Reprinted with permission from Girls
Speak Out: Finding Your True Self
to Girls' Issues main page
SPEAK OUT envisions a world where girls revel
in their power — and then provides a
vibrant, animated map of how to get there."
— MARLO THOMAS
has been nearly a decade since I wrote this book,
and in that time more people have worked to change
society and make it fair to you. There are more
books, magazines, newsletters, products, and
events for girls. There are websites, CDs, DVDs,
and video games. There are more programs focusing
on girls' self-esteem as well as classes to raise
math, science, and basketball scores. It's exciting
to know more people are thinking about you and
trying to make your life better.
The best news is, more of you are finding your
true selves and each other. After all, the Girls'
Movement is about girls changing things for themselves.
It's about being in charge. It will take time
to make life better for all girls, but day by
day, girls are making a difference; girls of
different races, classes, cultures, sexual orientations,
and abilities are finding ways to be themselves
and also to be part of a larger movement.
But a movement starts with individuals like
you. This introduction will let you know what
other girls have done and are doing to make girls
feel more powerful and to inspire them to challenge
what's unfair. It may help you hold onto who
you are as you grow up. Most of it comes from
girls themselves on five continents who write
to me and share their connection with the ideas
and people in this book. It's important to know
there are girls like you, especially if you don't
know girls with similar interests in your community.
When I travel, I talk with girls in different
countries, and when I'm at home, I correspond
with girls all over the world. No matter where
they are, one of the things I share with them
is what researchers have discovered often happens
to girls growing up in male-dominated societies,
which is happening in every country today. Many
of these researchers are women working in universities
who interview and observe groups of girls over
time. Even though most studies focus on white
girls from middle-class families, girls of color
and girls from other economic classes tell me
the same things happen to them-but in different
ways. Similar studies of more diverse groups
of girls are also being conducted now in many
countries. In the meantime, you can decide for
yourself whether the findings are true for you
and girls you know.
Here is what can happen: Most girls silence
themselves between the ages of nine and sixteen;
that is, they give up a part of who they are
because they think it's necessary to do so to
survive. They begin to act like a stereotype,
a false idea of what it means to be female. Girls
play the more feminine role that is based on
the mistaken belief that females are weaker than
males. There is a lot of pressure on girls to
fit this stereotype rather than fight for their
unique differences. For example, girls want to
be thin, even anorexic or bulimic, because girls
of different sizes and shapes are not as easily
accepted. Carol Gilligan, one of the first researchers
to study girls, describes the change in many
girls as losing their different and unique voices.
Instead of trusting themselves, girls may become
uncertain and lose self-confidence.
do you feel about these discoveries? Girls
who are nine years old and haven't reached
this point yet usually say, “No way. It's not
going to happen to me.” Girls who are fifteen
and sixteen often shake their heads and say, “Yes,
it's happening” or “It's already
happened.” Wherever I go, and in the letters
and emails I receive, girls who have lost their
voice describe what happened to them and say
they don't want it to happen to other girls.
Some say people tease them if they say positive
things about girls and women. Many girls stop
raising their hand in class because they've decided
it's safer being ignored than drawing attention
to themselves by knowing the answer. Girls who
are treated as objects, some of whom are seriously
abused, pretend everything is okay. They feel
powerless, and they don't know what else to do.
While it's important to know that some girls
lose their voice, research also shows that girls
are resilient, which means they have the ability
to bounce back when something unfair happens.
So the lesson is, even if you lose your voice,
you can get it back.
Being aware of what often happens to girls can
help girls hold onto their voice. For example,
Lakesha, a seven-year-old girl from Houston,
Texas, went with her parents to a bookstore where
I was speaking and signing copies of Girls Speak
Out. She was sitting on the floor near me, waiting
for her parents. Soon she stopped drawing on
the napkin she had on her lap and stared at me
for a long time. I asked her what she wanted
to say. Here is part of our conversation:
'sexism.' You keep saying 'sexism.' What does
“It's what's outside you that says boys
and men are better than girls and women,” I
answered. “It's supposed to be true whether
or not it feels right.”
