Inspired by the Sundance Channel’s docu-series PUSH GIRLS, about four outspoken young women in wheelchairs — AMC Networks just announced that they’ve started filming a second season — we decided to write about ten women under 40 who push back in their own way. To help us narrow down the list (and not totally lose our minds), we kept the list contemporary, which is why you won’t find Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, or Rosa Parks below. Even still, it was near impossible to choose just ten young women who embody empowerment. Who else should have been on this list? Let us know in the comments section below!
10. Esraa Abdel Fattah (b. 1978)
Most Americans can’t remember her name, let alone how to spell it, but as “Facebook Girl,” Esraa Abdel Fattah will go down in history. She is the online activist and blogger who helped organize and then live-blogged the 2011 protest in Tahrir Square in Egypt — a revolt which toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Abdel Fattah got her nickname back in 2008, when she started a Facebook group to support a textile workers’ strike and was subsequently jailed for two weeks. Her next step? She runs a non-profit which trains women to become political leaders, and she wants to run for parliament herself. So…what have you done with your Facebook account lately?
9. Beth Ditto (b. 1981, pictured above)
Beth Ditto doesn’t give a shit about how record labels think female rock stars should look and act. She’s best known for singing with the indie rock band Gossip (their hit, “Standing in the Way of Control,” lambasted Republican opposition to same-sex marriage) — and also for refusing to wear deodorant, shave her legs, or starve herself into oblivion. The self-professed “fat dyke from Arkansas” is this generation’s riot grrl, and whether she’s dishing body image advice in a column for the Guardian newspaper or posing naked on the cover of N.M.E. magazine, she’s helping us all collectively recover from the car wreck that is Britney Spears.
8. Caster Semenya (b. 1991)
This South African runner won a gold medal in the women’s 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships, in the midst of a global controversy about her “gender verification tests.” After she won, she was subjected to an even more brutal trial-by-press; she was only 18 at the time. But her trial was our gain, as her struggle to be allowed to compete inspired a global discussion on gender, race, and feminism. Semenya — who says she’s been a tomboy her entire life — has since been cleared to compete and won silver medals at both the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics, both in the 800 meters.
7. Kathryn Gray (b. 2001)
In 2011, a ten-year-old Canadian girl named Kathryn Gray became the youngest person in history to discover a supernova. A supernova is the explosion and death of stars millions of light years away (we didn’t know that — we had to Google it); Gray spotted this one by looking through her telescope and comparing the night sky to some images her father had taken earlier. Now that’s a show-and-tell project!
6. Maya Nussbaum (b. 1977)
Fourteen years ago, not long after she graduated college, Nussbaum founded a group called Girls Write Now; it has since grown into a massive volunteer-supported organization whose mission is “to provide guidance, support, and opportunities for at-risk and underserved girls from New York City’s public high schools to develop their creative, independent voices, explore careers in professional writing, and learn how to make healthy school, career and life choices.” It was the first organization in the U.S. — and is still the only one on the East coast — to combine mentoring and writing instruction in an all-girl program.
5. Chelsea Clinton (b. 1980)
Those early teen years are rough on any girl with bad skin and a mediocre hair cut. But try living out those years in the White House, where your hairstyle is a national joke (not to mention your father’s extra-curriculars). Clinton rose above it all without seeming to act out once, and pretty much stayed out of the public eye until 2007, when she joined her mom’s campaign for president. She is now a correspondent for NBC news, while also getting a doctoral degree at the University of Oxford.
4. Venus Williams (b. 1980)
Williams was never subjected to gender testing like Caster Semenya, but she has suffered years of mean-girl talk about her “manly” looks and playing style. When Em was at Wimbledon a few years back to watch her play Maria Sharapova, the crowd erupted in wolf-whistles when Sharapova took off her jacket — and when Williams followed suit, one guy threw out a polite “Yeah!” Embarrassed British laughter rippled through the crowd. But Williams gets the last laugh: her 127 mph serve took women’s tennis to a new level — putting the power in empowerment — and in 2002 she became the first black woman player in the open era to become number one in the world.
3. Sandra Fluke (b. 1981)
We hesitated to include Fluke in this list — we feel a little bad that this Georgetown Law student will always be remembered as the woman Rush Limbaugh called a “slut.” But Fluke was not cowed by his attacks — in fact, she was ardent and articulate in her responses. After Limbaugh apologized (or, rather, “apologized”), Fluke went on The View to say, “I think any woman who has ever been called these types of names is [shocked] at first. But then I tried to see this for what it is, and I believe that what it is, is an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue and conveying that contraception is an important healthcare need that they need to have met in an affordable, accessible way.”
2. Jessica Valenti (b. 1978)
Eight years ago, Valenti — then 25 — founded the blog Feministing.com to provide a platform for younger feminists. Her online activism inspired a new generation of feminists and kicked off an entire community of like-minded blogs; the Guardian newspaper said that she “dragged feminism into the 21st century.” Along the way — while she was spear-heading discussions on everything from gender identity to sexual assault — she was put through the ringer: she received rape and death threats and was the subject of a spiteful debate in the blogosphere about the size of her boobs. She is the author of three books, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters; He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know; and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, which has been made into a documentary. Not a bad platform.
1. Rachel Maddow (b. 1973)
How is it possible that Maddow is not even forty yet?! We feel like serious under-achievers. Maddow is the only openly gay American to host a primetime news show — and it’s a kick-ass liberal politics show, naturally. She keeps her hair Flowbee short and wears as little makeup as the producers will let her get away with. This in an industry that basically requires every female personality to don 6-inch heels, blonde highlights and globs of glossy lipstick just to tell us what’s going on in Afghanistan. She doesn’t care what you think about how she looks, she never dumbs it down, and she’s always happy to dork out — in other words, she’s completely herself on air, which is a huge accomplishment, a huge push back against an industry not known for authenticity. We have a mad crush on Maddow: see also here, and here, and here.
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