There's been more buzz than ever around this year's International Women's Day. Heavy-hitter Sheryl Sandberg made a big announcement. Old-school women's movement leaders Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Eve Ensler each made high-profile appearances. And all eyes were on the powerhouse trio of Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Melinda Gates as they launched the No Ceilings Full Participation Report, benchmarking the gains women and girls have made since the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
But there's a new guard of feminists who have put their own stamp on International Women's Day. With the motto "Change the world by being yourself," Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party, has staked their claim with the under 18 crew. Young women's organization She's the First has mobilized its nationwide army of college students to make a stand for gender equality in education. And with 24-year-old Emma Watson as its spokesperson, and a lot of social media savvy, UN Women has made a massive millennial outreach to bring the conversation about feminism to a new generation.
In my fifteen years in young women's magazines, I think we used the word "feminist" once. And that was only about a year ago with an article that asked, "So Are You a Feminist?" Before that there was no real appetite among young women to probe deeper into topics like equal pay or equal rights. They assumed that the fight had already been won and they could do anything on equal footing with the boys. Sure, we always talked about "leadership," but those stories were aimed at the alpha girls, the leader of the class. Suddenly, there has been a tremendous revolution among young women in how they view power and success, and feminism has become the domain of every girl. In the last year, young women have moved so quickly past the question of whether or not you're a feminist to the conclusion that yes, we should all be feminists. In fact, a whopping 41 percent of young women 14 to 24 now identify as a feminist, according to a November 2014 survey from MTV Insights.
Emma Watson gave voice to this sudden change, in a speech last September announcing the launch of UN Women's #heforshe campaign that seeks to mobilize men to join the fight for equal rights. "I decided that I was a feminist. And this seemed uncomplicated to me," she said -- and the Internet went wild! That speech hit social media jackpot amassing 1.2 billion impressions on Twitter. 220,000 men signed an online pledge to fight against violence and discrimination against women. Next, Emma and team upped the ante on social media with a live-streamed question and answer session on Facebook on International Women's Day. The goal was to keep Emma's youthful authenticity to deepen the connection with her audience. No glam makeup or fancy lighting. UN Women was banking on big-time success. Leading up to the event revealed her ambitious goals. "We want to crash Facebook!"
And so it's clear, this generation is redefining feminist activism on its own terms -- as it does everything else. For Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, power is personal. "We believe that finding yourself interesting is the accomplishment. That is success," says Meredith Walker, Smart Girls' co-founder who will be celebrating International Women's Day by hosting an event for girls who want to learn how to fix their own cars. Smart Girls was created to empower young girls and teens and to create a place that was safe from the "gross stuff" on the Internet, as Walker calls it, bullying, negativity, and girl-trashing comments. The you-do-you approach has caught on with their young audience -- and the people who love them. "We are a community of girls and boys and men and women who are looking to laugh and share and create change."
If one of the core tenants of feminism is women helping women, She's The First is the ultimate example of how this generation of young women is paying it forward. The group sponsors girls' education in low-income countries with the goal of creating first-generation graduates. In less than five years the organization has created 125 chapters of teen and college students across the US who have raised funds to help 450 girls in ten countries get an education. Gender equality is core to the group's mission: "We believe in women's rights to economic and social equality, and that the primary way to get there is through equal and quality education," says co-founder Christen Brandt. "It's important for our generation to realize how far we still have to go in achieving global equality for women.
She's The First is celebrating International Women's Day with the release of a video about 20-year old Fatou from The Gambia, who they helped graduate high school and turn her passion for photography into a real business. "My business has changed me from this little girl who keeps asking, asking, asking for money from my dad," Fatou says, "into a girl who is growing to be an independent woman."
And isn't that what every generation of feminists wants for its young women, after all?
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