role models. If we as a generation are going to continue our passion for activist causes, we should learn how to constructively work with youth when we take on a mentor role.
This is especially true for those of us who were not privileged to work with activist organizations as children. When I read about the young activists in Powered by Girl, I was envious of the changes they affected, the community they found, and the awareness they gained through activist work. Whether it was Julia Bluhm working to ask Seventeen magazine to agree to one non-photoshopped spread per month; Andrea Gonzales and Sophie House, who invented Tampon Run, a videogame designed to break taboos around menstruation; or Maya Penn, who helped launched an eco-fashion line, I couldn’t help but wonder what I might have achieved had I been motivated to do activist work. But, as Brown explains, the myth of the “exceptional girl” who achieves amazing goals by herself is perpetuated by the media, and the most successful activist work is almost never done by one “exceptional” girl, but by an “ordinary” girl backed by a team of adult activists who help her understand her sense of injustice and supply her with the means to take action, and no girl without this structural support should be held to creating meaningful activist work.
Powered by Girl does more than just teach women the best strategies for supporting youth activists; it also challenges us to look back at how adults both failed and empowered us throughout our girlhoods. When I think about adults who let me down, I remember middle school teachers who exalted me for being a “good” and “smart” girl without acknowledging how structural disadvantages might keep some of my peers from ever being seen as “good” or “smart,” and Brown’s arguments about how activism can help disadvantaged girls achieve are like a breath of fresh air. When I think about adult mentors who helped me grow, I remember the teachers I worked with in my school’s drama program who treated each show as a collaborative effort and valued their students’ ideas and leadership skills, and I understand how Brown’s examples of how to best be an advisor for youth activists must apply in real life.
Our generation is at a unique position where we are able to look back on our lived experiences as teenagers, remember them vividly, and use those memories to inform the choices we will make in the future. We have the responsibility to recognize that girls are the ultimate authority on their own experiences, and to resist undermining their voices simply because we are no longer in their place. We should remember to acknowledge that we are not always right, that we might not have the freshest ideas any more, and that our tendency to perpetuate adultism is growing. These skills will enable us to engage fully and cultivate meaningful relationships with youth who are, and will continue to be, the next generation of activists.
About the Author
Ashlyn Edwards was the publicity intern during summer 2016. She will graduate from Boston University’s College of Communication in January 2017.