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For girls’ sake, let’s end the myth of the ‘fearless’ girl

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Mattie Kahn is the author of “Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions,” from which this op-ed is adapted.


A girl sat down to write to her president. She was 12. She should have been doing her homework or out for a bike ride, but she couldn’t relax. She was scared the world was on the brink of destruction.


Children were starving. Families were desperate. Her government seemed more interested in producing weapons of mass annihilation than protecting the future of the planet. “As a child I do not think it is my business to have to think about such things,” the girl wrote. But if she didn’t speak up on behalf of her generation, who would?


Rabin received a formulaic response, the pat-on-the-head of formal correspondence. Then she escalated the issue. That spring, she called a meeting with friends — all girls — who formed the Children’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. For their first action, they invited children nationwide to write their own letters to the White House.


And oh, how the world makes a show of loving them for it. We have splashed their names on magazine covers and congratulated them for their courage. We have given ourselves permission to sit back and praise them for their pluck — for being “fearless.”


But the girls whose daring has furthered U.S. and global progress have not been fearless. In fact, the opposite. Their fear has motivated them.


In the 1830s, hundreds of workers in New England textile factories organized and formed some of the United States’ first unions. Most were unmarried women and girls. Before the strikes — which in some cases cost them their jobs — mill workers reported feeling dread at the prospect of leaving their posts.


In the 1950s, teenage civil rights activists, including Barbara Johns — who led a school walkout that helped form the basis of Brown v. Board of Education — and Claudette Colvin — who at 15 preempted none other than Rosa Parks in her refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama — made no secret of their genuine and warranted terror. Decades later, Colvin recalled the clang of her jail cell being locked shut as the “worst sound I ever heard.”


In 1965, volunteers affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee published a collection of poems and artwork. Langston Hughes wrote the foreword. The rest of the work belonged to the students themselves. In one contribution, a 16-year-old poet named Joyce Brown declared that she would not let her fear prevent her from joining the civil rights movement:


Here I have come and here I shall stay, And no amount of fear my determination can sway.

In the modern era, Thunberg has been explicit, insisting before an audience of rapt adults: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”


For her as for others, the “fearless” label becomes not a compliment but a condescension — a term that across centuries has minimized the seriousness of girls’ activism and the real dangers they face as they put their bodies, their identities and their futures on the line.


It’s tempting in recounting the stories of activists such as Johns, Colvin, Rabin and Thunberg to emphasize their impetuousness, to characterize their clapbacks as instinctual and their protests as impulsive.


This, too, is patronizing — and disempowering. When adults tell themselves that the girls who helped spur the civil rights movement and the anti-gun-violence movement and the crusade to address climate change have supposedly acted without considering potential repercussions, they are seizing on an explanation of convenience: What chutzpah these girls show! How wonderful to be so naive, with so much single-minded faith in the potential for change!

It’s a rationale that absolves us. We don’t deserve the reprieve.


Girls aren’t fearless. Girls are terrified. And their activism isn’t naive. It’s not “innocent.” It’s the reasoned result of the stomach-churning awareness that girls can’t count on someone else to save them. This was true when students risked their lives for civil rights. It was true when Rabin begged the leader of the free world to renounce nuclear weapons. It is true now, as middle- and high-schoolers call for stricter gun laws and ask for legislative change — not awed tweets.


Of course, it’s not just girls whose fear spurs them to action. Young male activists have no less reason to feel distress over intertwined global crises. And nonbinary organizers have been on the forefront of critical social movements. But the undaunted girl — chin up, hands on hips — remains a quite literal and ill-advised avatar for progress.


In 2017, a Boston-based investment firm immortalized this version of our fantasies by sponsoring the “Fearless Girl” statue. It was first installed opposite the “Charging Bull” on Wall Street (and is now located across from the New York Stock Exchange), a faceoff not dissimilar from those we read about in the news: entrenched, hulking power vs. girl with an ideal.


The sculpture stands about 4 feet tall. Her skirt seems to swish, but she’s cast in bronze. Perhaps that’s how we like to think of our girl activists — as bulletproof. In fact, girls are vulnerable, under persistent threat from structural sexism and gender-based violence.

“Fearless” is a well-intentioned descriptor. But we haven’t really created a generation of unflinching girls. With our broken world, we’ve scared them into action.


Author: Mattie Kahn



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