We say they have a voice, that they are engaged, that they are leading in their own right, that they are strong and unrelenting.
We assume they are a monolith. We assume we’ve adequately supported them and paved the way for them to take over. We assume we have fought hard for the rights they now enjoy. And, we assume that they will finish the job that we haven’t been able to finish.
I wanted to test some of these assumptions. Who are “young feminists” — and have we actually given them what they need to get the job done?
I spoke with two dynamic young women, both 16 years old, to better understand where they’re at — and what they want from us.
I assume you identify as feminists, I asked them. And if so, what is feminism, to you?
Jay: To me, feminism is the idea that any woman should be able to do what she wants to do, go where she wants to go, be who she wants to be, and be respected in all that she does. It sounds like such a simple, fundamental thing, but it hasn’t been accomplished anywhere — and that’s why it’s so important.
Eva: To me, feminism is the simple belief that men and women are equal in everything. Meaning, women have the right to do everything that men are able to do and be. It is not a belief that women should be above men and have more rights than them, but rather that the two sexes are equal in all things.
What about being a “young” feminist? We use that label liberally, but what does it actually mean?
Jay: Being a young feminist has meant looking at my future, and deciding that I do not want to be restricted in my aspirations or be discriminated against because I am a woman. I think there is a misconception in my generation (and others) that being a feminist means hating men, staying away from traditionally “girly” things, etc. But I think it’s all about creating a world where we can all have equally safe and open lives.
Eva: Being a young feminist for me is to know my worth as a young female individual. It is to not stand for any limitation to my potential or future based on my gender and sex. It means to not let other people or any system try to diminish my goals or voice based on gender roles or expectations. I am not afraid to let people know that I will not stand for that! It also means letting other young women know that I support them and that they should not let sexism restrict their lives.
No doubt the world is far from equal. From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges women and girls face today?
Jay: In the U.S. (and in most countries around the world as well), women and girls are underrepresented in positions of power. Connected to that is a global economy that is not built to support the lives of the majority of women — especially caregiving women. Also, restrictions on reproductive rights continue to be a persistent challenge for women and girls. And they are getting worse!
Eva: I think that both domestically and internationally, one of the biggest challenges is that women are too often seen as less than — less qualified, less credible, less able to lead, and so on. This means time and again women’s abilities to hold positions of power over communities or economies are doubted; women’s issues are not prioritized; women’s access to healthcare or education is limited; and women’s testimonies or experiences are not listened to or believed. Women constantly have to work twice as hard just to prove themselves capable or credible.
You both have studied feminism in school. What has feminism achieved? What do you think the older generation of feminists accomplished — or overlooked?
Eva: Feminists in the United States have achieved the passing of legislation that ensures equal pay amongst the sexes, legislation that provides women with the right to get an abortion, and the prohibiting of the discrimination of women in education.
Jay: In the Czech Republic, where I am from, feminism has been largely misunderstood and rebuked by the public (both in past decades and still today), though early feminists most notably granted Czech women equality before the law and the right to vote in the early years of Czechoslovakia’s history.
Eva: But the older generation of feminists only advocated for cis-gendered white western women. Which left millions of other women neglected.
Jay: Many older feminists with children — like my mother — raised their daughters in an environment that is accepting of diverse interests, critical of traditional gender roles, and encouraging of advocacy, which has definitely opened the minds of young women like me early on. I have known for many years that I face injustices in the world, but also that I have the capacity to fight them.
Who ignited your feminism? Who has inspired you?
Jay: My mother. As a diplomat, my mother has spent her career working overseas (often in difficult circumstances), constantly having to prove her worth as a professional woman in typically male-dominated settings. She has taught me to never limit my interests because of my gender, and to always persevere in the face of injustice.
Eva: My grandmother. She spent the majority of her formative years in refugee camps in Greece and Germany. Her unconditional strength and ability for storytelling continue to amaze me each day. As a female refugee, she endured so much in the face of sexism, and religious and ethnic discrimination. She taught me to always fight for my dreams without fearing the tribulations I might face in order to reach them.
I love that both of your feminist inspirations come from your homes. What about school? What’s working in our education systems — or not?
Jay: One thing I would like schools to draw more attention to is the concept of implicit bias, especially in connection to gender equality. In early education, in rare instances where discussions on gender equality take place, they are often centered on very direct, obvious examples of sexist behavior and language, like “girls can’t play sports.” I think kids need to learn early on that sexist attitudes can often be invisible, but they still must be addressed.
Eva: We need to talk about gender equality in sex and relationships. Consent is a large issue that is not talked about enough in teenage/young adult spaces and it needs attention — especially amongst boys/young men. We need to dialogue in educational spaces to make it easier for boys and young men to unlearn discriminatory behaviors against girls and young women in their expression of sexuality. Do it early, before it’s too late.
Being a feminist isn’t about grandiose actions. It’s in the little things. The “daily feminisms” you implement as part of your life. The small stuff that is contagious. What daily feminisms work for you?
Jay: Every morning I check the news to learn about women’s rights around the world, to understand what feminists in other countries prioritize and believe in, and how to support them if I connect strongly with their cause. I use gender inclusive language in collaborative settings, and encourage my friends to pursue interests outside of gender norms. I also support women-owned businesses as much as possible.
Eva: On a daily basis, I keep myself up to date with women’s rights movements globally through my keen use of social media and obsession with feminist journalism. I give some money every month to the organization Days For Girls which provides reusable sanitary and menstrual products to girls and women in need in remote locations around the world. I also see it as my responsibility to indoctrinate my younger female cousins on feminism through the things we do and see together.
You both are incredible role models. What support do you need now? How can we — the older generation of feminists — help you build a better world for women and girls? A world we’d all like to live in?
Jay: I think that older generations need to listen to the unique needs and aspirations of younger generations, and accept that the definition and context of feminism might have shifted from when they were young. At the same time, older generations have more experience in advocating for equality, so I think keeping an open dialogue on the best strategies for having your voice heard is best for everyone.
Eva: I wish in the future that all women will be able to be seen and heard in the feminist movement and that we all will be able to see the changes we desire in our communities and around the world. To reach full equality, everyone has to be listened to equally. That means women of all gender expressions, sexual orientations, races, religions, and ages must be involved. Therefore, both young and old generations of feminists have to maintain dialogue to facilitate the best and most effective activism where we can all get our share.
Jay: After all, a world that we’d all like to live in is a world that must be built by BOTH young and old feminists, as one united front.
What did I learn from this conversation?
It’s this: the younger generation of feminists are force, fuel, and fire. They will finish what we could not. The challenge for us is in what we’re leaving behind, and how to help them fix it.