Raising Feminist Kids

Raising Feminist Kids

photo-5Feminism is a word that represents such a vast (and often conflicting) array of meanings, that, no matter how much you’ve read, it’s hard to know what you’re thinking and talking about when you’re thinking and talking about Feminism. And I should say it straight up in the first paragraph that I’m certainly no expert in terms of the many and varied nuances of feminist theory. I mean, hey, I like to think of myself as open-minded (who doesn’t?) but it’s often made clear to me that, as a result of my lifelong vision of the world from the perspective of white male privilege, I suffer from blind spots that make it either impossible or extremely difficult for me to imagine or understand the phenomenology of being a woman and/or any other victim of systematic social oppression. Now that insight doesn’t always occur to me as easily as I just typed it. When confronted by new insights, I get defensive, I resist, I stew, and I grimace until I’m finally able to see that I can’t see, that dwelling in privilege necessarily occurs on a foundation of blindness that is never magically cured by good intentions.

With that said, I have good intentions. I have a son and a daughter and a responsibility to wonder: How can I raise these kids with an eye toward a world that is kinder to women? Some of my kneejerk responses are that I should instill within my son a conscious respect for women, based in the awareness that being a woman entails experiences and struggles to which boys and men are never subjected and scarcely aware, and to teach my daughter that she’s beautiful no matter what, that how she looks need not be measured against unrealistic cultural constructs of beauty. Good starts, maybe, but there is further to go.

Being a man with a son, certainly, I’d like to raise him in such a way that he is sensitive to women’s issues and willing to play a part in the creation of a world in which women are confronted by less and less hostility. However, I’d also like to see the inverse of his kindness toward women manifest itself as outright activism when it comes to other men and our attitudes toward women. Above and beyond a revolution in our own sensibilities regarding women, men must up the ante by demanding the same in other men and by raising sons who are willing to make the same demands. This might mean something as simple as informing a friend that it’s totally not cool to call a woman a bitch. It could also mean the willingness to risk the use of force to put a stop to a sexual assault in progress. What I’m talking about is the exact opposite of the longstanding male tradition of looking away from misogyny and getting right up in its face. The logical extension of our “enlightened” views and good intentions is to risk our good standing among our fellows and demand some changes.

But what could possibly be wrong with celebrating my daughter’s beauty with no regard for its proximity to our culture’s twisted ideal of beauty? Well, what’s wrong with emphasizing our daughters as beautiful (no matter what) is that it overlooks and blocks us off from a pressing question about how we’re inclined to see women in the first place. Why is it that, as we nobly hope to revise what beautiful means, beauty remains, entrenched and unquestioned, the lens through which we apprehend women? Imagine the freedom we could reveal for our daughters if, instead of building more expansive prisons of beauty (“Everyone’s beautiful!”; “We’re beautiful in our own way!”; “We’re pretty on the inside!”), we knocked down the walls and granted them escape entirely from the shackles of this torturous adjective.

Our daughters deserve better adjectives. This is to say that we need nothing short of a revolution in consciousness in terms of the way we see and understand women. Think not? Observe for yourself for a single day what constitutes the first, the highest, and most frequent form of compliment doled out to women (indeed, from men and women alike) on television, in print, social media, and your day to day life. You’re beautiful. So pretty. Radiant. Gorgeous. Hottie. Love that dress. OMG your hair! Etc. Our damn near singular relationship to women as such is via their appearance and how their appearance shores up with beauty.

Our daughters deserve better adjectives. New modes from which to appear. Feminism as that which frees the female from a primarily seen and assessed object. But then what would she be? Sure, intelligent, funny, yeah, okay. But, further, adjectives personal to her, individual, that articulate her singular coming forth to girl in the world, not measured with scales of beauty, but apprehended as an expression of the unique explosion of forces that she was called to announce.

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Revising Ophelia


True story: Abby, age ten, is on the playground after school, reading out to some of us mothers bits of her essay on why single-sex education is good for middle school girls.

When I ask her if girls might not be better off mixing it up academically with boys, just as they’ll have to one day in the real world, I am beset. Don’t I know that girls suffer a precipitous drop in self-esteem the moment adolescence hits? Don’t I know boys harass them in the halls and intimidate them in the classroom? Don’t I know science and math teachers ignore girls and call only on boys?

I should keep my mouth shut, but I can’t resist. “Omigod, are we still picking on those poor science teachers? That is so ’90s!”

Nobody laughs. I think someone actually puts her hands on her hips. “Didn’t you read Reviving Ophelia?” she demands.

Ah, Ophelia.