“Oh,” said Lakesha, “I
didn't know it had a name.”
asked people at the book signing to share ideas
on how to “change
the rules at school that say I can't play on
the football team even though I like football.”
people don't take even older girls seriously
because of a mistaken belief that girls can't
do things on their own. A girl in North Carolina
wrote to me about her solution to a problem: “I tried to start a group for
girls in my area. Although there were loads of
wonderful women willing to help, I got little
response from schools. I think it was hard for
them to believe a sixteen-year-old girl like
me was serious about bringing girls in her community
together.” However, she said, “I
intend to work on this project again when I graduate.
I'll have more time than I do now to visit each
school I want to involve and to write articles
for the newspaper.”
of girls find it's exciting to be among the
first in the Girls' Movement. It's also a challenge.
Sometimes it can be lonely if people around
you have different ideas. Amulya and I have
been emailing each other since she began high
school four years ago. After she read this
book, she wanted to organize girls in her school
in India and find out their opinions. She began
doing surveys, and at first she was frustrated
and angry: “I
wish I felt as energetic as you are thinking
I am. I am all out. I have been feeling so
low the past few days. I feel I'm getting into
one of those stereotypic images of girls that
I have always hated. I don't know why.
“My school is supposed to be a school
that encourages and sets new trends, and the
girls are supposed to be really confident and
all that. But the truth is many of them are idiots.
They still believe that girls should be submissive
etc. They all want to get married and 'settle
down.' They are not worried about freedom and
careers, and sometimes when I do something outspoken
about girls' rights, they say it's gross and
girls are not supposed to do that etc. It's all
so irritating. And what's worse, I sometimes
have to agree with them.” Can you identify
with Amulya's mood? Sometimes I also feel like
too few people care about girls. But this mood
passes because people who are starting something
new, especially close to home, know it's hard
work as well as fun.
what Amulya wrote in a recent email: “People
say that colours reflect your mood. I'm on a
high right now like bright red and yellow or
a deep purple. I finished my tests and now we
have fests, loads of them, and they are really
fun. This time we're coming up with new ideas,
and I am on creative teams to have events about
choices for girls' futures, and it's rocking.
It's busy, but it's fun. At the end of the day
when I think about how many things I have done,
I wonder how I managed to find time to do all
those things and still I don't feel tired. I
love arranging things to let people know girls
are strong, and people say I am good at it. I
come up with crazy ideas that others and I feel
are good. And that's what counts for an activist
When I tell girls about girls in other places,
like Amulya and Lakesha, they often want to meet
each other. When I first began the program, girls
in different parts of the USA who participated
in Girls Speak Out programs wanted to have a
global girls' conference. The National (USA)
Girls Coalition was formed in 1995 to help organize
it. It became a model for other girls' conferences,
and it is something you can adapt for your own
The most important thing we did was to trust
girls and give them control over the content
of the conference. We also eliminated an adult
keynote speaker so girls could see each other
as role models, have more time to meet each other,
become friends, and create their own Plan of
Action. Women were on a panel talking about their
girlhoods, and others volunteered to take notes
From the beginning, girls helped to plan the
First National Girls' Conference. Girls from
four different regions of the USA formed a Girls
Steering Committee that met monthly. The steering
committee chose topics that women had discussed
at the Fourth World Conference on Women, which
was sponsored by the United Nations and took
place in Beijing in 1995. Those topics were Confronting
Violence against Girls, Girls' Rights, and Images
of Girls in the Media.
We wanted to hold the conference at the United
Nations headquarters in New York City, but it
was unusual for girls to organize an event there.
At a meeting of the National Girls' Coalition,
girls asked a woman representing the United Nations
if there could be a sleepover at the United Nations
during the conference. She explained that it
had never been done before; it would be difficult,
if not impossible, to arrange. Clara, an eleven-year-old
member of the Girls Steering Committee, was sitting
across the big oval table from the United Nations
representative. Clara pulled her chair closer
to the table and leaned toward the woman.
“I know what the problem is,” Clara
said. “When the United Nations was built,
you didn't think about girls. That's okay. We
can still work it out.”
was a moment of silence. Then the woman smiled
at Clara and said, “Maybe
if we had thought about you, and sleepovers,
there wouldn't be so many wars and fights.”
The conference was held on January 3 and 4,
1997. More than 140 girls from thirty-nine states
attended along with girls from eleven countries
including the USA. They were of different races,
classes, cultures, sexual orientations, and abilities.
