Young, female and fearless

Young, female and fearless

Female teenagers have been leading civil actions and labor movements for the past century and a half. Here are 10 worth knowing.

10. Brenda Travis
A college president familiar with Brenda Travis’ sit-in at a Mississippi bus station called it “the greatest act of bravery I’ve ever seen.” On August 30, 1961, the sixteen-year-old Travis and two other African Americans occupied a clearly-marked “White Only” area of a Greyhound Bus Station in McComb, Mississippi. For this act of peaceful protest, Travis was arrested, sentenced to a month in jail, and expelled from school. After her release she marched with 200 students to city hall, resulting in a second arrest. Travis was then sent to a reform school for six months and afterward told to leave Mississippi for her own safety. Forty-five years later former McComb resident Randall O’Brien, the president of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, presented Travis with the Bronze Star for bravery he had received as a soldier in Vietnam. “What I did in Vietnam was nothing compared to what she did,” O’Brien said.

9. Hannah Silverman

“I’ve been to county jail three times already, but the police can’t keep me away from the picket lines!” declared seventeen-year-old Hannah Silverman before a crowd of 20,000 during a 1913 Paterson, New Jersey, silk strike demonstration. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn of the International Workers of the World (IWW), just twenty-two herself, called Silverman the “Joan d’ Arc of the silk strike,” and IWW founder Bill Haywood called her “the greatest little IWW woman in America.” On one occasion the young activist led more than 1,000 strikers on a 15-mile march from New Jersey to New York. The broad-silk weavers had called the strike, which involved 25,000 workers and shut down 300 silk mills and dye houses, after management increased loom assignments from two to four. Lasting nearly five months, the strike ended in defeat for the silk workers.

8. Jennie Curtis
While eighteen-year-old Jennie Curtis may have had right on her side, the forces supporting George Pullman and the railroad interests had might on their side during the Pullman Palace Car Strike of 1894. The president of the so-called “girls union” of Pullman workers, Curtis spoke fiercely in a speech that convinced the 150,000-member American Railway Union (ARU) to support a strike of 3,000 Pullman members. “The merry war — the dance of skeletons bathed in human tears — goes on; and it will go on, brothers, forever unless you, the American Railway Union, stop it; end it; crush it out,” Curtis told the ARU. Unfortunately for the strikers, President Cleveland threw his muscle behind Pullman and the railroad bosses. He sent thousands of federal troops to Chicago, with clashes between troopers and strikers resulting in 34 workers killed. The strike ended with one of the most severe defeats ever inflicted on the American labor movement.

7. Chris Ernst
Yale’s male rowers called their female counterparts “sweathogs” in the mid-1970s because the women, with limited access to post-practice showers, had to sit in their hot, smelly outfits for a half hour or more after workouts. Chris Ernst, the nineteen-year-old captain of the women’s rowing team, organized a 1976 protest in which she and 19 of her teammates marched into the office of Joni Barnett, Yale’s director of women’s athletics, and stripped to the waist. Written in blue marker on their bare chests and backs were five letters and two Roman numerals: “Title IX.” The rowers’ demonstration became national news due to a New York Times stringer who printed Ernst’s statement that “these are the bodies that Yale is exploiting.” An amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender at U.S. schools and colleges. Within two weeks of the protest, Yale’s female rowers had new locker rooms, and the attention they received advanced the cause of equal athletic rights for young women throughout the U.S.

6. Emma Tenayuca
“I never thought in terms of fear,” said Emma Tenayuca, who was first arrested for picketing at age sixteen in 1933. “I thought in terms of justice.” The Mexican-American picketed against San Antonio’s Finck Cigar Company in 1933 and four years later helped launch the National Workers Alliance, an organization that campaigned for jobs, a minimum wage, and the right to strike. On January 31, 1938, San Antonio’s pecan shellers walked off their jobs rather than accept wage cuts and unanimously elected Tenayuca as their strike leader. Tenayuca and other strikers were gassed and arrested by the San Antonio police, yet their efforts resulted in a wage increase for the pecan shellers. A historical marker erected in 2011 calls the pecan shellers strike “one of the first successful actions in the Mexican American struggle for political and social justice.”

