Thursday, October 11, 2012

Remarks at the National Press Club for the Women's Media Center Girls' State of the Union

Today I had the awesome opportunity to speak at the National Press Club in Washington DC to deliver remarks around girls and feminism, due to winning the Women's Media Center "Girls' State of the Union" contest earlier this year. Feminist icon (and tremendous role model) Gloria Steinem introduced me, and I delivered the following remarks.

I’d like to thank the Women’s Media Center for the tremendous opportunity to speak here today, and Ms. Steinem for the introduction—I’m honored. I’ve looked up to Ms. Steinem ever since I knew what feminism was. It’s not every day that you get introduced by an icon, so I may have to, at some point, pinch myself. I’m grateful for the introduction because, to be quite honest, it’s very hard for me to choose how to introduce myself sometimes—I feel like I have to choose somehow, because of the wide range of things I do, causes I support, or roles I embody—student, writer, teacher, activist. So a defining moment for me was when we were asked to introduce ourselves on the first day of my philosophy course at Stanford over the summer. I looked around the room, opened my mouth, and said: “I’m a feminist.”

My convictions didn’t start with finding a way to introduce myself, of course; they started gradually, and in some unlikely places. You see, growing up, like probably a lot of you, I loved princesses. I loved their fancy tiaras and elaborate dresses, convoluted names and inherited power. Now, this could have easily gone in the other direction—the influence of too many princesses getting rescued by Prince Charmings on white horses could have made me buy into this image of feminine as weak—except for the fact that I loved history, too. So in the pages of books, I did find my role models, just maybe not the role models most people would expect. I found Elizabeth the First infinitely cooler than Cinderella, because being imprisoned in the Tower of London while evading the possibility of your sister calling for your execution seems a lot tougher than throwing down a glass slipper. The lesson that being a bookworm taught me was that for every Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, there was a Catherine the Great or Joan of Arc or Eleanor Roosevelt. And when I starting writing my own stories, I determined that there had to be some characters who didn’t fit the stereotype of the “good little girl.” That came naturally to me, because that was around the same time I decided I was a feminist.

But I wonder why those three little words, “I’m a feminist,” can be so hard for girls and guys to say. When it is said, it’s often followed by some sort of apologetic qualifier—“…but, I still like when guys hold doors for me” and the like. Or it’s used in a pick-and-choose way, like “I’m a feminist when it comes to this,” or disavowed entirely “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist,” but then followed by an acknowledgement of current wrongs in society and a belief in equality for women that basically makes the speaker a feminist in all but name.
Be honest—you’ve probably done it, or you’ve seen it done.

We shouldn’t ever feel like we have to qualify, deny, or apologize for our belief in what’s right: equality. We can stop being scared of feminism. We need to make it cool, not scary or weird, to say, “I’m a feminist.” In Iowa during the Republican primaries there was a pledge going around, asking the candidates to affirm their family values. I would love for a feminism pledge to go around Congress. That might sound radical to some people. “Aren’t feminists those scary man-hating ladies in giant shoulder-padded power suits?” they might think. Not quite. According to the dictionary, feminism is just advocating “social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” Definitions have power, because when you tell people that’s what a feminist is they sit up and say, “Well I guess then I’m a feminist.”

If we all take this step, of affirming the importance of feminism, it will have a huge impact. But the people who will ultimately be able to make the most change--the people who should speak up the most--the people who will ultimately carry the feminist movement onwards--are today’s young people. Us. We need to make sure that today’s boys and girls know at least as much about the lives of Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem as they do about Kim Kardashian or Snooki. That’s a vision of the girls’ state of the union that I as a teenage girl, hope to see. One where equality, respect, and fairness for all are more than ideals for the nation, but words embodied each and every day. Yet this vision may seem elusive in the present day. Talking to my peers, opinion seems to be split; some are well-informed and know that the work of feminism isn’t over; others point to how far we’ve come and question the necessity of the movement’s modern continuance.

And society has, in many ways, conditioned us to think that way, with artificial constructions of token “girl power” yet excessive segregation and limitation in the merchandise we’re offered, media we consume, and more. If we go on a shopping trip, a simple jaunt down the toys aisle can tell you that something is wrong. It’s easy to see what’s for girls and what’s for boys. The boys get star wars figurines and superheroes, and the girls get Barbies with feet made for high heels or Disney princesses sitting pretty and waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them.

Now you wander down to the magazine section and start looking at the selection for teenage girls: Seventeen, CosmoGirl, Teen Vogue, Girl’s Life. Relationships, celebrities, gossip, hair and makeup advice, “how to get flat abs” on every cover—what more could a teen girl want?

