ON HALLOWEEN, 1926, Uldine Mabelle Utley, a 14-year-old Oklahoma-born farmer’s daughter, stood before a horde of 14,000 in Madison Square Garden in New York and cried, “Repent.” She had been giving testimony — in the evangelical sense — since the age of 11. She was small and clad in white, a vision of purity despite her bobbed hair, which at the time was the scandalous trademark of the flapper but could be read as an attempt to forgo the trappings of gender, or at least postpone the arrival of womanhood. In an era when female lives were still fairly circumscribed in the West by law and tradition, Utley’s authority came precisely from her lack of it, as not simply a child but a girl, slight in stature, bereft of the agency awarded to boys and men.
Like Joan of Arc — another teenage farmer’s daughter, who five centuries earlier had answered a heaven-sent summons to lead the French army — Utley won followers because she did not speak on her own behalf. “I am just a little voice crying in the wilderness,” she said, paraphrasing the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of John. Later in life, as a grown woman, she would never again hold an audience so rapt. After she attained sexuality, however implicit, she became a compromised figure in the eyes of the world, and the integrity of her message — unadulterated by personal desire — was lost.
Even today, women who talk forcefully risk being labeled angry or shrill (or “nasty,” Donald Trump’s memorable insult to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, which he recently reprised for Kamala Harris). To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2017, the Boston-based investment firm State Street Global Advisors chose the figure of a child, not a woman, to memorialize in bronze, in the now famous “Fearless Girl” sculpture by the American artist Kristen Visbal, originally installed opposite the Italian artist Arturo Di Modica’s 1989 “Charging Bull” near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan — a waif just over four feet tall, staring down three and a half tons of brute force. The symbolism was at once powerful and diminishing, reinforcing the equation of femininity and weakness.
But while aggression in women remains suspect, the public is drawn, now more than ever, to girls who reproach and rebuke, calling the world to account for its ills — and girls in turn are learning to harness that public gaze to effect larger change. Since June, a video clip of 7-year-old Wynta-Amor Rogers of Uniondale, N.Y., chanting “No justice, no peace” and shaking a stern finger at a protest over the police killing of George Floyd, has earned millions of views. There is something of the prodigy in her extraordinary poise and conviction, but also defiance of any lingering stereotype that girls are fragile.
Young yet preternaturally wise, tiny yet relentless: An image of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, shared online in the summer of 2018, captures those same startling juxtapositions. It shows her sitting alone, a wan, forlorn-looking 15-year-old with braids, beside her hot pink backpack (a totem of girlhood) on the cobblestones outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. She had abandoned school to demand that the government cut carbon emissions; within days, dozens had joined her, then tens of thousands across the world in the months that followed.
In parts of the world where women’s rights are still limited, girls must speak out for their own survival. In Malawi, Memory Banda has campaigned against child marriage since she was 13, successfully lobbying village chiefs to seize land and goats from men who take wives under the age of 21. At 11, Malala Yousafzai started anonymously reporting on life under the Taliban in northwest Pakistan, where girls had been banned from schools; her identity was soon revealed, and at 14, she was shot in the head by Taliban militants who condemned her work as “obscenity.” (She survived and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.) Girl activists in the West are not exempt from such hatred: Once elevated to icons, they become targets, subject to slurs, death threats and a torrent of pornography that floods their social-media accounts, a form of sexual harassment. In this they are comrades with their slightly older, outspoken sisters, among them the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected in 2018 at the age of 29 but has still been called a “little girl” and dismissed by her colleagues and critics as “naïve” and “dumb.”
THE STATE OF girlhood occupies a contradictory place in the cultural imagination, as both an ideal and a denigration; girls, and young women by extension, are to be doted on, then shushed and sent back to play with their dolls and makeup. (Witness President Trump tweeting, in response to Thunberg’s righteous anger, “She seems like a very happy young girl” and later advising her to just “chill” and watch a movie with a friend.) If they do speak up, they’re indulged only so long as they remain presexual. Joan of Arc, who was around 17 when she helped deliver a besieged Orléans from the English in 1429, wielded her virginity as a halo and, as the scholar of religion and comparative literature Françoise Meltzer has written, wore men’s clothes as “partial protection from rape.” In the end, the church seized upon her cross-dressing — “the wearing of short, tight and dissolute male habits,” per the trial record — to justify burning her for heresy in 1431.
What today’s naysayers fail to understand is that these latter-day Joans don’t derive their power from some outmoded notion of innocence. We’ve already taken that away from them. The gun-control advocate Emma González was 18 when she lived through the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.; she has since become our national conscience, reminding us of the deaths our laws have done nothing to prevent, crying “Shame” with her head shaved but unbowed. (Although she has brushed off any symbolism to the buzz cut, which predated the tragedy, it gives her the aura of a soldier and a saint at once — and the liminal freedom of the androgyne.) She and her fellow activists come armed with a different kind of weapon: knowledge of an unjust system and a forfeited future. Thunberg, given a pulpit at the United Nations last fall, stared down at the world’s leaders, a crowd of mostly men, and delivered an indictment. “How dare you,” she said. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
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