Girl activists have taken center stage in media and culture. From all corners of the world, girls are standing up for their rights, the rights of others, and the rights of planet Earth. These girls – all under the age of 21 – are leading the way in issues surrounding education, environmental and climate change, and social justice (excluding suffrage, which we covered in Young Suffrage).
Through their stories, and insights from two renowned researchers in young girls’ activism, we seek to spark discussion on girl power as a force for social good and spread awareness of the movements, and movers, leading the way to a better world.
Note: This exhibition includes content written by Girl Museum staffers before 2021. We love girl activists, and support their ongoing work from youth through adulthood. So, some biographies you see may have been written earlier than others. We continue to add new activists as they are covered on our blog.
Paola Gianturco is an author/photographer who has documented women’s lives in 62 countries and had six books published.Paola Gianturco and her eleven-year-old granddaughter documented the work of fifteen girl-led nonprofit groups in thirteen countries in Asia and Central Asia, North and Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Oceania. They interviewed and photographed 102 girls.
Gayle Kimball, PhD, is the author of a dozen books, many of which explore groups under-represented in research, such as youth. Professor Emerita at California State University, she has traveled around the world to interview young people for her trilogy about global youth activism, young womenpermil;Ucirc;ordf;s issues, and how global youth viewpoints will change our future.
Analyzing Girl Activism
In researching this exhibition, we asked our guest curators to reflect on girl activism in general. Their responses shed light on both their work and work by other girl studies scholars.
Why study girl activists?
Gianturco: Several reasons. Many people see girl activists as “the future” but right now, girl activists are enhancing education, health, equality, and the environment—and stopping child marriage, domestic violence, trafficking and war. Girls’ activism focusses on virtually all the world’s most intractable problems. Girls may have received the most publicity for working on issues like education, gun control and climate change, but those three are just the beginning. Girls’ eagerness to transform the world is fed by their unique, inherent, attributes: energy and intelligence, creativity and confidence, determination and dreams.
With the exception of a few like Malala and Greta Thunberg, many girl activists have not been acknowledged or heard. When girls ARE heard, they recognize their own strength. They understand each other more completely—and they collaborate to catalyze positive change that will affect them, their families, communities, countries and our world.
Most people don’t expect young girls to speak truth to power or to be strategic and effective. Girls are like Trojan Horses: they have the advantages of being a surprise!
Girls’ youth works to their benefit: their creativity, stamina, and resilience win people over.
Today’s girls are citizens of the world. They Skype, Snapchat, FaceTime, Instagram, and email across borders. Even in places where WiFi is iffy and phone service is unaffordable, girls text. Their world seems small and impact seems possible.
Dr. Kimball: Generation Z girl activists lead important social movements, including the all-important climate movement. In addition to Never Again’s Emma Gonzales and Jaclyn Corin leadership against gun violence, and Black Lives Matter activists, other female students are key players around the world like Agnes Chow in Hong Kong, Alaa Salah in Sudan, and Benjamaporn Nivas, 15. She is a leader of the Thai rebellion against military control of education. T-shirts proclaim, “Girl Power,” “Who runs the world? Girls.” A poster held by a girl in the “Women in White” Belarus demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko read “#Fight Like a Belarusian Girl.” Young Egyptian and Iranian women are using social media to protest violence against women, inspired by the global #MeToo movement. Previous girl and young women leaders of uprisings are described in Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution.
What trends do you see in girl activism?
Gianturco: Girl activism is “catching.” Greta Thunberg acknowledges that her activism was inspired by the youth activism against gun violence in Parkland, Florida. I documented “Greta’s” Fridays for Future large protests in four places, New York City, Copenhagen, Mill Valley, California and Los Angeles…but millions of young people around the world have been inspired to school strike every Friday and to demand climate justice.
Girls’ rebellion against what they perceive to be unjust and wrong is already reshaping the world. Example: Malala helped reduce the number of girls left out of elementary education. Memory Banda led girls in Malawi to get child marriage outlawed. Melati and Isabel Wijsen led a children’s movement that got plastic bags banned in Bali.
Unlike the women’s NGOs (featured in my 5 books before Wonder Girls: Changing Our World), many girls groups included boys, who were welcomed as peers and collaborators. Since change often requires involving everyone, this is a positive shift.
Girl activism is happening worldwide. I documented 15 groups of girls age 10-18 in thirteen far-flung countries: India, Indonesia, Israel/Palestine, Kenya, Krgyzstan, Malawi, Mexico, Myanmar, New Zealand, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, the United States.
Girls are unlikely to outgrow their passion for the issues that they champion now. One girl told me, “I will be wedded to this cause for the rest of my life.”
Dr. Kimball: Comparing Generation Y and Z activists in Climate Girls Saving Our World, Canadian Gen Y activist Slater Jewell-Kemker characterizes Gen Z as more confident changemakers, more concerned with social justice issues, and more inclusive–including indigenous groups. Gen Zers think of themselves as braver than Gen Y, perhaps because they were beaten down by economic recession, and because the climate crisis is more visible. Like Gen Y, youth today are comfortable with diversity. Another global trend is the recognition of the need for self-care for mental health to prevent burnout. Activists tend to advocate changing the global economic system to a circular economy.
What do these girls say about girls’ roles in human society?
Gianturco: In the past, Americans tended to infantalize young girls. Now, increasingly, girls are seen as having voices and views worth listening to and respecting. They are valued as important contributors to human society.
Dr. Kimball: Girls in the climate movement, like Greta Thunberg, say that girls have to act like adults because adults act like children in being irresponsible about our environment. Girls I interviewed for Climate Girls Saving Our World are angry that they don’t get to have fun like their parents did as teens, having to organize to save our planet. Girls interviewed for Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution said they include fun, humor, art, and music in their political work.
Use the arrows to scroll through short glimpses of the girl activists we profile, and click the “Read More” button to learn about each individual.
Welcome to Activist, You! where YOU can be an activist TOO! Activist, You! is a brand new Kids & Family podcast focusing on social justice. Every episode our host Lindz Amer interviews different kid and youth activists, learning about their dedicated social justice topic, and how and why they became activists!
Join the amazing Amy Shark, Yael Stone, Dame Quentin Bryce, Claudia Karvan, Turia Pitt, Stephanie Gilmore, Leah Purcell and more as they tell the inspiring tales of some of Australia’s most extraordinary women.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
You might have heard of the popular book series, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Kids can now listen about extraordinary women through their podcast series. They cover a variety of real-life women from all over the world. Some of our recent favorite episodes feature Edmonia Lewis, Freida Pinto and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Hey Black Child
Sometimes kids enjoy listening to kids! Hey Black Child features hosts Avery and Jackson Ausmer, and with the little help from a few grown-ups, they’re able to learn about Black history and discuss topics going on in the world that might not be mentioned in school. Even parents can learn a lot from the sibling duo.
Teen. Girl. Activist. by UNESCO
“Greta Thurnberg and the rise of young female activists” on Vox, published December 2019.
Engaging Youth as Active Citizens, a guide from Plan International
(2017) Teenage girls’ narratives of becoming activists, Contemporary Social Science, 12:1-2, 27-39,
View books on girl activists that we recommend at our Bookshop.org list! Buying from Bookshop.org supports Girl Museum and independent bookstores across the United States.
Special thanks to guest curators Paola Gianturco and Dr. Gayle Kimball, as well as our curatorial team, Sage Daugherty, Tia Shah, and Tiffany Rhoades.
Girl Activist button and banner designed by Sian Legaspi.
Our educational guide is designed to help students of all ages explore this exhibit, aligned with U.S. and U.K. curricular standards.