YOUNG AND RESTLESS: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions, by Mattie Kahn
American girls are in crisis — on that much we can all agree. In a 2021 study of young women’s mental health, a vast number of respondents between ages 12 and 19 answered that they had felt “persistently sad or hopeless”; rates of sexual assault and violence in the same population are alarmingly high. As caregivers, many of us are looking for ways to shore up our children’s well-being, self-esteem and happiness. And although it is not the aim of a historical survey to be prescriptive, heartening inspiration can be found in “Young and Restless,” Mattie Kahn’s thoroughgoing examination of the role of young women and girls in America’s uprisings.
Her subjects have agitated on behalf of labor and voting rights, racial dignity and equality, sexual and reproductive freedom, freedom of speech and against climate change. The solutions she illustrates include objecting, resisting — and, yes, acting up, rather than sinking into sadness and accepting the unacceptable. By taking direct action in the service of shared values, in alliance with beloved communities for a better future, girls throughout American history have discovered a sense of personal agency, often during eras when their opportunities were sharply circumscribed. Sometimes they even changed history.
Kahn, whose stated aim is to write girls back into the historical record, also considers her subjects’ lives before and after their time in the trenches. Many of the young women who took on activist roles — especially those who lived before the mid-20th century — faced intense blowback, even as they inspired others to their causes. The book also examines the place of childhood itself as a battleground on which America’s culture wars have historically been fought.
The author maintains an admirable ability to complicate her own assertions — girls have been a force for progressive change, for instance, but also a force in reactionary movements. And, delightfully, she brings a onetime women’s magazine editor’s attentiveness to the importance of style and theatricality in the lives of young women whose sashes and hats, hairstyles and armbands and, finally, pants, have marked their movements for change.