They lived at home, at school, in shelters, or
in group homes. The National Girls' Coalition
had raised money to pay each girl's travel and
living expenses. The United States Committee
for UNICEF (which stands for the United Nations
International Children's Fund) is the organization
that cosponsored the conference. It brought the
girls from various countries in Africa, Asia,
Latin America, and Europe. We met at UNICEF House
in New York City, right across the street from
the United Nations.
Girls at the conference were as unique as each
of you reading this book. They were eight to
sixteen years old. They included a fifteen-year-old
girl who lived on a fishing boat in Alaska; girls
aged nine to sixteen from public housing developments
in New York, Chicago, and New Jersey; an eleven-year-old
from a ski resort in Montana; a ten-year-old
who lived on Central Park West in New York City;
a nine-year-old from a Native American reservation
in Minnesota; and two sisters from a village
on the Ivory Coast.
It was magical when all these different girls
came together. Soon they were one clear, powerful
voice. For two days, girls worked to create a
Girls Global Plan of Action that is used as a
model in many countries. They wanted a document
that showed what girls think and how they could
change things. You can find part of it at the
end of this book, and you can send for more information
about the Girls Global Plan of Action using the
contact information listed at the end of this
introduction. Although the girls worked hard,
they also told jokes and sang.
Two girls who have worked with Girls Speak Out
since it began, and also helped organize the
conference, want to tell you about their experience
before and at the girls' conference. Christina
Dry writes about events leading up to the conference:
Hi! I was a girl from a small town in northern
California when I helped start Girls Speak Out.
My mother is Japanese-American, and she grew
up in Hawaii. My father is white, and he spent
most of his life in Monte Rio, which is where
my older sister, Cindy, and I grew up, too.
I'd managed, sometimes unintentionally, to go
against almost every stereotype set for girls,
especially Asian girls. I'm outspoken about anything
and everything. I've loved playing sports all
my life. I've played basketball and softball
forever, and in school I was on the varsity teams
for basketball, softball, running, and swimming.
I participated in sports that make you sweat,
which I was told is very unladylike. But you
know what? I don't care! I never worried about
all the frills girls are supposed to worry about.
I helped create Girls Speak Out almost ten years
ago. It started with meetings in Andrea's classroom
when I was eleven and she was my sixth-grade
teacher. Soon the girls and I moved from talking
about our personal problems to problems other
I remember being in Andrea's living room for
one of our first meetings after she left teaching.
There were about eight or nine girls, and we
were all sitting in a circle on the floor. Andrea
had a ceramic box that was cut and painted to
look like a thick book with a pumpkin on the
cover. It was called Cinderella 1990 (by Constance
Alyce Westvig Roberts). Inside the box were about
fifteen miniature wooden feet and one wooden
slipper. The feet were different sizes and colors.
Some had dainty, painted toenails and others
were hairy. Some stood out more than others did,
but none of them fit the little wooden slipper.
We sat there in a circle comparing the different
feet when we suddenly made a connection between
them and ourselves. The feet were symbolic of
all of us. Some of us were big and others were
little. We were different colors and from different
backgrounds. The little wooden slipper represented
the stereotypes and borders that have been set
for girls. None of the feet fit the slipper,
just as most girls don't fit stereotypes set
Girls shouldn't fit stereotypes because stereotypes
are so unrealistic. Knowing this has made a huge
impact on the way I live my life. Life becomes
much simpler and more enjoyable when you don't
worry about being someone you're not.
I believe the most important part of Girls Speak
Out is diversity. Girls from different places,
races, cultures, and classes bring different
views and experiences into the discussions. Sometimes
I feel as if my personal experiences are very
different from most girls. As I learn about more
girls' lives, I understand how our different
experiences make us more interesting and my world
bigger. For example, I was a member of the Girls
Steering Committee for the First National Girls'
Conference. I worked to organize the conference
with girls in Minnesota, West Virginia, and New
We were discussing topics to cover at the conference.
Each girl could choose three from a list of fifteen
topics. The girls in New York wanted to include
Violence against Girls. I didn't see the importance
of it because violence isn't a big part of my
life. As we talked, I realized what it is like
for girls who live with violence every day. Now
I know it's the number one problem in girls'
lives around the world.
