Jane Fonda On 'Toxic Masculinity', Teen Pregnancy And How To Increase Women In The Workforce

“To knock up girls is a sign of true masculinity. We need to help young men know and feel what a real relationship is like and understand that ‘real men’ are the ones who wait to have children until they are emotionally and financially able to support them,” said Jane Fonda, actress and founder of Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential (GCAPP).

Fonda founded GCAPP, the teen pregnancy and health organization, in 1995, when Georgia had the highest teen birth rate in the country. “I had a fraught adolescence and understood what happens when a young woman doesn’t know how her body works. I wanted to help young people avoid risky sexual behaviors that could affect their lives forever.”

Since founding GCAPP teen births in Georgia have declined by 66%, but Fonda’s goal is to reduce this by a further 20% by 2020. Fonda says the decline in teen pregnancy means that a greater number of young women are finishing school and this in turn is helping them to escape poverty and earn a living wage.

The America’s Promise Alliance states that only 40% of teen mothers complete high school, and less than 2% finish college before they are 30 years old. “When a young person has a baby before they have become fully adult, it hinders their ability to stay in school and take advantage of opportunities that may come their way. That in turn makes it harder for young women to get a well-paying job,” said Fonda.

Fonda will celebrate 22 years of running GCAPP, at the December fundraiser ‘Eight Decades of Jane’ in Georgia. In this interview Fonda shares how tackling ‘toxic masculinity' is the key to preventing teen pregnancy, breaking the cycle of poverty and advancing the number of young women in the workforce.

Michelle King: Do you see teen pregnancy as mainly an issue for young women?

Jane Fonda: The toxic masculinity that is a part of our culture tells young men that to be a ‘real man’ they must not show emotions, must not appear vulnerable and must be popular and ‘fast’ with women.

The solutions for this have to come from the ways we raise and treat boys. From the messages they get, like that real men don’t cry. Real men don’t ask for help. Real men have babies. We need to teach men what it means to be a man. It has to happen in the media, in schools and in the home.

King: Why is teen pregnancy so critical for women’s economic empowerment?  

Fonda: Teenage parents are often born from teenage mothers and fathers, who tend to be absent from their lives. The determinant of teen pregnancy isn’t race but economics. Young mothers tend to be poor and under-educated. We say that teenage pregnancy is an inter-generational transfer of poverty. It is critical that we break the cycle and make it possible for these young women to stay in school and go to college.

King: Do you see this as a gender equality issue?

Fonda: Young mothers aren’t able to engage in the activities that their non-parenting peers do. They are not free to explore the world or to learn who they are. They are disadvantaged in the job market and their lives become all about trying to figure out how to be a good mother – while also trying to figure out who they are themselves.

As long as females feel they must acquiesce and please men, they will be vulnerable. The gendered power differential is what puts young women at risk. There are so many girls who, when they hit puberty, they give up their voices. We have to help young women maintain their voices.

King: How can we better support young women and prevent teen pregnancy?  

Fonda: We need teach young women and men, that they have a say over their bodies. They have a right to control what happens to their bodies. They have a right to say no. They also need to know what a real relationship feels like. Many young women and men don’t see this in their own homes, so they have no idea.

Young women need to feel seen, safe and celebrated. So the questions young women should ask are: what is a relationship supposed to feel like? How do I know a relationship is real? Young women need to know that a real relationship is about feeling safe, it is about trusting and knowing that you can communicate with the other person - especially about difficult issues. Knowing what that feels like is important because it helps young women to know what it is they are looking for.

King: What can organizations do to better support young mothers with entry into the workforce?

Fonda: We need to ensure young mothers have an opportunity to earn a living wage without having to work two to three jobs. This means we need to ensure they have access to affordable childcare, parenting classes and maternity, paternity leave.

All of this is essential if we are to truly help young mothers enter and advance in the workplace - as well as supporting their children to succeed.