Book: Mother Daughter Revolution
In the early 1990’s the word started to get out that Carol Gilligan and her research collaborative, which included Lyn Mikel Brown, Deborah Tolman, myself and about six other women, had a response to some troubling questions that were just coming into focus about girls. How could girls, notably white middle-class girls, be doing so well in school and yet seem to feel pretty rotten about themselves? Why were eating disorders most prevalent among the “best and brightest” girls? And most interestingly, how come girls were more resilient in terms of physical and psychological health than boys in early childhood, but that this flips in adolescence? At that point, our research group–the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development–had been engaged in several studies of girls that tracked them over a period of years, which enabled us to see how different younger girls were from their older, adolescent sisters. Some of the differences you could chalk up to growth–cognitive development and physical maturation–but it was far more than that. Girls’ intellectual and sexual development put their integrity, their wholeness, at risk as they began to see themselves through the vantage point of a culture that held them to unrealistic and conflicting standards. Girls’ natural desire for relationship became dangerous as the expectations of relationship–seeking approval from boys, other girls, and parents–demanded perfection and performance in ways that created a deep self-alienation. As one girl said to us, “But you can’t not have relationships!” She’s right. And therein lies the dilemma.
My colleagues and I at Harvard were approached by Marie Wilson and Idelisse Malavé, then president and vice-president respectively of the Ms. Foundation for Women, to see how they might help us–and more importantly, help girls find a new pathway through to womanhood. Marie had begun to notice the fact that when feminists turned around and looked behind them, well, no one was there from the next generations following their trail. Idelisse had a bright and spirited daughter, and was just realizing that she might be heading for trouble as she entered her teens. I joined them–once an activist, always an activist–in order to move beyond research and theory into practice. This book, Mother Daughter Revolution, was our collective effort to give mothers and women who love girls the thinking and the tools to open up new potentials between the generations and to help girls maintain their deepest connection to themselves as they became young women. The main message of the book was, yes, it’s possible for girls to make this transition and become powerful women. But for that to happen, we women have to change.
Now, the book did pretty well when it first came out. It’s also spurred other programs and books, like The Mother-Daughter Project. Many people have told me that the book was far ahead of its time. It’s flattering to think so–perhaps that’s why it’s still in print! But at the time, I had hoped that the book would have more impact than it did–probably most authors feel that way. I was struck by the fact that Reviving Ophelia, which came out almost at the same time, held a more popular message–sort of, “Your daughter is likely to have psychological trouble during this transition, that’s now normal, so find a good therapist.” Or at least that seems to be how Mary Pipher’s message was taken. To my mind, it let us women off the hook. For girls to have a culture to grow up in that will allow them to see straight and think clearly and stay whole, they need for us women to create that culture. Contemplating that led me to my work on women’s evolution, and to a small “evolutionary laboratory” of women committed to transforming the fabric of our selves and our relationships to bring about a new culture.
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