Revolting Girls: Heroism and Innocence in Young Women’s Activism from Civil Rights to the Climate Strike

Lecture by Jill Locke (Gustavus Adolphus College).


Messages of global girl power are everywhere. From pop culture to consumer goods and political activists, young women are “rising up” and challenging the status quo on issues ranging from climate and immigration to education and Black Lives Matter. At the same time, when girls “rise up” and challenge the status quo, regardless of the issue or their geographical location, they are targeted, harassed, and threatened with violence.

Political scientist Jill Locke’s current project Revolting Girls is a work of cross-disciplinary and historically and socially situated political theory that traces a genealogy of contemporary “girl power” and examines the paradoxical treatment of “the girl” as a political savior and also “shameless” and out of place. It brings Locke’s areas of expertise, feminist, democratic, queer, critical race, and affect theory to bear on empirical case studies that range from gun control activism and immigrant rights to education and global development.

Political theorists and political scientists, more broadly, rarely engage issues relating to children and girls, and when they do it is largely in the areas of children’s rights in the US courts or as part of international conventions or in analyses of child-centered issues like education and childcare. Both contemporary political theorists and feminist political theorists have largely ignored the place of girls. Even within the persistent attention to the trope of Antigone as an agent of feminine resistance and disruption, little is said about Antigone’s youth and the significance of girl activism.

In this lecture Locke takes up the complex status of girl power and girls’ political activism. Through a multi-disciplinary lens, Locke highlights both the space that has opened for girls’ activism and civic engagement and also the violence and backlash political girls inevitably confront, especially as they challenge norms of respectability filtered through race, nation, religion, class, and ability status. Locke reads these virulent attacks on political girls as simultaneous assaults on the actual political power girls have marshalled and “childist” (Young-Bruehl 2012; DeJong and Love 2015) and misogynistic pressure to keep girls in a socially limited place. As girls mobilize their age and gender in relation to their other identities, they prove themselves to be sophisticated, intergenerational political collaborators and strategists. Locke’s Revolting Girls project uncovers the specificity of girl activism and the symbolic work it performs both for those who imagine “girls will save us” and those who oppose girls’ activism and see it puncturing the norms of traditional political discourse.