Experiences like these have formed a new understanding
for me of how the world works. They make me feel
good about myself. I've done something to change
things. All these experiences helped me realize
how much I can get done, and how much any girl
thought of the slogan we used at the conference, “Don't
Deal with It! Change It!” I guess that's
what I've been doing and what I will do all my
Elizabeth “Lizard” Foster-Shaner
has been working in the Girls' Movement since
she was nine years old. She started by writing
speeches and organizing plays about girls and
women when she was in middle school. She's an
actor and a writer. Lizard was fifteen at the
time of the conference. She recently graduated
from the University of California at Berkeley,
and she creates and organizes street theatre
Each girl who came and participated in the conference
sent in an application. We were assured each
girl was serious in her beliefs and desire for
change. Women mentors were there to take notes
and to help the girls, but only if we asked them.
After all, it was our conference. We saw artifacts
from prehistory that show us how girls and women
were important. Sharing what we felt helped us
feel each girl's power.
Next, we broke into groups. Each workshop had
about fifteen to twenty girls, and three steering
committee girls were the leaders. Each girl went
to three workshops, one on each topic: Confronting
Violence against Girls, Girls' Rights, and Images
of Girls in the Media. We listed how the topics
affect us and brainstormed a plan of action.
Some of our ideas were to start a girls' group
at home or at school, write a girls' newsletter,
and start a web page and chat room as a girls'
We focused on talking about our personal experiences.
We used statistics. There were many problems
talked about at the conference from our right
to be ourselves to safely walking the streets
at night. Our goal at the conference was to find
some answers to these problems. After each girl
had participated in one workshop on each theme,
we gathered one last time at a speak-out to come
up with our plan of action. So many ideas! They
included support groups for victims of abuse
as young as four and five years old, sending
our plan to governors and the president, and
having mini-conferences at home.
The conference was not only the official start
of the Girls' Movement. I think it was also a
chance for girls to find hope and meet other
girls with the same feelings and thoughts.
There has never been such a sharing of ideas
and feelings. I am very proud I was part of it.
It helped me believe that no matter what, we
are going to make the future ours.
If you want to share what you're doing in the
Girls' Movement, you can write to the Girls Speak
Out Action Network at the address at the end
of this introduction. Remember, there are as
many ways to be active as there are girls. You
don't have to participate in a conference to
help make a bright future. What you do and say
matters, whether you stay close to home or connect
with people in different states and countries.
Two years ago, I went to the YWCA Toronto, Canada,
for a Girls Speak Out workshop. I hoped to find
a woman who could train other women to help spread
the program without me in charge. I found a young
woman named Amy, and a few months ago, with the
help of other women at the YWCA Toronto, she
began training women from the YWCA of Canada.
Today, we are certifying Girls Speak Out workshop
leaders all over Canada. A group of young women
in Fiji are also working with me to train organizers
and bring the program to females in schools all
over the islands.
I never imagined that so many girls and women
outside my native country, the USA, would respond
so deeply to this book and to the Girls Speak
Out program. One of my latest dreams is to have
girl-led program workshops just as the First
National Girls' Conference was girl-led. I believe
it will happen in the next decade because I see,
hear, and feel girls growing stronger no matter
where they live.
For now, women's help is essential to ensure
that girls connect with each other and raise
powerful voices across oceans and continents.
Wherever they are, women know that girls are
strong and brave. I hope this book helps you
imagine and live in a new millennium in which
girls everywhere will be inspired to be their
true selves all their lives.
Over time, I've developed a trusted network
in the United Nations and with nonprofit organizations
in different parts of the world that support
girls who speak out in a way they choose. There
is someone near you who will reach out to you
if and when you ask or need help and/or inspiration.
For more information, to ask questions, to give
answers, and to share your ideas, plans, and
experiences, please use the following:
Girls Speak Out Action Network
c/o Ten Speed Press
PO Box 7123
Berkeley, CA 94707
Remember, Don't Deal with It! Change It!
* * *
with permission from Girls Speak Out:
Finding Your True Self. Copyright © 2005
by Andrea Johnston, Celestial Arts, Berkeley,
CA. To purchase Girls
Speak Out, click here.
* * *
JOHNSTON is 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.
Read Andrea's monthly column at Feminist.com:
Speak Out About Girls"