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Bridget Farr on Using Your Voice and Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code

In fifth grade, my favorite shirt read, “Jack and Jill ran up the hill. Jill won. Girls dominate.” Girl power ruled the day just as we girls planned to dominate our own lives. My favorite book series, Dear America, featured girls during important moments of history; their lives personalizing events normally told from the perspectives of old white men. Inspired and hopeful that my own diary would be worthy of publication, I began referring to my “dearest grandfather” and “darling mummy,” certain a British accent would lend me the necessary clout. Apparently, I didn’t realize that the voice I should want people to listen to was my own.

Girl power shirts aside, I also had women in my life who reminded me my voice was important. After moving to a new town too late to test into the advanced reading program, my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Schrader, made an entire curriculum just for me. Having now taught myself, I’m awed at the extra hours she put in to make sure I got what I needed. Likewise, Mrs. Hessen, my third grade teacher, encouraged me to move from the sidelines of the basketball court to state champion in the free throw shooting competition. And my mom was my biggest supporter, reading all of my notebook stories and covering my first book about mermaids in leftover seashell wallpaper.

Soon though, I started to see that while girl power was the message, not everyone was listening. Their ears had been plugged for centuries and they weren’t about to hear me now. Like Margie Kelly in Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code, I too was ignored by the boys on my middle school quiz bowl team (Come on! It’s Treaty of Versailles!). I watched girls in my classes be underestimated and talked over. At a conference supporting migrant farmworkers, I listened to Dolores Huerta rightfully claim “Sí  Se Puede” as her own and wondered why there wasn’t a Dolores Huerta Street parallel to every Cesar Chavez Avenue.

In my role as a middle school teacher, I taught a female empowerment class where we investigated representations of women in the media. After an entire semester, one student wrote in her final essay that “women can clean so neat and help the people who clean the offices,” and I worried I’d never be able to disrupt the ingrained perceptions of women and their role in our world. As in Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code, sexism swirled around me and seemed nearly impossible to escape.

For a long time, I thought the way to combat sexism and disrupt patriarchal systems was learning to use my voice and teaching my students to find theirs. But that isn’t enough. Margie Kelly knows she has a voice and is prepared to use it, but she hasn’t realized what it took me until my thirties to understand: Knowing how and when to use your voice is more critical than just speaking up. As someone with a variety of privileges—white, cisgender, able-bodied, college-educated, English-dominant, well-resourced—I didn’t realize that my voice came with a built-in megaphone. My own needs matter, but I also need to consider the way meeting my needs might intersect or even undercut someone else’s. Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe the way our identities intertwine and intersect—specifically race and gender. In learning from her and the work of other Black educators and activists like Layla F. Saad and Rachel Cargle, I’ve begun to slow down. To consider when I’m shouting, whose voice I might be covering up.

When Starbucks announced the removal of plastic straws, I cheered for the environment, but quickly paused when I learned from people in the disability community how that decision would impact their quality of life. In the same way, Margie Kelly discovers how her quest for a fair dress code at her middle school impacts her differently than it does her queer friends and her friends of color. She learns not to speak for them, but with them, echoing their refrain. She must learn to use her voice in a way that her message becomes a harmony, not a solo.

This Women’s History Month, I’m going back to the women who’ve inspired me—from my past teachers, to my mom, to female trailblazers and modern-day activists—and reflecting on the ways they used their voice to tell their own story, but also to sing along with others. Just as I found inspiration to speak up by reading other girls’ stories, I hope readers of Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code feel brave knowing that change-makers don’t have to be perfect. You won’t get activism right on your first protest. It’s a process of listening, learning, and adapting your message and tactics for the good of the group. With so much impacting our world right now—COVID-19, institutionalized racism, climate change, equity in education—we need the voices and ideas of young people. And I’m certain they have a lot to say.