Parent to Parent: Raising Children with Disabilities as They Come of Age
Why New England Trees Shine So Brightly in the Fall

Beyond Gloria Steinem: A Rich Feminist History for International Day of the Girl

By Lyn Mikel Brown

Malala Yousafzai at Women of the World Festival, 2014
Malala Yousafzai at Women of the World Festival, 2014. Photo credit: Southbank Centre

 In 2011, the United Nations declared October 11 as International Day of the Girl, a youth-led movement for gender justice and youth activism. Activist groups come together today to highlight, discuss, and take action to advocate for rights and opportunities for girls around the globe. To celebrate the occasion, we’re sharing an excerpt from Lyn Mikel Brown’s Powered By Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists. In Powered By Girl, education professor and activist Brown explores how girls have embraced activism and provides a guide for adults who want to support their organizing. The following excerpt argues how important it is for youth activists to get in touch with the history of feminist activism. While feminist activist history isn’t widely covered in the classroom, the young girls Brown profiles are finding ways to make up for this oversight in their education.


“The quickest way to silence a mouth is to treat it as if none have come before,” say Dominique Christina and Denice Frohman, the spoken word duo known as Sister Outsider Poetry, in their powerful piece “No Child Left Behind.” This is because history, what comes before, connects us to ourselves, positions us in time and place, broadens and deepens and contextualizes the issues we share and struggle with in this present moment. Girls with a history of activism to draw from have a clarity, an understanding, a more intricate language to explain what they experience. The issues in their lives become part of a larger whole and they are not left floating about, unmoored, wondering if what matters to them has ever mattered to anyone else. Wondering if any girl like them has ever made a difference.

Learning about activists who came before, especially girl activists, is an energizing and motivating force. Girls in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the labor movement, offer connections and a sense of responsibility and urgency to continue the work. “I know that is why we are here, based on what happened before,” says fifteen-year-old Julia, thinking back to the women’s movement she’s learning about as part of SPARK. “I don’t want it to stop. There’s still so much that needs to happen.”

I wish I had learned about it a little more, because in school you talk about, like, women’s suffrage, but you don’t really talk about anything in between. I heard about famous feminists who came before me and I know, you know, that was really important and we are continuing that in different ways through the Internet and taking different approaches to it. But I wish there could be more, like, history lessons I guess, about feminists who came before us and what they did. I definitely think knowing what they did continues their goals and their dreams into the future and onto the next generation and through different mediums like social media and stuff like that. So we are bringing it to a different level I guess, and that definitely inspires me to keep doing all the activism that we do with SPARK and Hardy Girls. I want to continue that movement.

Girls are more likely to learn these history lessons from episodes of Comedy Central’s Drunk History than they are in school. On that silly “liquored-up narration of our nation’s history” they’ll learn more about Mary Dyer, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Sybil Ludington, Edith Wilson, and Claudette Colvin than they ever will in their sober classrooms. Neither will they learn about the history of issues that affect their daily lives, from racial profiling to sexual harassment to reproductive rights to pay inequities. It’s a rare teacher who connects #BlackLivesMatter to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s role in the civil rights movement, and rarer still for a teacher to connect #SayHerName to the experiences of young women in the SNCC. The girls say they feel disenfranchised because they have so little history and so few models to learn from, so few opportunities to contextualize and connect with what’s right in front of them.

As philosopher Peggy McIntosh, historian Howard Zinn, and others remind us, the history taught in school is told from the perspective of those in power, and for the most part this version has “left out the female half of humankind, and excluded the knowledge of most people of color worldwide about their own cultures and their versions of history.” It also deemphasizes how women, working people, and people of color have worked together within organized social movements to shape history. If social change “is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions,” as the Zinn Education Project website proclaims, then our “own choices and actions matter.”

In the absence of full public stories about what girls and young women have accomplished in the face of violence, oppression, and discrimination, the activism they engage in—pushing back on school dress codes, culture-jamming sexist and racist media, advocating for gender-neutral bathrooms—is misunderstood, maligned, and joked about, even by their friends. In school they experience others’ disdain for the feminist lens that has been so eye-opening and important to them. As a result, Julia says, she and the other SPARKteam girls spend a lot of time “dispelling myths of feminism.” “They don’t understand it,” agrees Samantha, an eighteen-year-old Latina known to her friends as Sam. “‘Are you a lesbian?’ ‘Do you wear bras?’ It’s something they don’t want to be labeled as.” It’s so important, says Yas Necati, sixteen years old and white, to “provide opportunities for girls to go out and learn about feminism. Because right now we are on our own.”

A large part of the problem is the absence of any but the most superficial education about feminism in history books. Yas, who edits the feminist online magazine Powered by Girl, and who advocates for comprehensive sexuality education in the UK, is frustrated with the little she’s been taught about feminism in school.

As a result, many of the girls do their own research, connect with others online, seek out the histories that provide significance to their experiences and concerns so they can, as sociologist Jessica Taft says, “feel connected to larger social struggles, giving them a sense of the importance of their contemporary work.” Such awareness emboldens them to speak their truths with full knowledge of who they stand with, where they fit in, and what they contribute, so they know whether they are adding a pebble to a growing pile or beginning a landslide of new ideas. “Knowing that others have come before them, and when others haven’t come before,” is important to Ileana Jiménez, a high school English teacher who has developed a well-respected course on feminism and activism at her progressive independent high school, because “they don’t always necessarily see that they are the pioneers.” Jiménez’s passion is in helping her students know their power as social-change agents by creating a wide range of opportunities for them to learn from experienced activists and to make connections between theory and practice.

In the absence of lessons learned in school, Joanne Smith, a Haitian American social worker who founded and directs the intergenerational grassroots organization Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a New York City–based nonprofit, takes her responsibility to educate the girls of color she works with about feminism, antiracist advocacy, and youth activism very seriously.

