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

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.


The Girl Next Door

What Sandra Cisneros writes in her short story, Being Eleven, is psychologically and physically true: “When you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and…one.” Cisneros compares us to those wooden Russian dolls that open to reveal smaller and smaller dolls. Hidden inside us is who we were as a girl, and she travels with us as neatly as the tiny Russian doll fits inside the biggest one. Even though we’ve learned that being a woman means you forget that being a minor is major, and while we can’t see her because we’ve thrown so much baggage on her, she’s far from being as passive as a wooden doll.

There are some days when something is unfair, and the girl inside me is triggered and screams, “That’s so unfair. Jeez, people. Get a grip.” I used to panic and struggle to silence her in the deluded belief that exorcism works. When I found an integrated voice, that is, one that balances all of what happened to and is me, what makes me shriek, moan, cry, laugh and shocked, I could say what I wanted to and then move on (there’s a challenge!).

I have no choice but to bring my past into the present because my personal and political agenda is to work with girls and create venues for them to act and speak out (www.girlsspeakout.org). Girls’ built-in bulls-it detectors are fully operational and acted upon (how is yours doing?), and they would silence a false me instead of hearing me as someone who remembers that each year matters.

Since our global culture offers a one-sided prejudicial message about being female, I want to help girls identify and challenge sexist beliefs and practices so they can avoid taking responsibility for what’s wrong in our culture and take credit for being unique and powerful. I bring women into girls’ circles because we have information they ask for, and we can show them that getting older doesn’t mean losing your true self. Girls need more of us to advocate for them and to learn from as supporters and advocates.

What do girls learn from women? Girls believe that most women pretend their Russian doll is empty as if childhood is something you get over because, well, anyway, it doesn’t matter as much as being grown-up. Even worse, in my experience, is that most women, including activists in the Women’s Movement, do eliminate girls from their political agenda as they do transfats from their diet. The effect of this is that girls often are a tagline as in “Stop violence against women…and girls.” Check the next time you see the girl-tagline to find what is actually being offered for girls. How much of it addresses them as partners, advocates and activists or valuable thinkers and allies? How much values them as more than victims or caretakers? How is ageism helping ensure that we have a future filled with feminists?

Of course, as Cisneros says, your girl is still in there, and no matter what you do, she’s busy. In other words, even if you think you own a sole proprietorship, you have a partner. Like it or not, we bring that hidden doll with us everyday. Like or not, there are girls in your community who are waiting for you to find them. They’re not on another planet. They’re inside you and next door.

When I started Girls Speak Out® with Gloria Steinem, I was a teacher and Gloria was a famous feminist. Girls Speak Out was and is a level playing field. Both of us had been girls and we remembered what we needed then. You have stories and experiences to share. If you remember the sad and the good times from your girlhood, you have the basic tools to make a difference in a girls’ life. Listen to what she asks, and answer her from the inside-out. A five-year old needs names for what she experiences as much as a twenty-five year old needs them. Naming it means she’s not alone.

I encourage you to talk openly and respectfully with a girl. Remember how much you knew at her age that you couldn’t talk out loud about? Create actual, safe spaces for a girl (your business office on a weekend or home on a weekday?) to be her true self; and whenever possible, include girls from different backgrounds and make these spaces intergenerational. Offer her a smorgasbord of resources she can use to challenge obstacles and to see herself as strong, happy and resilient.

What will your Russian doll bring to the Women’s Movement? I’d argue that it means we have a future if we see inside and the girls around us. It’s never too late to be inspired and inspiring.

*How to reach us: [email protected] or www.girlsspeakout.org

Note: Anyone can read this column, but alternate columns are written for girls. We hope that readers will write us and we will publish their writings and drawings. Please suggest ideas for columns, ask questions or describe what it means to them to be a girl. Girls Speak Out® is a program, book, organization that supports and connects girls, and an online column where girls can find each other. We invite you to join us.

Copyright © 2006 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