Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America's Revolutions

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Release Date: 
June 13, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Uncovering the flaws of omission and the personal pain of activists reveals an unrecognized part of our social and cultural history that should not have been lost to us for so long.”

Mattie Kahn has written a profoundly important book that belongs on numerous library and bookstore shelves, especially those featuring women’s studies, history, and resistance literature. In less than 270 pages she sheds light on a huge segment of social change history in America ranging from the 19th century to the present. Within that historical context she illuminates and pays tribute to a large swath of unknown and forgotten girls and teenage women who worked their hearts out during key 20th century movements that changed their lives and ours.

Most of those young, courageous, innovative females are easily forgotten, but those profiled in Kahn’s highly readable book are a sharp reminder of the harsh reality and the personal sacrifices made by childhood social change activists. Their dedication to equality, justice, and human rights is stunning to realize and important to acknowledge.

Kahn is clear in her Introduction what her goal was in writing the book. “It charts American girls’ crusades and puts them in context. It examines the set of tools girls wield to achieve their aims. . . . It looks at the evolving response to teenage organizing . . . and it considers how the experience of activism is different depending on the kind of girl who attempts it.”

She begins with the story of Lowell, Massachusetts, factory workers who birthed the idea of unions in the workplace when their pathetic wages were cut in 1836. In an 1898 memoir, Harriet Hanson, an 11-year-old factory girl at the time, recalls walking out with “childish bravado” even if she had to do it alone. She didn’t because a long line of girls followed her. “I was more proud than I have ever been since,” she noted. Her action led to an organized labor movement and the first union in the U.S.

Anecdotes like that make clear that the values and resistance to societal ills that girls and young women shared deserve recognition, not stereotypical assumptions about females and youth, “good girl” behavior, or deflection to male authority.

The resistance to inequality, racism, war, and misogyny among young females, coupled with their ingenuity and organizational skills are central to the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement. Kahn uncovers stories of teenage women and young girls that bring alive their contributions to social change.

For example, Kahn tells in-depth the story of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old Black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus before Rosa Parks did. Her name has become more familiar in recent years, but that’s about it. No one cared to know her backstory. Deemed an out-of-control Black girl who went to jail for her courageous act of civil disobedience, she now becomes a person to be respected as her life story unfolds, including the pain of being overlooked as a civil rights activist who was made to step aside because of her dark skin and curly hair.

Other activists traveled across the south to organize Black voters. Most of them were too young to vote because they were children, some not even teenagers yet. Because Black men risked death for stepping out of line, girls flocked to fill the gap. They risked sexual and physical assault, but as Kahn says, “If someone were going to speak up on the street or in a school or bus, and live to tell the tale, chances were it would be a girl.”  

One of them was Barbara Johns, one of many youth organizers who began school walkouts that went national in opposition to segregated schools. Their school expulsions and public condemnation put them, and the issue, in the spotlight. It was the start to Brown v. Board of Education. Forgotten girls like Johns who stood up to school systems and governments are brought into focus in Kahn’s book and their importance is made clear: Brown would not have been possible without them.

Stories about youth leaders like these abound. But this isn’t a Pollyanna story of youth saving the day. Much of their work is not only forgotten; often it did not have the effect it had hoped for, partly because the spotlight remained on the mythical golden girls du jour and not on the issues they raised and the remedies they demanded. Kahn’s research and analysis reveals an inadequate or absent political response, media priorities, and the personally punishing experience the young activists suffered in her closing chapters. Uncovering the flaws of omission and the personal pain of activists reveals an unrecognized part of our social and cultural history that should not have been lost to us for so long. They are part of the fabric of America’s political and social history in which youth really did spark revolutions.

We owe all of them, and Mattie Kahn, a huge debt of gratitude for introducing us to them and their unique contributions. They truly made a difference, even if the work is not finished.