Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter of the Vagenda Magazine

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How do you get teenagers to think feminism is cool?

Like it or not, feminism has got a PR problem.

Girl Guides in their campfire hats in 1947
Girl Guides in their campfire hats in 1947. Photograph: Getty Images

Last week we took part in the Think Feminism debate at the Girl Guide Association Headquarters. Their CEO, Julie Bentley, ruffled a few feathers when she took the post following five years with the Family Planning Association and declared the Guides “the ultimate feminist organisation”. One of the reasons such a statement was so inflammatory is because some members of the Guiding community felt that the “angry man-hating feminist stereotype” (a type which grew, like many effective lies, from an element of truth that has since been exacerbated by the right wing media) corrupted their wholesome image. They didn’t want to be associated with its bra-burning associations. And can you blame them?

Of course, the only thing the Girl Guides are burning are camp fires, and they’re having a laugh doing it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be feminists. The discussion indicates real progress. This is an organisation with half a million (female) members, and they are spending serious time thinking about ways in which to engage teenagers with issues surrounding gender inequality. What they choose to do could have more impact on the feminist future than the actions of any other organisation this year. Because, like it or not, feminism has a PR problem that needs sorting.

As far as we’re concerned, the jury’s still out as to whether or not the word itself needs, to slip into publicity speak for a moment, a “rebrand”. We certainly know from what young women are telling us that “feminism” is a dirty word, for a variety of reasons, perhaps most significantly because it’s “angry” it’s not “sexy” or “feminine”. Young women also expressed the feeling that feminism wasn’t really “for” them – that it was too complex and alienating and that they didn’t have the correct terminology. If you’ve read anything else we’ve written then you’ll know that we don’t see anger or verbose pomposity as effective recruiting tactics, but we need to go further than this and try and think about ways in which we can get young women thinking about gender inequality.

You’d think that feminist mothers would beget feminist daughters (some assume that, like obesity and alcohol dependence, social liberalism runs in families) but it’s often not the case. Listening to your mum talk about the barricades and women’s lib is difficult when Rihanna is waving her bum in your face under the guise of empowerment, and meanwhile the boys at school have some incredibly perplexing footage on their phones that you have to practise pretending to laugh at. Even the most Guardian-reading, muesli-knitting children can transform into strangers during their teenage years, exposed as they are to a culture where being cool means everything, and usually involves hotpants.

Whether or not feminism can ever be truly “cool” is another matter. It probably won’t ever be, cool being as it is associated with a special kind of fag-in-mouth don’t-give-a-fuck apathy. Feminism is the opposite of insouciant. Try being nonchalant while a cocky teenager says “but we don’t need it anymore”. See? Telling young people what to do in an angry voice just simply doesn’t work. Teenage girls have enough drama in their lives without you adding to it. In our experience, having someone (especially your mum) telling you that you HAVE to be a feminist, very rarely, if ever, makes you a feminist.

Rather, feminism is something that many women come to by themselves. Contrary to what cynical marketeers might say, adolescent girls are not idiots. Just because they’re being told that the main things they should be thinking about are sparkly nail polish and blow job technique doesn’t mean that those are actually the only things on their minds. On the contrary, the teenage years are the time when many of us begin to develop social consciences, hence the startling upsurge in girls announcing at the breakfast table, aged 13, that they have decided to become vegetarians. They have a keen sense of injustice (perhaps the keenest), if only someone non-geriatric would bother to talk to them about it.

Unfortunately, it’s not looking as though the government is planning to put equality on the national curriculum anytime soon. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for them to do that. A patriarchy setting up courses to teach young people about the evils of patriarchy? Please. They don’t teach feminism for the same reason they don’t teach pupils about the electoral system: they don’t want you to know. And they’d have an uprising of teenagers on their hands (“but Miss, I thought we lived in a DEMOCRACY? This first past the post system is BULLSHIT.”)

Thus, if the government is refusing to shoulder the burden, it’s up to other organisations to fill the void. The Girl Guides are already doing it, as are initiatives such as MediaSmart, a brilliant not-for-profit that distributes teaching materials to schools in order to help children think critically about advertising. The most successful grass-roots organisations (see UKFeminista) are the ones that provide support and topics for discussion, rather than parroting ideology. It shows an understanding that many women come to feminism of their own accord, after having experienced sexism or misogyny, and not because they have been lectured into it. Just encouraging young women to talk about the issues surrounding the sexism, the media and celebrity culture yields some surprisingly passionate responses. Similarly, projects such as Everyday Sexism and Who Needs Feminism? allow women to contribute their own thoughts without anyone judging or taking the piss – a crucial element, especially for teenagers, as well as reflecting the impulses of a generation who are growing up with Tumblr and internet memes.

So there is a lot of great work being done, but there needs to be more. As we speak, young women are setting up discussion groups in their schools, reading books and blogs and magazines such as Rookie (a particular success story– it doesn’t bang on about feminism, but gender equality is subtly central to its entire ethos), and hopefully starting their own. We know, because they’re sending letters to us about it, but we also know that many of them still feel like “the only feminist in their village”, and that more of us need to get out there and show them that they’re not alone.

Rhiannon and Holly will be speaking at the New Statesman Centenary Debate "What is the most important issue facing feminism today?" on 4 April at Conway Hall. More details here.