Now you’ve come to the clothing and shoes section. The high heels get higher and higher. In the juniors’ clothing section, almost every bra’s a pushup. You wonder why.
This department store experience might be virtual, but the merchandise within it isn’t. As a five-year-old, I had proportionally incorrect dolls; as a teenager, I see magazines marketed to girls that seem to value beauty over brains, and I see clothes that sell too much on the basis of “less is more,” especially if it’s lacy and pink.

I don’t think that the women I look up to got to where they are now because of Barbiesque figures; I think it took smarts and persistence and hard work. These aren’t the traits that are emphasized on store shelves with merchandise for girls. And misrepresentation of girls continues through adulthood. On TV we see the exploits of the Real Housewives of *insert city here*--stereotypical catfighting—and on Jersey Shore, the drunken adventures of Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki. Is it right that Snooki, who I hope will never be an influence in government and policy, has significantly more name recognition than Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior advisor? Who would you rather have your daughters looking up to?

We teenage girls hear a lot of mixed messages. We hear things like inside beauty is more important than outside beauty, love who you are, be yourself; and then we hear things like a quote from Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, discouraging Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign by saying, “She has a large posterior herself.” Is this an appropriate comment for anyone, man or woman, Democrat or Republican, to make? Hillary Clinton once said, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” Michelle Obama’s outfits are headline news items. Is this how you would want to be evaluated all the time, by your outward appearance? Step out the door and everything you wear, how you look, whether you’re wearing makeup or not, is scrutinized?

If there is any silver lining to growing up in an environment that tells us appearance is everything, it’s this: we should know from reading enough issues of CosmoGirl or Seventeen how to make something look good. But instead of lipstick or foundation on our skin, we can use feminism to give society a makeover. Making over society is what the Women’s Media Center is doing. Girls are taking action. The SPARK Summit petition asking that Seventeen Magazine provide girls with images of real girls, unaltered by Photoshopping, led to Seventeen vowing to change their ways. High school students Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis successfully pushed for a female moderator in the presidential debates. Emma is a graduate of the Women’s Media Center Progressive Girls’ Voices training.

This kind of action is grassroots, it’s effective, and it’s needed. You see, by staying silent, apologizing for speaking up, or criticizing those who do, we’re falling into a waiting-for-Prince-Charming trap: the idea that someone else will come along and do the heavy lifting to rescue us.

But by fighting for ourselves, not being afraid to speak up, and using media to amplify our voices, we can do the rescuing ourselves—because progress doesn’t work the way of fairytales. Progress is a story we ourselves get to write. There are girls who aren’t waiting to write this story. They are taking action now, and it’s worth remembering on this International Day of the Girl that in some other countries, girls are risking their very lives to do so. Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai, an activist for girls’ education in Pakistan, was shot and grievously injured by the Taliban for her courageous work. Malala is still fighting for her life in a hospital. But what is uplifting in this story—aside from the tremendous bravery of one girl—is the solidarity of her community. Men, women, and children condemned the hateful, cowardly action of her attacker. And this quote stuck with me, as I watched the nightly news last night—a girl from Malala’s hometown, saying something along the lines of, “For every girl they try to silence, there will be thousands of us angry and ready to speak up.”

Are we angry?
Yes we are.
Are we ready to speak up?
Yes we are.

Thank you.


  1. This is amazing Adora! I love your speech. Congrats again on winning the contest and getting to speak here!

  2. Adora,
    You have a way with words that is both sincere and inspiring. Your speech was fantastic and I congratulate you for winning the contest. I wish I had been there to see the delivery!

  3. Anonymous5:36 PM

    A very inspirational speech! You truly uncover the rather dismal part of society, but in a very positive way- you shine a light of hope on something that feminists will one day achieve: True equality in all aspects, whether they be economic, political, or, as proven with the unconventional beauty of models on the covers of magazines, social. Congratulations!
    Also, may Malala Yousufazai recover, and hopefully, her heroism and positions will stand and change the views of millions.

  4. Adora, you posted: feminism is just advocating “social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” Sadly, you are right. It is just, or merely advocating these things.

    As far as these specific goals are concerned, feminism may be a worthy cause. Where it falls short is in recognizing the worth of women (and individuals) purely on social, political, legal and economic terms. In that, the cause does as much damage as the inequalities it fights against.

    It could be argued that a bus driver helping an elderly man on and off the bus each day has done more for that man's well being than the senator fighting for senior's issues in congress. Who has done the greater good for the man? The wealthy senator in power or the driver of a city bus?

    Sadly, men AND women in society tend only to measure value by income earned, revenue generated, positions of power, and lengthly lists of tasks done. Feminists are just as guilty as holding up as heroes the wealthy, influential, and powerful.

    I'm not advocating poverty or illiteracy. I'm saying women, perhaps more than any other group, could do a great deal to ensure society ALSO measures greatness by kindness, thoughtless acts of service, quiet generosity, caring for the down-trodden.

    I wish feminism would take up a different scale by which to measure and demonstrate the greatness of women. The world would be a better place for it.