5. Ruby Doris Smith

In February of 1961, eighteen-year-old Ruby Doris Smith refused to leave a segregated lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and with other protesters declined to pay a fine that would have kept her out of jail. Smith and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) thus initiated the “jail, no bail” strategy that increased national awareness of the civil rights movement. An uncompromising activist, Smith once said that her first name was “Freedom” and her last was “Now.” In the spring of 1962 she participated in a protest of Atlanta’s Grady Hospital by entering the building with other demonstrators through a whites-only entrance. A receptionist told the group they weren’t allowed to enter that way and added, “You’re not sick, anyway.” Smith walked up to the desk, vomited on it, and asked, “Is that sick enough for you?” In May of 1966 she became the only woman to serve as SNCC’s executive secretary. A year later Smith died of cancer at age twenty-five.

4. Pauline Newman
The New York Times on December 26, 1907, reported on a “frail-looking little woman” who had gathered 400 females in what a sub-headline called a “crusade against grasping landlords.” Led by sixteen-year-old Pauline Newman, the New York strikers sought a reduction of 18 to 20 percent in rents due to a depression that had thrust more than 100,000 people out of work. After 15 days, the strike ended with 2,000 families receiving lowered rents. The strike also introduced the concept of rent control, which would be implemented in the 1930s. Two years later Newman helped organize the Uprising of the 20,000, an 11-week general strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry. She worked for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union for more than 70 years and was also active in the women’s suffrage movement.

3. Kate Mullany 
Nineteen-year-old Irish immigrant Kate Mullany organized the first all-female labor union in the U.S. in 1864. Soon after starting the Collar Laundry Union in Troy, New York, she launched a strike seeking a 25 percent wage increase and safer working conditions for about 200 workers at 14 different laundries. Laundry employees had been working 85 hours a week for a paycheck of just $3 to $4, a sum that shrunk if any fabrics were damaged. Meanwhile, workers sustained frequent injuries from harsh chemicals in boiling water and hard-to-wield irons that caused frequent burns. After just five days, laundry owners agreed to the union’s demands. Under Mullany’s leadership, the union voted to strike again in 1866 and 1868, both times winning higher wages from ownership. The head of the Iron Molders’ International Union called her “one of the smartest and most energetic women in America.” Mullany was appointed an assistant secretary of the National Labor Union in 1868, making her the first woman to hold a national labor position.

2. Barbara Johns
One spring day in 1951, 456 African-American students squeezed into the Moton High School auditorium in Farmville, Virginia. Before them stood sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns, who asked the students and faculty to join her and four others on a walkout to protest the overcrowded and rundown state of the segregated school. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Just follow us out.” The afternoon of the protest, several Moton students drafted a letter to the NAACP in Richmond, Virginia, describing the school’s deplorable conditions and asking for help in their protest. A month later NAACP lawyers filed suit in federal court challenging the separate-but-equal statute that usually resulted in poor funding for African- American schools. The Moton suit would be bundled with other cases into Brown v. Board Of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the Supreme Court found racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional.

1. Malala Yousafzai
A highly visible advocate for female education in Pakistan, fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai received her nation’s first National Youth Peace Prize in December of 2011. Eleven months later a Taliban gunman shot her in the head and neck as she returned home on a school bus, placing her in critical condition. The shooting failed to kill or silence Yousafzai, who had launched her activism in 2009 when the Taliban prevented about 50,000 girls in her hometown of Swat, Pakistan, from attending school. She began a 2009 diary that appeared on BBC Urdu and appeared in two New York Times documentaries, “Class Dismissed in Swat Valley” and “A School Girl’s Odyssey,” that addressed the plight of education in a city where 3,000 Taliban fighters roamed the streets. Before the 2012 shooting she had said, “Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.” Addressing the United Nations in 2012 Yousafzai said, “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.” Yousafzai became the youngest person ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.

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