Teen Feminist to Obama: "Don't Patronize Me!"

She’s not the only young woman speaking out about birth control, body image, and a host of other issues that affect teens, and yet she’s constantly hearing the message that there are no young feminists, and no politically engaged youth.
Publish date:
June 11, 2013
feminism, birth control, activism, teens, emergency contraception

In case you missed it, the Obama Administration and the Food and Drug Administration have been in a protracted battle about emergency contraception.

First, we had a victory in getting OTC availability for emergency contraception. Then, the FDA pointed out that there’s no real compelling reason to have an age restriction in place on it; the medication is perfectly safe for use in minors as well as adults. So it prepared to issue a ruling making it immediately available for sale OTC to anyone who needed it, period.

That was back in 2011 -- I remember, because I wrote about it.

However, nothing moved. And nothing moved. And nothing moved. And periodically there would be a story about how soon everyone could get EC, but nothing moved. The reason for that? The Obama Administration, which dug in its heels over lifting age restrictions on EC.

The matter actually went to court, where the administration was soundly smacked for putting politics over science. Judge Korman described the Administration’s attitude as: “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent.” Zing.

The Administration seemed prepared for another round of appeals, given precedent and its refusal to admit that young people should have access to emergency contraception so they can make their own reproductive health choices. Last week, teen activist Hannah Weintraub challenged the Obama Administration directly in a sharp piece at RH Reality Check, putting a lie to the claim that teens aren’t politically involved and can’t express themselves.

As a recently graduated high school senior, she points out that she often feels like adults don’t “get” her life, but in this case, she’s not just being a stereotypical teen: “The age restriction also fails to acknowledge that -- spoiler alert -- young people have sex. While only 13 percent of teens have had sex by age 15, that’s still more than one in ten teens who deserve the same protection and health-care services that women of other ages receive. If we continue to ignore the reality that young people can and will be sexual, we will have no choice but to contend with even more teens with children of their own.”

She nailed the paternalism in the administration’s refusal to back off from the appeals, but more than that, she pointed to the serious access problems created by refusing to allow teens to get emergency contraception -- a time-sensitive medication -- when they need it.

For example, Weintraub noted that by putting the burden on clerks at pharmacies to check the ages of clients, the government is effectively demanding that anyone who wants EC produce photo ID. Which can be a big problem for teens, many of whom don’t have photo ID because they don’t have drivers’ licenses yet, don’t have state ID cards, and don’t have passports or other documentation.

The same is true for many adults, too, illustrating some deeper issues with how the health care system in the United States is administered. When access to basic services is predicated on being able to produce a photo ID, that's a problem -- and this doesn't just apply to health care. Voter ID laws caused a great deal of controversy in 2012 and they'll continue to do so because they're a naked attempt at disenfranchisement.

Our goal should be to increase access to basic needs, not to make it harder. When it comes to things like EC, every minute really does count, and any barrier could make the difference between handling a situation or getting mired in a sea of problems; if you can't get EC, then you may have to try to arrange an abortion, for example, which means having to work your way around abortion restrictions like parental notification laws and outright attempts to ban abortion.

There’s a larger framework in action here as well:

This disempowering trope is further reinforced by “abstinence is best” health classes that require women of a certain age to receive parental approval before accessing medically accurate information, and abortion laws that require parental intervention before accessing medically safe procedures. Our schools expect us to comprehend calculus and Shakespeare, yet reading the packaging on a box of pills or talking about sex in a mature, clinical way is too much for us to handle? Give me a break.

Hannah’s piece speaks to the position many teens in the US are in today. They’re surrounded by a culture that treats them like they’re incapable of any kind of basic logic, and that continues to consider teens as unworthy of attention; people talk over teens without listening to them, and insist on misguided “help” that can actually make things worse for teens. At the same time, the work of teen activists and trailblazers like Weintraub is erased.

She’s not the only young woman speaking out about birth control, body image, and a host of other issues that affect teens, and yet she’s constantly hearing the message that there are no young feminists, and no politically engaged youth. A conspiracy of invisibility shoves her to the back of the room no matter how hard she screams and how many signs she waves, and yet, the older generation wonders why some youth aren’t as invested in our movements?

Hannah kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for xoJane about her life, her work, and where she's headed -- she is definitely one to watch!

xoJane: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Hannah: I just graduated high school and I live in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. I will be 18 in July.

xoJane: What led you to start getting involved in political activism?

