Amazing Girls: Five Stories of Ingenuity, Creativity and Perseverance

Five girls pushing boundaries and effecting change.

Although women still lag behind men when it comes to pay and presence in the boardroom, an emerging generation of girls sees only possibility. They have a wealth of opportunities open to them, and are breaking new ground.

ShopGirls Design Fuel Efficient Car

The ShopGirls team from Washington State garnered a lot of attention when they were the first all-girls team to compete in the 2010 Shell Eco-marathon competition. Each year, students across the Americas compete to see who can design a car that travels the farthest on the least amount of energy.

The girls range in age from high school freshmen to seniors and manage all aspects of the project, from designing the prototype to racing the cars. When problems arise, it is their job to identify and fix each one. The original goal wasn’t to win, but to create a car that runs efficiently, and they far exceeded their own expectations, by taking first place in their energy class for Diesel Vehicles and an additional third place in Safety. The majority of the 42 teams in the competition were in college. U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, specifically praised the team in his speech about career and technology education.

Five of the six girls in the original ShopGirls teams returned to the 2011 competition, this time competing against 61 teams. They again took first place in the Diesel Energy category, and were one of three teams honored for safety.

Teen Feminist Creates the FBomb

Outspoken Ohio teen feminist Julie Zeilinger created the FBomb website to give other teenage feminists a place to be heard. Zeilinger encourages girls to speak their minds and explore issues facing teen girls today. “All young feminists who are just a little bit pissed off and very outspoken are more than welcome here. The is for girls who have enough social awareness to be angry and who want to verbalize that feeling. The is loud, proud, sarcastic…everything teenage feminists are today.”

Zeilinger first learned about women’s issues in 8th grade while researching a school project. She tried to find a feminist community, as opposed to just a blog, for teenage feminists, but couldn’t find one, so she created the FBomb in 2009. The idea caught fire and the FBomb and its creator have been featured in various publications, including Bitch Magazine, Mother Jones, Jezebel, and Salon.

At first, the very definition of “feminist” as seen by adult women versus this new generation of girls caused friction, but the FBomb community has redefined the term for themselves. Teen girls and boys contribute to the site about many different topics. Recently Zeilinger gave an impassioned speech at Endangered Species Summit: Our Generation and Body Image (NY), about body image, self-hatred, and how creating the FBomb helped her work through these issues. She cites body image issues as perhaps the most written-about topic on the FBomb, but sees each post as a positive chance for discussion, and for more girls to rise above body image issues.

Former Victim Battles Cyberbullying

After a girl she considered a friend posted, “I hate Sarah Ball and I don’t care who knows,” on Facebook, the Florida sophomore was devastated. She told the St. Petersburg Times, “You see other people reading these things and they’re so hurtful, and you have no idea what to say,” Sarah said. “I was in so much pain.” Her first instinct was to keep quiet, but after she researched other cases of cyberbullying, she discovered how many other teens had been victims and that some had even taken their own lives. Ball resolved to speak up.

In 2011, she decided to launch a local initiative called Hernando Unbreakable to raise awareness about cyberbullying. The group is growing steadily welcoming other victims, and gaining support from the school administration and a local sheriff. Ball has also teamed up with high-profile philanthropy Do Something to spread the word and hopes that Unbreakable groups will form in other high schools.

Ball contacted her school principal with printouts of offending Facebook pages and was instrumental in getting them taken down, although more crop up all the time. Her goals include lobbying Facebook to make it more difficult to take someone else’s pictures from their page, and encouraging the company to display a definition of cyberbullying prominently on the site. Due to these actions, Ball has again become the target of cyberbullying, but she remains determined.

Ball’s principle, Ken Pritz, says that the biggest benefit of an effort like Ball’s is simple awareness. “What’s neat about this is it’s a student movement,” Pritz said. “If the students are aware and they care, hopefully you’ll see less of [the cyberbullying].”

Girls Scouts Work to Save the Rainforest

Two dedicated Michigan Girl Scouts have been lobbying Girl Scouts USA for more than five years to change the ingredients in Girl Scout cookies. Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva learned that a major ingredient in the cookies, palm oil, was harmful to the environment. Palm oil has been associated with rainforest destruction, slave labor, and climate change.

The girls wrote to the Girl Scouts head office, but were brushed off. In five years, they were only able to secure one meeting with the organization in 2008, but nothing has changed. All but one of the seventeen cookie varieties uses palm oil, but Girl Scouts USA claims that they can do nothing to influence the baker.

Not to be deterred, the girls joined forces with the Rainforest Action Network and in April 2011 to bring their campaign public and put more pressure on the national headquarters to pay attention. So far, 58,210 people (as of this writing) have signed the petition and thousands have inundated the organization’s Facebook page and Twitter account with requests for change. In response, Girl Scouts USA censored the Facebook comments, still refuses to meet with the girls, and palm oil remains in the recipes.

In their Rainforest Action Network video, Tomtishen points out, “You would think that an organization whose key mission is to empower girls to make a positive impact on the world would have addressed our concerns by now.”

In 2012, Girl Scouts will celebrate 100 years of empowering girls and teaching leadership. Vorva, Tomtishen, the Rainforest Action Network, and all hope that before their centennial cookie season, Girl Scouts USA will show that they really embrace their core mission by rewarding the girls’ perseverance and eliminating palm oil from their cookies.

College Student Runs for School Board Seat

Nineteen-year-old Samantha Smith is running for the school board in her hometown, challenging two incumbents for one of two available seats. Smith is a recent graduate of Harborfield High School on Long Island, and now attends New York University, majoring in entrepreneurship and government.

Smith contends that she understands what it’s like to be a student in the current educational climate, and has ideas about how to “optimize” the learning experience. She proposes to bring in speakers and conduct workshops during the free hour students now have because an elective was cut due to budget constraints. She also wants to work toward better use of community resources and more hands-on experiences for students to enhance learning. She told the Times Beacon Record, that “Instead of constantly looking to cut, cut, cut,” the board should focus on “How can we take care of what we have already invested in.” The elections are on May 17, 2011.

image: Amanda Venner, Stephen Cummings

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.