It’s obvious that youth are our future, but few respect young people enough to find out where we’re headed under their leadership. What makes young people today different from older generations, in additions to their comfort with diversity in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age, is their courage, education, and access to the Internet. If you re-read the quotations that begin each chapter you’ll see young women’s humanitarian commitment to justice and equality and their understanding that their issues are global. Although some young women think feminism means hating men, they usually believe in the fairness of equal opportunity.
After dialoguing with young people around the world for 15 years, the courage of young Muslim women is the most striking because they’re threatened with death, stoning, hellfire or not being marriageable if they don’t obey authority. Malala Yousafzai takes on opponents of education for girls despite being shot in the head and feels free to correct world leaders like President Obama on his drone policy. She’s famous but other Pakistani young women also risk extremists’ punishment for educating girls. Saudi women drive cars or video themselves wearing a skirt knowing their jobs could be taken away from them and they might put in jail. Egyptian women face police snipers and Libyan and Afghan women activists face death from extremists who want women to stay home. Tawakkol Karman ignored her father and husband who were worried over death threats on her life to continue to lead Yemen’s uprising.
Why are they so brave? As the best educated generation in history they learned to think for themselves and know how to access information. The widespread use of cellphones with cameras, even in regions without electricity, expands access to information and makes it difficult to hide abuses. This generation is better informed about global problems and those who are responsible for them. Motivated by a sense of justice and human rights, young feminists draw strength and information from international support groups on social media. Many have Internet “friends” from around the world and are empowered by seeing YouTube videos of women in the front line of demonstrations, facing off masked police with tear gas and water cannons. Young people with access to electricity grew up identifying with heroes in Western movies like the Lion King and books like those about Harry Potter and Hermione Granger who smartly challenge the powerful bad guys. Do you agree that most Western cartoons include nonconformists or at least problem solvers like Dora the Explorer? We’re also seeing feminist cartoons in Pakistan (the animated TV series the Burka Avenger) and India—Priya is shown on this book cover, the star of graphic novels.
On one hand, girl power is romanticized and proclaimed. On the other hand, women’s power is feared. Strong women like Hillary Clinton or Joice Mujuru (former Vice-President of Zimbabwe) are called unattractive bitch or witch. The fear of the “feminization” of power is a reaction to girls’ success in education as the majority of global college graduates, and their skill in cooperative team relationships required in the contemporary workplace and in progressive groups. Countries like China give boys preference in college admission as girls score higher on the entrance exam and China joins Iran in prohibiting certain college majors to women. As young women graduates become the majority of professionals, will they get past the glass ceiling to make a difference? Are they the harbingers of a future characterized by more democratic and relational organizing? The global uprisings that started with the Arab Spring in 2011 all advocate horizontalism, direct democracy and consensus decision-making, enunciated earlier by the Second Wave of feminism, as the prefigurative social system of the future.
The success of brave privileged educated young women is in sharp contrast to fearful illiterate poor girls who live in rural areas of developing countries or urban slums, represented by the interview with Mashal in Pakistan, discussed in Chapter 5. You read that she has no autonomy and had to turn down a free opportunity to be educated in our Open Door Literacy Project. Since over 80% of the world’s young people live in developing countries, poverty and illiteracy must be tackled with at least as much as the West spends on pets. With the largest populations, India and China are the countries to watch to see if they overcome patriarchal control of society and government. Can they provide equal opportunity for women and lift more people out of poverty, especially in India?
