“Challenge her mind. Strengthen her voice. Nurture her heart.” This is our mission statement at Trafalgar Castle School. We introduced it last week to our community as part of our new Strategic Plan. Hearing how it resonated across our constituent groups of faculty and staff, parents, students and alumna reaffirmed our belief that what we stand for is both important and necessary in a rapidly changing and sometimes uncertain world.
“Find your voice.” “Use your voice.” “Use your voice to lift others up.” These are messages we share with our students each and every day. As an all-girls’ school, these messages take on added weight because far too often the voices of girls and women are discounted, their experiences undervalued and their motives for speaking up questioned. Not by everyone. But certainly by some.
One need only look at the experience of Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings to know that speaking up brings risk. Even holding a position of power is no guarantee that women will be heard. Research spanning a 25-year period from 1990 to 2015 showed that female U.S. Supreme Court justices are interrupted more by male justices and by advocates, even when controlling for factors such as seniority on the bench. And we don’t need to go south of the border to find examples of female politicians professionally and personally undermined by whisper campaigns and purposefully targeted editorials in national newspapers, never mind the vile social media attacks. It happens in Canada, too.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, therefore, that teenage Greta Thunberg’s climate activism has provoked a strong backlash from media personalities, some politicians and, rather predictably, from Donald Trump. She’s been called mentally ill and unstable. Detractors claim she’s manipulated by adults and her speeches are penned by professional left-wing activists. Doctored photos show her pictured alongside members of ISIS and false news reports claim she’s earned more than $46 million from her activist work. All of these attacks are attempts to silence Greta’s voice.
I find the reaction to Greta both perturbing and fascinating. It’s one thing to disagree with her on the science of climate change, but it’s quite another to attack her personally. Columnist Joyce Fagan, writing in the Irish Examiner describes how Greta’s presence on the global stage and the growing size of her audience has shaken the “sensibilities of the moderate middle” and threatened the interests of politicians and business leaders who desire to maintain the status quo. When a logical rebuttal won’t work against a fact-based message, Fagan argues, the powers that be turn their focus instead to both the messenger and the delivery. Fagan writes, “[when] an argument is so strong and so scientifically supported, there is no way to debate it or defeat it. So in order to derail the traction it is gaining, tone-policers go after the manner in which it is delivered, because they are all out of other options.” Fagan astutely refers to this as “the inevitable tone-policing of the girl with the plait.”
The ominous “tone police” continue to accuse Greta of being unhinged and (heaven forbid) overly emotional. They criticize the manner of her delivery, accuse her of fomenting hysteria, all the while ignoring her delivery of the facts. The purpose of this criticism is to minimize the impact of her message – to muffle her voice.
Such treatment of young voices isn’t new. Look back to the Parkland, Florida shooting and the visceral reaction to Emma Gonzalez’s powerful and emotionally gut-wrenching 11-minute speech calling for changes to gun laws. Her message, “We call B.S.,” in response to the excuses and lies she believes are perpetuated by the gun lobby reverberated across the United States and around the world. After speaking out, Emma became the target of right-wing media, hard-core conservative politicians and internet trolls. She was criticized for her shaved head, her clothing and her sexual orientation. She and other Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivors were accused of being crisis actors. A fake video emerged of her tearing up the U.S. Constitution, and a Republican candidate running for the Maine House of Representatives publicly called her a “skinhead lesbian.” Through all the attacks, Gonzalez remained defiant and continued to advocate for new gun laws.
Like Emma, Greta is showing that she won’t be easily silenced by her critics, and in fact, is pushing back against their efforts. Last week, Greta cut through the duplicitous and manipulative recent attempts to spin her message by noting, “It seems [critics] will cross every possible line to avert the focus, since they are so desperate not to talk about the climate and ecological crisis.” And when asked to respond to the argument that she sounds and writes too much like an adult to be credible, Greta replied, “Don’t you think that a 16-year-old can speak for herself?”
Bravo, Greta! Girls and young women absolutely can speak for themselves. In fact, they have a lot to say and we would all be wise to pay attention. Are they young, inexperienced in the ways of adults, sometimes naïve, perhaps idealistic and often demanding in their desire for a better world? Of course, they are. They always have been, since time immemorial. But the difference in 2019 is that girls and young women are no longer content to be seen and not heard. They have role models and support networks to help them speak up. They won’t stay silent and are instead learning to make their voices heard as they construct a new way of being young, female and active participants in their communities.
Emma Gonzalez remains critically engaged. She now attends New College in Florida and advocates an end to gun violence on Twitter, sending messages to her 1.6 million followers. Emma sent out this message of support to Greta Thunberg after a guest commentator on Fox News called the young girl a “mentally ill Swedish child.” Gonzalez tweeted: “Last night I dreamt that @GretaThunberg and I were at an event and all the adults were telling us what to say and we both started screaming at them about how they were killing the environment and the youth and how they expected us to fix everything. Love u sis.” Greta tweeted back two heart emojis. Enough said.