Is there any memory darker than early adolescence? I put my hands over my eyes and look back at myself at 13, wearing velour cowl necks and glasses the size of Nana Mouskouri’s, desperately enamoured by a boy who seemed bound for juvie. It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.
But really, what did we have to worry about? The world was crime-ridden but we thought about it less. Your parents let you flop about in the back seat of the car like a load of eels, unworried about your safety. You were popular or, more likely, not, but at least your lack of popularity was your own private shame, not a public one. If there was a party you weren’t invited to, you only found out about it days later and did not receive instant updates of your uncoolness delivered to your tear-drenched phone.
I’m thinking about all of these things again because, at a certain point this week, I’m going to be the mother of a teenaged girl. The fact that I have in my house a bright, hilariously funny, compassionate young woman is both wonderful and terrifying. You can’t help feeling as if you’re Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, living on the edge in an upheaved world. For years, you’ve watched this egg, and been a far better mother than Daenerys because you’ve taken it to museums and art classes, protected it from fizzy drinks and choking hazards, and never once taken it into battle. Now comes the hard part: You have to watch as the egg cracks and have faith in what emerges.
And I do have faith. As a person who has no faith in a deity, I have to place it somewhere, and I choose to place it in the generation that’s hatching now. This is unfair on many levels, as my own children have pointed out: Why do they have to fix the problems we saddled them with? It’s like we had a party with the planet and then left them a room filled with passed-out bodies and dirty glasses of gin with cigarette butts floating in the bottom. There are no good responses for my generation’s crappy stewardship of the planet, except perhaps shame.
Girls in particular face an extraordinary set of challenges at the moment, including pressure to excel, to be popular, to be pretty and likeable, all while existing in a system that still discriminates against their ambitions. Girls are still given messages that public spaces don’t really belong to them: Walk with your keys in your hand. Cross the street if someone’s following you. Park under a streetlight. Text me when you get home. I wasn’t surprised to read, in a survey released by Plan International Canada this week, that only 16 per cent of young women aged 18 to 24 felt completely safe in public spaces. An even more alarming statistic from the survey: two-thirds of young women have a friend who’s been sexually harassed.
And yet, when people ask me where I find hope, I say that I find it among young women defying expectations and doing great work across the country. People such as Sophie Bezanson, a 15-year-old from New Minas, N.S.,who’s a member of the Girl Guides of Canada’s national youth council (a position that means she sometimes gets to tell the adults on the board what to do).
I reached out to Sophie after reading a new survey of 1,000 teenagers conducted for the Girl Guides that reveals girls as young as 10 have their first experiences of gender inequality, and that almost two-thirds of girls are worried about that inequality (the number is nearly 50 per cent for boys).
Sophie says she’s already experienced gender bias in day-to-day life. “I feel that girls aren’t being encouraged fully to be resourceful, confident or problem-solvers,” she says in a phone interview. “Those are the big barriers that face us at my age." Women and girls are still judged largely on appearances, she says, and not presented as leaders.
Sophie remembers telling a friend of hers in Grade 8 that she was a feminist. A boy in her class overheard her, and mocked her mercilessly. “That’s something I still hold with me,” she tells me over the phone, but despite the ridicule, she still makes it her mission to fight for equality: “I advocate for women’s rights because I don’t want future girls to grow up in a society that limits their opportunities or hinders their abilities to reach their full potential. I want girls and women to be accepted and valued, and to be represented as leaders.”
Sophie’s in Grade 10 now, and she wants to be a neurologist. She also finds the time to volunteer in her community and mentor a younger Girl Guide (this may all be made possible by the fact that she isn’t on social media). She’s on the Girl Guides’ national diversity committee. And there are countless girls such as her across the country, doing useful, unflashy, brave work that will one day result in meaningful change.
I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t nearly so brave at that age. We were just trying to survive our bad skin and our parents’ expectations and relationships with boys who had never been taught even the most rudimentary concepts of gender equality. “Consent” existed in our vocabularies only as a good Scrabble word.
Is it better now for teenaged girls? I have to think it is, despite the pressures of social media, despite the fractured future they face. They have better tools, and better armour. They recognize injustice in a way we didn’t, and aren’t afraid to speak up and fight against it. They’re going to make some pretty spectacular dragons.