Smart brave girls are portrayed as saviors like Casey and Athena in the 2015 film Tomorrowland. This is not a new theme: I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about the Victorian belief in the ability of pure Christian women to bring salvation to less refined men, as portrayed in novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The meme of grrrl power was coined by punk artists like the band Bikini Kill and their zines in the early 1990s, inspired by the black power movement. The danger is advertisers and development experts interpret girl power as the ability of individual enterprising young women to make money and consume products in developed countries or to make development efforts successful in low-income countries. Mattel’s “I can be” Barbie is an example of the sales pitch that girls can be anything they like; however one of their advertisements mostly shows Barbie caring for children as a mother or medical professional.[i]
Another danger of pretend girl power is young women are expected to do it all, be perfect, as seen in advertisements featuring a beautiful woman in a suit and heels, happily striding down the sidewalk carrying a briefcase and a baby. This pressure to be attractive and achieve is part of the explanation for rising anxiety and depression levels in girls in the US. This pressure also may make girls more vulnerable to criticism on social media and from peers. Girls were three-fourths of the depressed teens in a 2016 Johns Hopkins University study of interviews with more than 172,000 teens.[ii] The previous year the National Institute of Mental Health reported that about 30% of girls and 20% of boys have an anxiety disorder.[iii]
Nike’s Girl Effect campaign suggested that the key to lifting developing nations out of poverty is the adolescent girl, when in fact, girls obviously don’t have this power. The key is to change the neoliberal capitalist economic system that causes widening inequality in a world where only six (down from 62 in 2016) men have as much wealth as the bottom half of the population![iv] The World Economic Forum predicts it will take up to 170 years to achieve economic equality between women and men, partly due to the lack of aid funding that specifically targets women.[v] What I think is more important than clothing, is the 225 million women who want birth control but don’t have it—not just in developing nations. President Trump hired an anti-birth control advisor and his presidency encouraged Republicans who want to defund Planned Parenthood and health care.[vi]
The definition of female power as individual preference and style undercuts the First and Second Wave feminist understanding that change comes from persistent group efforts to pass new legislation like the vote or equality in federal spending on education. It took the First Wave never giving up and trying many tactics from 1848 to 1920 to pass the 19th amendment to the US constitution. Abortion was illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 but access is steadily being rolled back in southern states. The Equal Rights Amendment proposed in 1923 still hasn’t passed. The attention on slut shaming, SlutWalks, fat shaming, gender pronouns, and cultural appropriation of hairstyles misses the big problems of women’s lack of power in government, business and in some families.
The Second Wave of feminism did the groundwork by naming the sexist problem that until then had no name (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, 1963), organizing for political change on the street, in the boardrooms, and in legislatures. Role models of outspoken charismatic feminists like Gloria Steinem (born in 1934) were known globally for making the point that we need to do “outrageous acts and everyday rebellions” (Steinem’s 1983 book) and that the family is the starting point for patriarchal inequality. The UN and other NGOs organized internationally for recognition that women’s rights are human rights. Although the UN’s Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 spurred feminist organizing globally, no country has gender equality. The “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Turns 20” provides a blueprint for global progress towards gender equality.[vii]
Actors Emma Watson (born in 1990) and Lena Dunham (born in 1986) are inspired by Steinem to bring feminism to their generation, as in Watson’s work with the UN’s HeForShe and her bookclub and Dunham’s feminist publishing imprint called Lenny. We can learn from the best-organized student groups with active young women co-leaders in Chile and Quebec. Some of them decided to run for political office in both places. Will they be able to change the system from the inside? Some studies show that women leaders do more for their constituents and work more harmoniously in a group, and that they’re less likely to enter warfare. We’ll see. A recent hopeful tendency is for women’s rights groups to network with other activist groups, such as environmentalists, immigrant rights and LGBT rights, as evidenced in recent global Women’s Marches.
As well as being brave and well-educated, young women and men are optimistic even in the face of pessimistic projections for future trends. Climate change and global warming is the most pressing problem as we threaten to destroy the environment with our consumption of fossil fuel, misuse of the soil and water, destruction of forests, factory production of cattle, and more abuses. Advertisers’ push for us to consume more and more is bad for the environment, especially buying beef and vehicles. Other current issues globally are youth bulges in developing countries and the graying of developed countries (the global population will increase to almost nine million people by 2035), the spread of ethnic populism and nationalism, identity politics that divide countries like the US, threat from young Muslim extremists terrorists, loss of jobs to robots and other technology, very high youth unemployment, migration (1 in 112 persons is a migrant), urbanization and slums, and continued reliance on warfare to resolve conflicts. In addition to hot wars we suffer from “gray zone” unconventional warfare, such as Russia’s use of the Internet to hack information and to spread propaganda through bots to influence elections.
