In this image from video provided by Morissa Zuckerman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks with a group of students who wanted to discuss the Green New Deal, an ambitious Democratic plan to shift the U.S. economy from fossil fuels and to renewable sources such as wind and solar power, at her office in San Francisco. The students are members of Sunrise Movement, an activist group that encourages children to combat climate change. (Morissa Zuckerman/AP)
Paul M. Renfro is a postdoctoral fellow at Southern Methodist University, and beginning in August 2018, he will be a Dean’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the department of history at Florida State University.

When a group of children visited Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office last month to advocate for a Green New Deal, the senator not only shot them down — she denied their political agency. “That resolution will not pass the Senate,” Feinstein told the young activists affiliated with the Sunrise Movement, “and you can take that back to whoever sent you here and tell them.”

A video clip of Feinstein’s confrontation with the Sunrise Movement youth went viral (followed by full video of the exchange). While some commentators focused on the poor optics of Feinstein’s dismissiveness, others rushed to the senator’s defense. These pundits reinforced many of Feinstein’s critiques, claiming that the young activists were being used as pawns by their parents and that Feinstein’s extensive experience and knowledge of Senate procedures gave her the right to rebuff the “green” youngsters. Smearing the Sunrise youth as “jackbooted tots” trying “to bully an adult into doing their bidding,” Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic situated the Green New Deal within “the worlds of magic and make-believe” with which the young activists are supposedly quite familiar.

Such arguments inverted the power imbalances between the youthful Sunrise members (who cannot yet vote) and the senator. Indeed, these claims obscured two important truths regarding youth and American politics. First, thanks to parental control and a lack of voting rights, children are a marginalized, subjugated group. Second, despite popular conceptions to the contrary, childhood is inherently political. Policies implemented by adults affect young people, even though those younger than 18 have no formal say in the electoral process.

For more than a century, these realities have created two forms of child-based activism: Adults have long wielded children as political objects to advance their favorite causes, while at the same time, children themselves have agitated for change on policies that impact their lives. To simply dismiss all childhood activism as part of this first tradition ignores this second, equally rich history.

In many ways, children are at the root of every policy battle — or, as literary theorist Lee Edelman put it, “the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” Even policy battles with minimal explicit connection to children, like the fight for reproductive rights, get framed as a fight for the future of, in Edelman’s words, “our children — for our daughters and our sons.”

To that end, adult activists have long marshaled the imagery and rhetoric of childhood to petition for their preferred policies. Modern conceptions of the “ ‘economically worthless’ but ‘emotionally priceless’ ” child took hold in the Victorian era. Through the emergent technology of flash photography and increasingly efficient means of mass communication, Progressive reformers (and specifically “muckrakers”) built popular support for their “child-saving” projects. The definition of child saving was broad enough to encompass all of the ills of modern industrial society — taxing labor, squalid living conditions, delinquency, drunkenness, vagrancy and on and on.

Before and during World War II, adults in the United States and beyond also used the “emotionally priceless” child “as a means to rally populations to war.” Child-centered propaganda helped propel the United States into the Great War, the Nazis into the Sudetenland and the Soviets into Poland in World War II.

Pictures of needy and cared-for children alike carried over into the post-WWII period, serving as visual expressions of the postwar order and the “soft” cultural weapons with which adults waged the Cold War. In the United States, Rockwellian illustrations of contented, playful children portrayed American democratic capitalism as the system best suited to provide for young people. For their part, Soviet propagandists vividly depicted the threat of white supremacist terror looming over young African Americans in the civil rights era. Indeed, children were often weaponized on either side of a geopolitical or policy battle.

In other cases, the two sides converged, powerfully using children to generate policy changes. Beginning in the mid- to late-1960s, liberals and social conservatives alike — from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Anita Bryant, from Christopher Lasch to “Chicago school” economists like Gary Becker — shared fears of familial decline and its effects on the child. Their anxieties helped inform bipartisan policy prescriptions, implemented most feverishly in the 1980s and 1990s, that encouraged family formation and “workfare” while disincentivizing welfare “dependency.” Across this same period, an intensifying war on drugs trafficked in images of “innocent” white suburban kids victimized by young, nonwhite drug “pushers.”

But children have been far more than just pawns in U.S. political history. During the civil rights movement, their political activism ranged from Ruby Bridges’s courageous entrance into a segregated New Orleans school to the young participants in the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s Birmingham campaign.

Young Americans also led movements against the Vietnam War and in favor of greater autonomy for children, adolescents and college students. Thirteen-year-old Mary Beth Tinker and others protested the war by donning black armbands, an action that led the Supreme Court to affirm the First Amendment rights of public school students. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the decades-long drive to lower the voting age to 18 accelerated as young activists rejected the notion that they could fight and die in Vietnam yet could not vote for the politicians who decided to send them off to war.

This activism has continued into the 21st century. In 2006, tens of thousands of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District walked out of their high schools to protest a proposed draconian immigration bill. Mobilized by the slayings of teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in 2012 and 2014, respectively, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has foregrounded the voices of young activists, especially those representing some of the nation’s most subjugated groups — including immigrants, people with disabilities, and women, queer and trans people of color. In the wake of the massacre at their high school last February, students from Parkland, Fla., have helped reshape the national discourse on gun violence.

The young, bold Sunrise activists who confronted Feinstein last month belong to this tradition. Rather than being pawns for adults, they spoke from a unique position of vulnerability, considering the burdens that future generations will bear in our impending climate catastrophe. As this long history shows, while adults have often co-opted the images of children to advance their political causes, children themselves have long proven capable of undertaking activism on issues that affect their lives. The sooner we take them seriously, the better.

correction: The headline on an earlier version of this article misspelled Sen. Dianne Feinstein's name as Diane.