It kind of sucks to be a teenage girl. No one takes you seriously, you’re constantly at the mercy of anyone who wants to holler at you as you walk down the street, and on the rare occasions you can muster up the courage to say no to someone, you’re called all sorts of names from whore to bore. On top of that, you don’t even have the good fortune to know those things will change some day (because they probably won’t). The stories of our teenage heroines from history can be depressing. Joan of Arc? Burned at the stake. Mary Shelley? Mired in tragedy. Anne Frank? Died in a Nazi concentration camp and thrown into a mass grave. Malala? Shot in the head for going to school.
It’s hard out there for a girl who wants to change the world, but there are plenty of teens going at it nonetheless. Let’s take a look at a few who deserve our attention:
- In the days following the horrific Valentine’s Day attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, 18-year-old Emma González stepped into the spotlight and reminded the world just how badass teenage girls can be, especially when you wrong them or the people they love. González has emerged as the de facto leader of the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Like many of those amazing teenagers, she’s managed to turn terror and anger almost immediately into political power, giving interviews to news organizations, speaking out at rallies, and memorably confronting National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch, herself once a teenage activist, at a town hall meeting. She’s angry, but articulate; devastated, but strong; and she’s helping a nation call B.S. on its politicians.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS…They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.” — Emma González
2. Zuriel Oduwole is a filmmaker and women’s education advocate and one of the youngest people to ever be profiled by Forbes. Born in the US to parents of Nigerian and Mauritian decent, she has an almost unbelievable resume, having been named Business Insider’s Most Powerful 11 Year Old in the world in 2014, one of New Africa Magazine’s Africa’s 100 Most Influential People in 2013, ELLE Canada’s “33 Women Who Changed The World” in 2015, Forbes Afrique’s 100 Most Influential Women in 2016, to name just a few. She’s even set up a foundation that recognizes African first ladies for their work to promote girls’ education. She’s interviewed 24 heads of state in her short career. Now, at 15, with 5 documentaries under her belt, she’s started teaching her own filmmaking classes in Namibia, Kenya, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Ghana, and Cote D’Ivore.
3. In 2012, 15-year-old Zhan Haite decided to fight to get a secondary education in her adopted home of Shanghai. Even though she had lived there since age 4, as a migrant, the Chinese government was under no legal obligation to let her attend high school in Shanghai. Her options were to stop her schooling, attend a technical academy, or somehow travel back to her hometown and away from her parents for school. Without the proper “hukou,” or household registry, the family could not access public services like education, despite paying taxes in the region for 11 years. Despite China’s penchant for silencing protestors, she started a Weibo (which is the closest thing to Facebook that is legal in China) campaign, led an organized protest in front of Shanghai’s educational bureau, and wrote an op-ed in the city’s newspaper demanding the high school education that would hopefully someday get her into college. The school and government administrators were unrelenting and so Zhan Haite educated herself at home and, according to her blog, was admitted to Purdue University in Indiana in 2017. She has vowed to keep fighting for educational rights for Chinese migrants, even though she will have to leave the country to attain her dreams.
4. When the documentary chronicling a young Mongolian girl’s unconventional hobby was released in 2016, many people thought it was staged because it was just too beautiful, emotional, and good to be true, but the truth is that some teenagers are just that awesome. It told the story of 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv, who wanted to learn the ancient art of eagle hunting from her father. The problem was that girls typically don’t eagle hunt. To the annoyance of many in her clan, Aisholpan’s parents had her back, and her father was happy to give her lessons. While commentators have pointed out that 1) she’s by no means the very first female eagle hunter ever (as if that makes her less impressive as an individual!), 2) even more annoyingly, that she’s only in this lucky position because she happens to be pretty, and 3) EVEN MORE annoyingly that she’s merely the beneficiary of a young American documentarian’s vision to stage a story of female empowerment, this young woman took it all in stride and extracted precisely what she wanted from her situation. As of last year, she had done the hard work required to become a successful eagle huntress, she procured scholarships from the best Mongolian schools, and had plans to release her eagle back into the wild so she could attend school and pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor — but not before passing on her skills to her younger sister.
5. Valerie “Val” Weisler was so shy at 14 that her classmates joked that she was a mute. Even when she did muster the courage to speak, other students pretended not to hear her. Despite the lack of compassion shown to her, she spent time consoling other bullied students at her school, and recalls one special exchange with a classmate in which she told him, quite frankly, that he mattered. He responded that her kind gesture had made him feel “validated.” The word gave Val the idea to create The Validation Project, which now has chapters in 1000 schools in 105 countries around the world. As CEO, she now oversees the creation and distribution of a self-empowerment and social justice curriculum that has touched roughly 6000 teenagers and matches vulnerable students with mentors at places like Google and Seventeen Magazine. Having started her project with a mere $25 of babysitting money, Ms. Weisler is now a student at Muhlenberg College and a recipient of a $10,000 grant from L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth program that will help run her continue to run the organization.
6. Sonita Alizadeh escaped her home in Afghanistan to avoid being married off by her widowed mother (she has no official documents, so her exact age is unknown, but she was estimated to be 15 at the time). She took low-level jobs as a servant in Iran and found the resources to learn to read and write, finding particular escape in poetry. Her love of music, and especially hip hop, emboldened her to secretly record some of her own songs, even though women are not allowed to sing solo in Iran without government permission. After winning a music contest, she was discovered by a documentary filmmaker who was working at the time in the Iranian slums. When she was recalled to Afghanistan by her family who wanted to marry her off and use her dowry to secure a wife for her brother. Instead, the filmmaker offered her mother $2000 for a 6-month reprieve so she could tell Sonita’s story. During this time Sonita wrote wrote the lyrics to “Brides for Sale,” a rap song protesting child marriage under the Taliban. Recently, a non-profit paid for Sonita to move to Utah to attend a private school, which Sonita had to do without her family’s permission. Now, she goes to school, performs around the country, and is trying to get into Stanford so she can someday practice law back in Afghanistan while continuing to rap about social justice.
“I scream to make up for a lifetime of women’s silence. I scream on behalf of the deep wounds on my body. I scream for a body exhausted in its cage; a body that broke under the price tags you put on it.” (From Brides for Sale, translated from the Persian)
7. 11-year-old Marley Dias loved to read but was frustrated about the lack of black characters in her books, especially black girls. Upon realizing that only about 10% of trade books published in the US features people of color as main characters, Dias launched #1000BlackGirlBooks in 2015, which she describes as “a campaign that collects books with black girls as the main characters, donate them to communities, develop a resource guide to find those books, talk to educators and legislators about how to increase the pipeline of diverse books, and lastly, write my own book, so that I can see black girl books collected and I can see my story reflected in the books I have to read.” Now, at a mindbogglingly articulate 13, she’s just released her own book, titled Marley Gets it Done: And So Can You!, is an editor-in-residence at Elle.com, and is simultaneously working on a book tour and finishing 6th grade.