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Turning Confident Girls Into Confident Women

About three years ago, just before her daughter turned 8, Idelisse Malave marveled to herself: How confident her child seemed, how serious, how self-assured.

“Boy,” thought Malave, an attorney who is vice president of the Ms. Foundation, “this next generation of women is going to be phenomenal!”

A short time later, she read a magazine story that brought those high hopes back to earth. The article outlined a research project at Harvard, lead by psychologist Carol Gilligan.

“It was about how girls of 8 and 9 are these wonderful, vital, self-confident human beings, and then when they hit the wall of Western Civilization at the age of 11 or 12, they start losing their voices, their self-esteem, all the things I was sitting there admiring in my daughter,” said Malave.

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Gilligan has found that at 9 and 10, girls indeed have the world on a string. They are confident in their abilities, honest, forthright, unafraid to say the truth, even if it hurts someone’s feelings.

But between grade school and junior high, as girls learn what it means to be “young ladies,” their bright, confident lights begin to flicker. The sentence “I don’t know” pops up frequently in their speech. They with hold the truth to spare feelings, they lose confidence in their academic abilities. Instead of their successes and strengths, they see their mistakes and weaknesses.

“My reaction,” said Malave, “was first personal--'No! Not my daughter!’ Then it was political, because I am an activist and I try to keep my life all of one piece.”

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So she wrote a book.

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“Mother Daughter Revolution,” has three authors, actually. Malave was joined by Elizabeth Debold, one of Gilligan’s Harvard colleagues, and Ms. Foundation President Marie Wilson.

“We began to realize,” they write, “that raising a daughter is an extremely political act in this culture. Mothers have been placed in a no-win situation with their daughters: If they teach their daughters simply how to get along in a world that has been shaped by men and male desires, then they betray their daughter’s potential. But if they do not, they leave their daughters adrift in a hostile world without survival strategies.”

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The authors propose that the way to change the course of events that damages the psyches of girls is to change the mother/daughter relationship. For it is most often from their mothers, say the authors, that girls learn the hard lessons about fitting in, keeping quiet, not hurting feelings, behaving like “ladies.” It is from their mothers, say the authors, that girls learn how to accommodate “the wall” they come up against as adolescents: the dominant culture that values women less than men.

“The better you’ve done your job as prescribed for you as a mother, the more you’ve trained your daughter to fit into the patriarchy. . . . That’s the squeeze play or dilemma of it,” says one psychotherapist quoted in the book.

The mother/daughter revolution, says Malave, is about mothers giving their daughters the strength to resist the cultural messages that limit them.

“Girls suffer unnecessary losses,” she explained. “We spend so much time and energy on becoming ‘good girls,’ and then we have to spend a lot of time and energy dismantling the good girl. And anyway, who benefits from this concept of what a ‘good girl’ is?”

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Besides offering a blueprint for a new way to mother, the authors sharply challenge the conventional psychological wisdom about the need for adolescent daughters to separate from their mothers to become well-functioning adults.

“Scientific experts tell mothers that each child should separate to achieve autonomy,” they write. “This is a lie. . . . This lie of separation leads mothers into an unintentional betrayal of daughters.”

Malave and her co-authors propose that adolescence is a time when girls need their mothers more than ever. They need their mothers to see them as they are (not as how they should be), to hear what they say, and to stick up for them when the world wants to tamp down their spirits.

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When a daughter complains that something isn’t fair, says Malave, don’t let your reply be the standard parental dodge: “Life isn’t fair.”

“Kids say this so often: It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair,” said Malave. “To answer, though, that life is not fair is to deny her identifying an injustice. Yes, life sometimes is unfair, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that I want to communicate to my daughter that it is hopeless and she should just resign herself to the way things are.”

(Not bad advice for either sex, actually.)

The challenge to all parents to raise happy, healthy children is an extraordinary one. This book raises the stakes for mothers by asking them to raise their daughters differently from the way they were raised.

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It’s revolutionary indeed to think the day may come when women rejoice at the notion that they are turning into their mothers.


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