Teenage Activists and Contemporary Feminism
Redefining Girlhood: Teenage activists and contemporary feminists.
Last Thursday I went to Carlow University to hear Jessica Taft, PH. D., professor of sociology and chair of National Women’s Studies Association, talk about her research called “Redefining Girlhood: Teenage activists and contemporary feminists”. It was a very interesting and educating lecture, and I am certainly glad I went.
First of all, I discovered that there is an emerging academic field dedicated specifically to girls, appropriately called “Girl’s studies”. When I tried to google it, there were not many clear definitions available, and finally I found this one:” Girl’s studies is a more specific sub-field of women’s studies or gender studies that focuses specifically on “girls,” usually gets defined as female or feminine-identifying people under the age of 18. “Woman” is a really broad term, and it’s never the only way to describe someone. Just like it’s important to study intersections of gender and race, or gender and class, or gender and sexuality, gender and age play off one another and create a distinct social construction that we call girlhood.” (By the way this quote is taken from a tumbler of interdisciplinary exploration of the intersection of age & gender.) Here is the link:
Taft explained that girls are a unique demographic group that is a great contributor to the society, they are untapped resource of potential, that is not, however, is being taken seriously. Girls are also targeted by a variety of social programs aimed at girl empowerment and education. An interesting idea that Taft brought up here is that most of these programs are usually focused on individual change, not social change. So, it is about changing the girls, not the world around them. She argues that while it is good to focus on individual self, it would be even better to look at individual problems in the context of broader political and social terms. I never thought about it this way, and her words made me realize that she is right! Approach that she adopted for her research suggest that girl activists are much smarter than many think of them, they don’t want to simply overcome problems that they see around themselves, but they rather want to change the conditions that create those problems; remake the worlds as a better place. So, girl activism and girl empowerment have different goals.
She conducted 2 years long interviews with 75 girl activists between ages of 13 and 19 in 5 different cities in the Americas: San Francisco, Vancouver, Mexico, City, Caracas, and Buenos Aires. They were all of different racial, sexual, and demographic backgrounds. It is amazing to know how well aware these girls are about problems around them, and how eager they are to solve them. In fact, they actually did accomplish quite a lot.
According to Taft’s research, girls think that they are better activists than boys because they are emotional, caring, and idealistic. This is definitely something we can learn from girl activists in our cynical world where everyone just seems to want to disengage and not care. Taft also discovered that there is a split between girl identity and activist identity. Activism is generally associated with positive characteristic such as responsible, mature, caring, while girlyness is associated with negative characteristics such as ignorant, stupid, superficial, and mean. I thought this correlated with some of our class discussions about Female Chauvinist Pigs. This is a real problem because it leads to invisibility of girls (and women) within politics.
What I also noticed from Taft’s speech is that girl-activists focus on a range of important issues, not only on typically women’s issues, such as reproductive rights, girls’ health education, minorities, etc. Maybe we don’t need to separate strictly women’s issues from other issues because by doing so we alienate other activists that could work together with feminists. To understand the scope of contemporary feminism we need to look beyond these traditional women’s or girls issues, because feminism appears in a wide variety if places that we might initially expect.
Overall, Jessica Taft’s research is very important because girl activism illuminates some very important dynamics about contemporary feminism. It suggests that feminists need to work with young girls and women, they should move beyond empowerment model, and consider girls as allies in larger movement of economic injustice. Teenage girls are figures of great importance, especially in today’s globalized world.
What place, if any, do you think girls occupy in feminist movement? Do you think they should be exposed to feminist issues early on or they need time to enjoy their girlyness?