Last week, the Ms. Foundation for Women celebrated "founding mother" Gloria Steinem's 80th birthday and appointed a new CEO and president. Teresa Younger, a lifelong feminist and committed Girl Scout, spent her career advocating women's rights and health. She was the first woman and the first African-American executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, and most recently served on that state's Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, where she spearheaded campaigns to provide paid sick leave and raise the minimum wage in her state. Younger spoke with Cosmopolitan.com about rebranding feminism, using social media for good, and why men should be feminists, too.
What led you to feminism?
At 6 years old, I was a Girl Scout Brownie. That was my first impression that you could have an impact and you could change the world.
Years ago, I ran a youth program called Morry's Camp. A few years into the camp, I had my first 12-year-old show up to camp pregnant. It was in that moment, in a call with the girl's mother, that I realized I had an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that comprehensive sexuality education was happening in school and to speak the truth of what was happening to young people.
After I left that organization and joined the ACLU, I became the executive director, and that's been my trajectory of getting to where I am today. I've stayed a Girl Scout, and I have tried to be a voice for women. I've tried to do as much as I can to share my knowledge and learn from other women.
Any women you've particularly learned from?
Maya Angelou. I love her. Gloria Steinem is instrumental. And then there are the women I call the "everyday feminists" who are not names we know, like my grandmother Dorothy Ferguson and my aunt Cynthia White. We meet strong feminists every day. They might not recognize it or call themselves feminists, but those are the role models I thrive on.
You're a leader in a movement that has a history of centering the experiences of white, middle-class women. How does your appointment move a more representative form of feminism forward?
I announced my post to a friend of mine who is an African-American judge. She was ecstatic and started crying. I ran around the office to find her a tissue, and after I was done scrambling around, I asked her, "Why are you crying?" She said, "Because my daughters will get to see an African-American feminist in leadership because of you." That matters to me.
I appreciate and respect the Ms. Foundation for saying, "We'll bring in an African-American woman who was raised in this country and whose father was in the military and who spent her life advocating for women's rights." I hope to close the gap just a little bit, and may the people who come after me close it a little more. I think we'll have some honest conversations about who is left out of history. It's not just that the feminist movement left out black women. The African-American community didn't do a great job of recognizing its women — the civil rights movement started with feminists. We need to do a better job of telling an honest history.
Young feminists are a tech-savvy bunch. How do you foresee the Ms. Foundation utilizing technology under your leadership?
The reality is that we see feminists every day, because in this environment we are completely connected. We're sharing our struggles on a daily basis, and we will continue to use new media strategically to make sure that we are in the cycle of communication. Even tonight people are tweeting about my appointment. And we're going to take advantage of that — that's how we draw in the next generation. Instead of creating caveats of what feminists are not, let's start celebrating what we're doing successfully. One thing we're doing very successfully is using these new media venues as ways for voices to be heard. You don't have to agree. You just have to engage.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing women today?
I unfortunately don't think the issues have changed much in 40 years. We still face issues around economic security and well-being, women's safety, and promoting women in leadership.
Getting more women into leadership so they can influence the decision-making is a priority. We also haven't had the growth or recognition in other areas that we need — there's lack of research on women and health care, there are attacks on women's health, women still make less money compared to men, with women of color making significantly less. The Ms. Foundation could never pick just one thing as a "biggest issue" — that does not do justice to us being a women's foundation.
What advice do you have for younger women in their lives and careers?
Take your voice to the table. Be part of the feminist movement. Let's not criticize, let's raise up. Join the fight.
We're very fortunate, you and I and your readers, that some of the basic parts of the battles are over. But if we are not vigilant about maintaining those rights, they will go away. We have greater levels of education and greater opportunities than we've ever had, and I invite and encourage and implore young women to come and be part of it, and to find their voice in whatever way they choose to.
Men act when they know 60 percent of the relevant information. Women typically won't act until we know 100 percent of the information. Let's start doing something when we know 50 percent of the information — we'll still be half right. And we need to make sure that men join the battle with us. The term "feminist" needs to be redefined and owned, and men need to be a part of it.
Appreciate that in each one of us is a full story about the rights and opportunities we have today. Educate yourself, value yourself, and value your opinion. Then get up and get involved and get engaged.
Photo credit: Christine Palm