When I was newly 21, I was invited to speak at the SPARK Summit — a gathering of girl activists and their allies who wanted to fight sexualization in the media together. What set that event apart from the others I’ve ever spoken at or attended wasn’t the structure, the setting in midtown Manhattan, or the badass conversations — although they abounded. Instead, it was all of us. We were a bunch of girls — I was one of the oldest and felt instantly bad about it, side bar — leading the fight.
We were speaking about our own experiences instead of being spoken at, or spoken to, or lectured at, or spoken down at, or being asked about our methods and our passions in a critical or patronizing way. Nobody dissed us for being into the Internet. Nobody blamed us for the cultural shifts that had placed girls and young women in a precarious place within rape culture, one of sexualization and sexual violence. Nobody told us how to wage our own fights against sexism. Instead, we finally found a place where we could center our experiences and talk about them. It brought us together. It laid the foundation for some of the most powerful feminist activism I’d come to see to date.
What came out of that summit was SPARK, the movement. Together, girl activists like me fought and won battles against airbrushed ads, rape culture in high school sports, and even the erasure of women from Google Doodles. Girls in SPARK were on the brink of becoming the voices of their time. SPARK alum I remain connected to aren’t just change-makers; they’re Earth-shakers.
And it’s because nobody doubted us. It’s because nobody silenced us. It’s because we existed in a space where adults — grown-ass women who, I might add, were badass in their own right (Shelby Knox, Jamia Wilson, and Dana Edell among them) — wanted to empower us, give us the tools and wisdom to succeed, and fuel our passions rather than funnel them toward the priorities of the existing feminist movement. They wanted us to lead. They wanted us to fight. They wanted us to set the terms of our battles, pick our issues, and follow our passions.
That’s the kind of work Lyn Mikel Brown has dedicated her life to, and it’s the framework for her book Powered By Girl, out now. SPARK, as well as Hardy Girls Healthy Women and Powered By Girl, are girl-fueled feminist organizations she launched where future feminist leaders set the pace for the movement’s future and receive support from tried-and-true feminist leaders on how to fight and win over and over and over again, and how to fail and get back up. In Powered by Girl, she lays out the mechanisms for supporting girl-fueled activism — and leaves readers with a distinct impression of its might.
I chatted with Lyn this week about the book, young feminists, and intergenerational activism. For more where this magic all came from, buy the book immediately.
You came to writing this book after years of doing work that explicitly encouraged and created models for intergenerational feminist activism. How did that become such a passion of yours?
I had the incredible luck early in my career to work in a feminist collective with amazing women like Carol Gilligan, Janie Ward, Annie Rogers, Deborah Tolman, and Niobe Way. I still marvel at our revolutionary spirit. We never set out to worry about or fix girls. We set out to listen to them, to learn about girlhood from girls. We developed a feminist method we called the Listening Guide and a way of working that had integrity. My passion emerged out of that research and those relationships, and in response to the experiences girls shared with us.
I couldn’t listen to girls voice their experiences of oppression and not want to do something about it. But it wasn’t just my work to do. I developed a praxis, action informed by theory, in relationship with girls. Since girls are not interested in just talking about hurt or critiquing unjust practices or policies—they want to make things better—activism was the natural progression. My daughter grew up in the activist organizations I cofounded—Hardy Girls and SPARK—and her experiences of learning from other girls and from women convinced me of the power and importance of intergenerational work.
Powered By Girl outlines ways folks can support young activists. How did you come to activism? What shaped your own experiences as a young activist?
I was never a young activist, actually, but I did carry a sizable working-class-girl chip on my shoulder. I was attuned to unfairness, confused by the blowback I received from simply saying what I thought, and frustrated by pressures to be the kind of girl others seemed to want. But I didn’t have a critique or even a language to talk about gender or class-based power and privilege.
My older brother and I were close. He faced the Vietnam war draft and we talked a lot about resistance and consequences. I think that was my first introduction to political activism, at least in any close or personal sense. And then there was Gloria Steinem. I grew up in a pretty isolated part of the country, on the border between Maine and New Brunswick. Ms. was my first ever magazine subscription—don’t ask me how I even knew to ask for it. And Steinem’s Playboy bunny alias Marie Catherine Ochs was not only my introduction to systemic sexism, but my first inkling that I could go undercover and maybe find others like me in the active underground.
You profile many girl activists throughout your book and detail the work of different organizations. What have been some of the most powerful instances of intergenerational activism you’ve seen?
If we’re talking up close and personal and if powerful means broad, national impact, it would have to be some of the SPARK Movement campaigns: convincing Seventeen to give up photoshop, getting sit-downs with execs at LEGO about their sexist marketing practices and with Google about the need to diversify their Doodles. These campaigns were girl-led and adult supported. The Doodle Us campaign was especially complex. The girls did research proving a lack of gender and racial diversity, wrote a highly successful Change.org petition, created a moving and effective video, reached out to partner orgs, and pushed the entire campaign out through various social media platforms. In the end, not only did the Doodles change, but the girls were invited to extend their work by creating Women on the Map, an app that locates women’s contributions to history in various cities across the world.
Yet, the most emotionally and personally powerful actions I’ve been involved with have been small. Last year my students and I worked with girls from the local alternative high school and teen parent program to press for affordable public transportation. It was incredible to see girls with such self-doubt and disillusionment come together in coalition and insist on their right to access something so basic. This is the kind of work I love—encouraging girls to identify a problem that really matters to them and figuring out together how to solve it.
What say you to the media discourse that suggests generational divides in feminism are too big to overcome?
I would say those who write such things have never worked with girls in anything close to a genuine partnership. I would say they are uninformed, cynical, and lazy—relying on cliché and tired stereotypes. It’s hard to do intergenerational work, no doubt. We have to be humble and we have to be willing to be challenged and we have to know how to let go. But we are facing some very big, very wicked problems and we need to figure out how to work together if we hope to be around much longer.
Your work posits that young feminists are going to shape this movement and make it their own — and that everyone should come along for the ride. What do you think a future guided by some of the girl activists you’ve worked with looks like?
I have a lot of faith in this generation of young feminists. They are wide-awake, smart, strategic, brave, and wildly imaginative. I’m not sure about specifics, but whatever else the future holds, it will surely be a radical, boundary-crossing interruption of the way things usually go.
Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!