Democracy can’t be taken for granted, as Freedom House reports almost twice as many countries have gone backward as those that have become more democratic: In 2016, 45% were free, 30% partly free, and 25% not free.[viii] The global uprisings that began with the Arab Spring in 2011 continue around the world as young people stand up for freedom and oppose authoritarian governments. The uprisings will continue as democracy is under attack and economic inequality increases rather than narrows. Although we’ve lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty, 10% remain very poor, living on less than $2 a day. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals address these issues. Economic growth is predicted to slow after 70 years of neoliberal policies but large debts limit government funding of social programs. The most resilient economies will utilize the talents of all groups, not just men. If they don’t, young people will lead more uprisings, like the Russian teenagers who chanted to Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, “While you were stealing money, we were growing!” during protests against corruption in 2017.
Patriarchal attitudes viewing women as important mainly as sex objects or mothers continue among powerful old men such as Presidents Trump who thought his fame gave him permission to grab women’s genitalia, Erdogan who says a Turkish woman without a child is a half woman, and Putin who said, “I am not a woman, so I don’t have bad days,” and encourages Russian women to have many children.[ix] We see improvement in some of the spate of Generation X men in their late 30s who were in power in 2017 in Canada, France, Ukraine, Estonia, Greece, Macedonia, North Korea, Bhutan, Qatar, and previously in Italy from 2014 to 2016 under Matteo Renzi.[x] A difference is some of them are more comfortable sharing leadership with women, as when President Macron and Prime Minister Trudeau selected women to be half of their cabinet members. And Generations Y, Z, and Alpha are more egalitarian than these Gen X men.
We can be hopeful about the future because Gen X has liberal viewpoints, according to a large global survey in 2017.[xi] Opposing prejudice, 89% believe that men and women should be treated equally (especially in Canada and China), 74% believe that transgender people should have rights, 66% believe in safe and legal abortion, 63% believe same-sex marriage should be legal, but only about half believe in free speech if it’s offensive to religion or minority groups. Support for free speech is highest in Turkey and Argentina–countries with a history of authoritarian governments, and lowest in Nigeria and China. Young people in 14 out of the 20 countries are supportive of immigrant rights in their country. Few think a person’s religion is an important factor in selecting a friend. Only 3% think fame is the most important factor in choosing a career. It’s hopeful for our planetary future that Gen X cares about relationships and doing service more than making money or becoming famous.
In the West, Miley Cyrus-style feminism has devolved into a discussion of “slut shaming” and the right to show a lot of skin or be bisexual, influenced by neoliberal individualistic consumerism. We need a global feminism that unites around providing education and health care for young people and gets over the fear of being called man haters. Girls and women are most of the people who are illiterate, victims of domestic violence and those forced into early marriage and childbirth. International surveys of people show that the majority of people favor equality. The future depends on educating both girls and boys, including about how to protect the environment and stop global warming. Young women will continue to lead uprisings against patriarchal autocrats.
[ii] “Depression on the Rise Among Teens, Especially Girls,” HUB Staff Report, November 16, 2016.
[iii] Susanna Schrobsdorff, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” TIME Magazine, October 27, 2016.
[iv] “Just 8 Men Own Same Wealth as Half the World,” Oxfam, January 16, 2017.
[x] Eliza Relman, Heads of State Under 40,” Business Insider, April 18, 2017.
[xi] Emma Broadbent, et al., “Generation Z: Global Citizenship Survey,” Varkey Foundation, January 2017.