Our role in the work, Smith says, is to “lend our history . . . and help [girls] get a sense of what they are becoming a part of,” both in the widest sense and also within the local GGE programs she directs. “It’s important to have that understanding that there’s a legacy of young people who have done really great work here, and you’re a part of that legacy by being in Sisters in Strength,” she maintains. “These young people have done the work with integrity, and we know that they will carry it on.” Amber, sixteen and a member of Sisters in Strength, GGE’s two-year program for youth organizers, appreciates what it means to be part of this history, to engage with work that’s “based on what was happening before we came, and something that will go on throughout the years.”

Feminist organizer Shelby Knox, known for her work advocating for comprehensive sex education in her Lubbock, Texas, high school, conducted one of the first feminist-history workshops SPARK offered the team of girls. Knox, passionate about girls’ and women’s history, had just developed the Radical Women’s History Project, because, she says,

I’ve always loved history and as I got older and more feminist, I found myself asking more and more often, “Where are the women?” I felt like I was missing a part of myself by not knowing how the women before me lived and worked and fought for social change. As I started to do more research to fill this hole, I realized that the women’s history we do honor is often that of white, Western, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women, which is the same story of privileging only privileged experiences that has propped up patriarchy for centuries. The goal [of the Radical Women’s History Project] is simple: rewrite ALL women back into history so we can collectively and individually know what is possible for ourselves. 

Knox’s workshop widened the girls’ field of vision, opening them up to all the ways their histories are missing, inviting richer conversations about difference and deeper conversations about the importance and power of visibility and resistance.

Not surprisingly, the girls came out of the workshop enlightened and energized. Building on Women’s History Month, they developed an action they called Women’s History Year. Melissa Campbell, programming coordinator for SPARK and a former member of the SPARKteam herself, explains: “We asked girls to ask people in their lives—to interview their friends and family, or if they’re feeling particularly bold, interview a stranger—about the women who really inspire them, both historical women and women who they know personally. And the results have been really amazing. I read about a lot of women I had no idea about. That is super cool.”

From that point on, feminist activist history became a part of the SPARKteam’s training, inspiring a range of actions designed to uncover the powerful work of women too often overlooked. Led by one of the SPARKteam members, eighteen-year-old Joneka, the girls developed Black Women Create, highlighting women in the film and television industries “who are telling their own stories and who are creating complex and diverse Black female characters that are relatable and accurate.”

When the girls heard about Field Trip, Google’s location-based app designed to alert travelers when they are near historical landmarks, they created Women on the Map, which points out the often-forgotten sites of women’s contributions to history. Together the girls and adult staff mapped and wrote profiles of over a hundred women, connecting their stories to locations in dozens of cities and twenty-eight countries around the world.

The SPARK training and the ensuing actions were personally transformative for the girls. Seeing the connections between her experiences of activism and a rich feminist past “was just such an awakening,” team member Izzy says, and offered “a huge education network” she had no idea existed. Izzy, who is Jewish, was just fourteen and in eighth grade when she joined SPARK and “didn’t know much about women’s issues at all.”

I remember going to my first SPARK retreat and just sitting down in the workshops and hearing all the speakers talking about, you know, women’s issues and history and stuff and being like “Oh my God!” It was such an awakening because, like, I didn’t know. I mean, I knew who Gloria Steinem was, and I knew who some of the people that they were talking about were and some of the issues but I wasn’t even seeing it in that kind of light.

After years of formal schooling, years of worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests, learning relationally and interactively with other girls and women about something so real and personal was enlightening. When Edell organized a feminist workshop styled after the TV quiz show Jeopardy, Izzy was all in.

Her initial ignorance of women’s history felt like an invitation to Izzy, not a judgment. Izzy talks about being “inspired” by and connected to feminists and girl activists who came before, like Samantha Smith, whose 1982 letter to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov had such a profound impact on the Cold War.

She was, I think, eleven when she wrote the letter. It was almost like we were kind of following in her footsteps with girl-led activism in Maine. And Malala Yousafzai, I just look at her and think, “Wow. You are an inspiration.” I think about Shelby Knox and how when she got involved she was fifteen and that’s how old I am. And she got so much more hate then I did. She was trying to promote, you know, sex education in the most conservative town in Texas. She was publicly ridiculed by national talk show hosts and stuff. And when I think about that and that she’s still doing activism work and she’s still so young and she hasn’t been brought down. Just like all of these feminists in history who have had so much backlash and they’re still going. I think that is so inspirational.

As Izzy learns about girl activists, both past and present, as she identifies with some and is inspired by others, she begins to put in perspective the consequences of speaking up and making waves. In the end, Izzy says, “I think one of the most important lessons these women have taught me is just like it’s more important to do this work than it is to feel bad.”

Teaching history is important, but so is providing the collective support and training for girls to research and examine together the evolution of the issues they care about. On the SPARKteam’s blog there is information about the Black Women Create series, movies and books about brave girls and women, many of whose stories are little-known, profiles of grandmothers who marched with Betty Friedan, and inspiring histories of movements like the Guerrilla Girls and Riot Grrrls, which continue to influence girlled feminism.  These materials immerse girls in the complexity of the issues in front of them as they have developed over time.

Girls who bring all their power and integrity to this moment, shored up by others who once shared their passion to make the world a more just place, find great pleasure in bringing along the next generation.


About the Author 

Lyn Mikel Brown has been studying and working with girls for more than twenty-five years. A professor of education and human development at Colby College, she is the author of five previous books about gender and girlhood, and is the cofounder of three grassroots organizations. Follow her on Twitter at @LynMikel and visit her website.