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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
GIRLS SPEAK OUTTM

by Andrea Johnston

Note: Beginning this month, Andrea will be writing a monthly column for Feminist.com. One month will be about girls ages 8 and up and one month will be for girls ages 8 and up. Please contact Andrea at www.girlsspeakout.org to ask questions, react and otherwise spread wisdom.


GIRLS SPEAK OUT ABOUT GIRLS

A Women’s and Girls’ Movement

Remember those times growing up when you swallowed a great comment or idea because your inner voice said, “Not now. It’s not okay for me to speak?” Among the thousands of women with whom I’ve spoken, often in intimate group settings, not one woman wants a girl (a girl in the context of my columns is ages 8 to 18 years old) to feel the shame, guilt or regret about “giving in” that they felt and often still carry with them. No girl among the thousands of girls ages 8 and up with whom I’ve spoken blames women who “confess” burying a true self. Indeed, girls empathize. Women, however, blame themselves.

I spend most of my time trying to create new opportunities for a wide variety of girls to be heard, and make a conscious choice to be or not to be gender activists. Surely we all know that no one can accomplish such a task without women; and yet I find a common practice among women, including those in the Women’s Movement, is to keep their distance from working directly for and with girls and advocating for their inclusion in campaigns and events. Some dedicated veterans of the Women’s Movement rail at me for insisting that girls be included at regular meetings and conventions as well as be advisors to organizations working on behalf of women. (I hope this column encourages readers to share their stories).

What Works

I take an anti-ageist stand because I know it works for girls and the movement for gender equality. Among other actions, I’ve arranged for nine and ten year old girls to sit at a huge, oval boardroom table with U.N. representatives exploring whether to host a first girl-run conference (for the first time, I understood how a spinning chair can be liberating). A ten year-old girl turned the tide in our favor when she hiked herself up on her knees, leaned forward across a gulf as big as that between Bush and Boxer and suggested that the “mistake you made when you designed the Secretariat, and left girls out, could be corrected. After all, we’re open-minded and flexible.” It is one of the few times I’ve seen a diplomat speechless. Years later, when applying to college, this same girl wrote about finding a voice at that table and deciding it was worth the fight to hold onto it.

Another reason to include girls in all stages of activism is that they do what Carol Gilligan’s research hinted: working for and with girls inspires women. Goddess knows we need inspiration these days so let’s find out why we’re overlooking this wellspring.

Widespread Misconceptions and Emerging Truths

One objection to routinely including girls in activist groups is fears for their safety, both physically and psychologically. We wisely abandoned a project to organize Girls Speak Out in abortion clinics, but I discussed abortion at a YWCA national convention with girls seven and up because an evangelical girl raised it. I worried when girls in Namibia read my book, and took to the streets of their hometown with picket signs, so through Equality Now, I found local women who could help protect them and support their parents.

Educating women who don’t work with girls about girls is vital to girls and the women they will become. All women, not just mothers, teachers or therapists, need to know the realities about girls’ resilience; how to create a safe place for girls to speak their minds rather than say what we or the culture wants them to say, especially when to say “no” and “yes” to us. Women worldwide must be aware of local, national and global networks that support girls’ equality and participation. There are plenty of women who can do this for each other thanks to the Women’s Movement (and the Internet), and many women who are experts at working with girls one-on-one and in large groups are thrilled to help spread such hard-won knowledge. Mentoring, a practice that needs to be redefined as going both ways across age boundaries, can be long-term or a one-time communication or something that creates a gestalt. I’ve found that both approaches work, even long-distance, depending on the girl and the circumstances.

Women with different experiences can balance each other. I remember when the girl-led conference I mentioned above was actually happening. Over a hundred and fifty girls and women were standing outside UNICEF House in Manhattan in the dark waiting for buses that were nearly an hour late to take them back to their hotel. Gloria Steinem, one of the conference organizers and the girls’ favorites, turned to me and said, “This is one of my worst nightmares.” I was stunned because she has spoken out in places that scare me, and from my educators’ and observer’s point of view, the girls were thrilled with an unscheduled chance to socialize. My nightmare, I told her, was that when we returned to her house exhausted, there would be a camera crew in the living room set up for an interview. The buses arrived, and the cameras didn’t.

Another objection to inviting girls fully into the movement is political. The refrain I hear most often from women activists is, "We have enough trouble supporting women without diverting attention to girls, and risk being restricted to roles as mothers." During the organizing for the Fourth World Conference for women in Beijing, for instance, even feminists in the United States struggled against a girl-child platform for this same reason. Over a decade later, when statistics about girls’ physical and psychological health are still as depressing, I encounter the same resistance.

Challenging Triggers

Now I believe an important reason why women resist including young girls politically is personal.

Girls’ outspokenness stirs us inside. The younger they are, the more they speak out. It’s really a wonderful thing for them to do. But for us, it’s hard work to collect painful, embarrassing and/or scary memories and then move beyond emotional scars to position them as warning signs and ultimately, positive stories about our growth, resilience and compassion. Girls’ outspokenness and built-in bullshit detectors can be about healing for them and for us. The ability to give girls center stage (and the keynote speaking spots) comes from practicing a variation of Gandhi’s message: A true leader leaves no followers behind. She leaves leaders.

When I help women participate in Girls Speak Out sessions and train them as organizers and facilitators, and I’ve done this with soccer moms, CEOs and ambassadors in different countries, I am looking for someone who moves beyond her triggers. It is almost a certainty that if you listen as closely to girls as you must to show them a range of alternatives {which is the primary reason why girls surf the web (and listen to adults)}, you will be triggered. Depending on your childhood experiences, you will be deeply in pain or just uncomfortable or even joyful. Because today’s dominant cultures, and this is true in all countries on this planet, are unfair to girls more than any other age or gender group, and you were a girl, chances are you are hurting.

As someone with a really painful childhood that made it into a textbook on dysfunctional families, I will not urge you to, “Get over it!” I do advocate that helping a girl stay strong and believe in her true self is a transformative gift. When it is truly about her, it makes life richer for both of you. You’re never too old or too young to take a journey that nurtures a true self.

Next About Girls: Examining Childhood for Gender Triggers

BACK TO "GIRLS SPEAK OUT" MAIN PAGE


Copyright © 2005 Andrea Johnston


ANDREA JOHNSTON is the author of Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self and the founder of the Girls Speak Out Foundation, an advocacy organization working with girls and their supporters on five continents. A 30-year veteran of public and private school teaching, Andrea convened and helped organize the First National Girls Conference at UNICEF House in New York in 1997. She has appeared in a Lifetime documentary, on CNN’s Talk Back Live!, and on local and national radio shows. She has also been a frequent keynote speaker at YWCA youth conferences, on college campuses, for parenting organizations, and in the General Assembly and Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. She has a son, Jesse, and lives in Northern California. Visit Andrea's web site at www.girlsspeakout.org.

Read an excerpt from Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self