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Many teen girl activists have been left out of our history books – until now

Author Mattie Kahn chats with Know Your Value about her new book, “Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions.”
Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin, in 1998.Dudley M. Brooks / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

When Mattie Kahn graduated from college, she started working at women’s magazines. Kahn immediately found herself drawn to the stories of teenage girls who were engaged in activist work. That included the organizers of March For Our Lives, who were advocating for gun control legislation, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and Black Lives Matter activists who were connecting on social media and planning massive marches through their DMs.

“I wondered whether there might be a book in their stories, since it felt novel to me at the time that girls were on the forefront of all of these prominent social movements,” Kahn recounted. “I started researching, and it became clear that this was a much older narrative. In fact, girls have been on the vanguard of progressive organizing for literal centuries.

Kahn then started a years-long journey interviewing people for her new book, “Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions.”

The book tells the unknown or little-known stories of girls and young women who played crucial roles in America’s movements for labor rights, suffrage, abolition, civil rights, reproductive rights, free speech and nuclear disarmament.

Kahn recently chatted with Know Your Value about the book, explained why so many teen activists have been left out of our history books, detailed how teenage activism has changed throughout the years and more.

Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Know Your Value: Congratulations on the new book! Who did you write it for?

Kahn: The book is for every single person who is interested in American history. I really mean that. The stories in “Young and Restless” are the stories of this country. Yes, they’re about girls. They’re fundamentally about people who’ve changed things. Men are welcome to read this book! I’m generous enough to believe that men too deserve to understand how we arrived at our present moment!

Of course, because the book is also a love letter to the power of teenage girls, I do hope that teenage girls—and those of us who remember what it was like to be a teenage girl—read it. That period is so wondrous and frightening. It’s so full of potential. I hope I’ve done it justice.

Mattie Kahn is an award-winning writer and editor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Vox, and more
Mattie Kahn is an award-winning writer and editor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Vox, and moreSophie Sahara

Know Your Value: What do you hope readers, especially teenage girls, take away from the book?

Kahn: I feel tremendous gratitude toward teenage girls, which I hope comes through in the book. I would like for young women who read it to feel that and to know that there are grown men and women who take them seriously as political actors.

I also hope readers realize the burden that teenage girls are bearing isn’t fair. It’s not right that we have depended on girls to make a case for social progress—to put a winsome face on a campaign that we should all be waging together.

This is not a book that tells readers to sit back because “the kids will save us.” It’s a book that tries to understand where that idea even came from—what has driven our reliance on teenage girls to be visible and public and charming. Above all, I hope it makes people feel powerful. We can all do more.

Know Your Value: You note that many of the girls you feature in “Young and Restless” have been left out of our history books. Why is that?

Kahn: So many women have been left out of our history books. So have people of color and LGBTQ+ people. Girls are absent for the same reason that those groups are. They haven’t gotten to write the books!

I also think that part of what girls have done for movements—from their strikes at the Lowell Mills in the 1830s to their school walkouts during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s—is go first. Test the waters.

Girls have led because girls—and teenagers in general—have less to lose than adults with jobs and children and responsibilities. Later, when adults have followed them and formalized some of their ideas, that work has taken precedence. It’s been seen as more legitimate than the adolescent outbursts that preceded it.

I didn’t write this book to undercut known movement leaders, but I would be delighted if the people who know those landmark names also come to appreciate the likes of Mabel Ping-Hua Lee and Barbara Johns and Claudette Colvin.

Know Your Value: Who is your favorite teen activist you write about in the book and why?

Kahn: I can’t choose a favorite! But I will share two stories that feel representative to me:

Claudette Colvin is best known now—if she’s known at all—for her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Rosa Parks did. But I think she should be known for her monumental and brave decision to be plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle. That’s the case that ultimately held that segregated buses violated the Equal Protection Clause and effectively ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin, in 1998.Dudley M. Brooks / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Colvin joined Browder at a time when she felt sidelined in the movement. Leaders had begged men—from ministers to businessmen—to become plaintiffs. Not one had the courage. Colvin volunteered. She was 16. After the ruling, she wasn’t celebrated as some teen icon. She was marginalized. It wasn’t until decades later that she was recognized for what she’d done. I have a lot of admiration for her. I feel we Claudette Colvin owe her a lot.

I also loved talking to and writing about Mary Beth Tinker, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, whose decision to wear a black armband to class to protest the Vietnam War became the inciting incident in the legal battle that later affirmed the constitutional rights of children in school.

When we spoke, Tinker was honest: Her aim had been to end the war. Her protest failed to do so. For a long time, she found that painful. But later, she could appreciate what she’d achieved: a legal precedent that children were entitled to their freedoms.

Mary Beth Tinkerspeaks to students during a mock trial
Mary Beth Tinkerspeaks to students during a mock trial in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 14, 2017.Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

In an era of book bans and coercive dress codes, it’s clear that some people in power beg to differ. We’re still litigating Tinker, and in that sense, her work continues.

Know Your Value: In the book, you document teen activism starting in the early 1800s to the young leaders of today. How has teen activism changed over the years?

Kahn: Teens are natural-born early adopters, and so teen protest has changed to reflect the technological capabilities of the era in which it’s taking place. TV revolutionized protest. Then social media did the same. The places and spaces where girls organize reflect that. Now so much activism happens online. That has its drawbacks, but it’s also the reason that a more diverse group of advocates has a voice and is able to connect across not just state lines, but time zones and borders.

The Lowell Mill Girls, who so loved to collaborate and trade ideas, could never have imagined the kind of collective action that’s possible now.

Know Your Value: The book asks: What would the world look like if we truly gave these girls their due? What do you think the answer is?

Kahn: Girls shouldn’t be placed on some pedestal, as if they aren’t capable of making mistakes or acting out of malice. I write in the book about girls who opposed the civil rights movement, who are anti-choice, who believe in curbing access to the vote. I want to be clear that I don’t think girlhood is some unmitigated force for good in the world.

That said, If we were capable of giving girls their due credit, I don’t think we’d be experiencing the problems that are currently destabilizing this planet. I find it hard to believe that a universe in which girls were valued for their contributions would also be a universe that refused to act in the interest of basic self-preservation. Alas! We live in this universe. Not that one.