Hannah: There are many factors that made my involvement in political activism almost inevitable (which means this is going to be a long story). My parents have always instilled in my two sisters and me a deep sense of responsibility for the people in our community whether that community was our school, our city or our country. My parents raised us to be ourselves and question structures that inhibited our own personal expressions of identity and freedom.

I have also attended a progressive Jewish summer camp that has a heavy focus on social justice and actualization and definitely contributed to my political activism. The first time I was really introduced to feminism and women’s rights issues was at camp when I was about 12 years old. The counselors had put together a gender empowerment event and I was reading these statistics about the number of women who have been sexually assaulted and I was completely shocked. I had never heard of these awful crimes against women before. That night I swore that I would work to ensure that no woman would have to contend with this violence and misogyny.

Then when I started high school I joined my school’s women’s advocacy club because of this promise I had made to myself. My sophomore year I became the co-president of the club, my junior year I began blogging about women’s issues for the Huffington Post and my senior year I began blogging for RH Reality Check.

xoJane: You've written on a variety of subjects, from the pressures on women performers to male birth control. What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing teens in the US today?

Hannah: I think one of the biggest issues facing teenage women today is the subtle ways that (dare I say it) the patriarchy still hampers our individual freedom as women. Back when my grandma was a kid, people would say outright that women couldn’t have certain jobs or that women shouldn’t get good grades.

Today, fewer people if any are exclaiming these sexist declarations out loud but that obviously doesn’t mean that sexism and misogyny is erased from our culture. Rather, I think this subtlety allows men to say that there is no need for feminism while some women may not realize the extent to which the patriarchy still effects them.

More specifically some key issues that affect young women are issues with body image and confidence, teen dating violence, respect in relationships and sexual harassment.

An issue facing teens in general that I want to focus on more is the exorbitant price of higher education.

xoJane: You recently wrote for RH Reality Check about the Obama Administration's fight for age restrictions on emergency contraception -- can you talk a little more about the fight for access to comprehensive sex education and a full spectrum of reproductive health care options for teens?

Hannah: As I mentioned in my article, in many schools around America students are taught sex ed using either abstinence only or abstinence plus curriculum. As has been my own experience with the abstinence plus curriculum at my school, teens often leave these classes without the information they need to appropriately use birth control and to adequately protect themselves from STDs. Even if teens do have all of the knowledge they need, some don’t have access to birth control whether it be for financial reasons or because of the accessibility of local clinics.

Activists have been fighting to increase teen’s access to birth control and to empower teens to make healthy choices regarding their sexuality. In my women’s advocacy club at school, this means handing out information on birth control, talking to my peers about consent and informing people about teen dating violence. Reproductive health includes so many facets of a person’s life so it must be addressed from a medical, emotional and safety perspective. When it comes to teens and reproductive health, the biggest hurdle is just making people accept that teens will have sex and that they need the same protection and medical care as adults.

xoJane: As a young activist, I'm sure you get a lot of ageist blowback: how do you respond to people who say there are 'o young feminists or no politically engaged young adults?

Hannah: I haven’t heard those complaints that often because I have written for publications that are trying to promote and value the youth voice. What I have heard is people just deriding my arguments and trying to poke holes in my ideas. I guess they aren’t treating me any differently than an adult!

I think the ageist blowback is more subtle. When I first started writing I was super nervous that people wouldn’t value my opinions because I was so young. I think this fear of not being respected keeps many socially aware teens from actually becoming activists thus giving the illusion that this generation isn’t politically engaged. It’s difficult for anyone to put themselves out there if it seems like their ideas won’t be valued just because of an arbitrary character trait.

Overcoming this environment in which people write teens off because of their age has been my biggest hurdle. People will still just talk over me or disregard my opinion because I am so young. But my response to any disrespect I may receive is to just keep pushing forward and to continue doing what I know is right and just. That’s the best way to gain the respect that one deserves.

xoJane: Where do you plan to take your activism and work into the future?

Hannah: I have no idea right now. I want to be a teacher and maybe go into education reform. I think I am just going to see what opportunities arise as I get older.

xoJane: And, finally, a key question: cake, or pie?

Hannah: Cake!

Hannah’s doing great work, and just this week, the Obama Administration finally announced that it was going to drop its appeals on emergency contraception. Welcome to the 21st century, everyone. Have a seat at the cronut bar, your drinks will arrive shortly.

Soon, EC will be available OTC to everyone, just like it should be, and people like Hannah are part of the reason why. Now tell me again that teens are politically uninvolved and incapable of engaging with political systems.