• Factivists

Girlhood

By Maeve Korengold


I went to my first self-defense class when I was nine or ten years old. I was taught how to push an attacker’s nose in with the palm of my hand and to always walk facing traffic before I could multiply fractions. I was taught to yell fire if I’m ever attacked because people would be more likely to find and help me than if I yelled "help" or rape.


I was twelve when a boy called me a b*tch for the first time, and I’ve been called worse since. Most of us have.


I was twelve when a boy called me a b*tch for the first time, and I’ve been called worse since. Most of us have.

When I was fourteen, I had my first (and only) boyfriend. To his friends, who I’d met and hung out with on multiple occasions before, I quickly transformed from Maeve to Johnny’s girlfriend. I’ve come out since then, and I’ve been told that I haven’t met the right man yet and when I do, I’ll “forget” about my queerness.


Now I’m sixteen, and as I prepare to leave home I’m given more lessons on how to prevent becoming one of the one in five women who are sexually assaulted on college campuses. I’m sixteen, and I’m tired of being expected to avert harm at the hands of boys who have been taught that they have a right to our time, attention, and bodies. I’m tired of being devalued as a woman based on my association with or lack thereof of men. I’m tired of watching little girls grow up having to learn how to circumnavigate a world that bases our merit on whether we look and act and speak and dress just right.


Sexism is defined by Oxford Languages as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” Sexism is multifaceted and manifests itself everywhere. We’re objectified when we’re catcalled, stared at, and “complimented,” and we’re expected to take it with a smile. We’re infantilized when our teachers, bosses, and coworkers call us sweetie, darling, and other words that are meant to signal that we’re subordinate and childlike in comparison to men. We see rape culture in action when we’re taught how not to be assaulted, devalued and discredited when we are assaulted, and vilified when we reclaim the power in our sexualities.


This idea that women are responsible for curbing the power that men are given and the wants men have in order not to be violated is incredibly dangerous and teaches us that we have no ownership over our bodies. It tells us that we’re a product meant to be consumed by men and that we’re otherwise worthless.


Sexism runs so deep that our basic rights to our own bodies are still in limbo. It runs so deep that women still make seventy-eight cents for every man’s dollar; Black women are making sixty-four cents and Latina women make fifty-four cents. It runs so deep that one in four homeless women is homeless due to violence being committed against her. We are held accountable for abusive men’s wrongdoings; we are torn apart whether we stand up and leave or sit and take it.


The perpetuation of these ideas starts in our childhoods. Little girls learn how to be gentle and nurturing and how to defend ourselves from men who can’t help themselves. We learn how to hide our bodies so we don’t inadvertently distract or tempt the boys around us. We learn how to carry pads and tampons discreetly so that boys aren’t repelled by our natural and healthy bodily processes.


We aren’t taught the stories of strong, accomplished women who have made history: Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose work fighting for equal rights for the Indigenous peoples of Alaska was instrumental in the passage of the first American anti-discrimination act. Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Karen Sparck Jones and Mary Allen Wilkes, groundbreaking computer programmers. Isabella Goodwin, New York City’s first female police detective. Marian Anderson, the first Black person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. And so many more.


Little girls are not taught that our lives have value and potential that go beyond our proximity to and relationships with men. We aren’t taught that our minds and our bodies are beautiful and are for more than the consumption of our male counterparts. Until these things change, until we are given the same autonomy and respect from our peers, from the government, and from ourselves, not much else is going to.