It’s been ten years since child psychologist Mary Pipher published Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. In that decade, “Ophelia” has become universal shorthand not for Hamlet’s mopey girlfriend–though that’s who we see floating on the cover in a sea of water lilies–but for a soul-destroying culture that “limits girls’ development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized,” as Pipher wrote in her introduction.

But here’s what’s disturbing: ten years after its debut–the lifetime, as it turns out, of an adolescent girl–Ophelia still sells between 45,000 and 50,000 copies each year. That’s fifty thousand new copies to parents who presumably wouldn’t dream of relying on an old edition of What to Expect… or a Penelope Leach book from another millennium.

This is dangerous business, I think. It’s undeniable that Reviving Ophelia played the pivotal role in inspiring teachers, parents, health advocates and others to fight back against gender bias, sexual harassment, and “girl-poisoning” popular culture.

But it’s equally undeniable that we shouldn’t be reading it–or is that obsessing on it?–anymore. Read the actual book, as I did recently, and you’ll find it’s badly dated and, in places, needlessly inflammatory, and we can’t help today’s teens of either gender by relying on old information. It’s time to thank Ophelia for all her good work and come back to our own decade.


Mary Pipher says she never expected Ophelia to be a hit. It wasn’t until the paperback was issued in 1996 that sales truly took off. “It was a slow-building book. Nobody expected it to do much of anything,” Pipher recalls, speaking from her home in Nebraska, where she still maintains a clinical practice, teaches part time, and updates a web site (marypipher.net) to apprise fans on her latest writings.

Instead, the book did something big: it hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to spend three years there. Almost two million copies of the paperback edition alone are in print.

Drawing on and expanding upon earlier work on girls like Carol Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads and the American Association of University Women’s 1992 study How Schools Shortchange Girls, Reviving Ophelia kick-started a wave of girl-centric activism that’s still going strong.

Reviving Ophelia started a dialogue about adolescence that wasn’t there before,” says Rachel Muir, who was inspired by Ophelia to form Girlstart Inc., an Austin-based program dedicated to narrowing the digital divide between boys and girls in the classroom. “Ophelia validated an entire girls’ movement by asking us to take a look at how we shape society for girls, to look at the pressure girls are under.”

But Ophelia the book, as distinct from Ophelia the movement, hasn’t kept pace with the changes it brought about.

Reviving Ophelia was never strong on facts to begin with–the book has no footnotes and little attribution–and those facts are now twelve or more years out of date. To cite just two of many examples, Pipher claims at one point that “sexual and physical assaults on girls are at an all-time high,” but references no statistics. Surely–taking into account ages past when women and girls were considered property and incest and rape weren’t crimes–surely Pipher meant reports of sexual assault were on the rise, which can even be a good thing if that means girls and their advocates are gaining the courage to speak up and out against sexual crimes.

Elsewhere, Pipher casually lets drop that girls are “growing up in a world where one in four women will be raped in her lifetime.” Again, the number isn’t referenced, and ten years on, when asked, Pipher can’t recall where it came from (and shouldn’t, in all fairness, be expected to remember now).

But if that statistic, shocking as it is, were ever true, it’s not true now. The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number at one in six, and that’s for sexual assault and attempted assault combined, which means the number of actual rapes is even lower.

I’m not suggesting the girls’ movement has run its course–in the week this article was written, two football players in Massachusetts were charged with raping a fifteen-year-old classmate; voters in Ohio told pollsters they couldn’t vote for John Kerry because his wife was not sufficiently “ladylike”; and a teenaged actress rumored to have already had breast implants posed with shirt up and thong pulled down past her pubic bone for the cover of a magazine read by men in their thirties and forties.

Yes, we still have work to do. But wallowing in outdated and possibly inflammatory numbers won’t help us make our daughters any safer or secure; it only makes us, and them, feel hysterical, or paralyzed, or both. And that paralysis can stop us from acknowledging the very real progress we’ve made in the past decade and being able to meet head-on a changing crop of girl-relevant issues as they emerge today.

Progress has been significant. Girlstart and programs like it across the country mentor girls in math and science. Bullying and sexual harassment education raises awareness among teachers, administrators, and students in middle school and high school. Health services reach out to girls who otherwise have little or no access to information about their changing bodies. And publications like New Moon, an advertising-free magazine written by girls for girls, presents girls in their most formative years with an alternate view of themselves from what they see in the mainstream media.

Experts on adolescent issues that I spoke with–Andrea Prejean, the National Education Association’s specialist in mathematics/science student achievement, and Angela Diaz, MD, director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, to name just two–agree that, while we still have a long way to go, we’ve made dramatic headway in bettering girls’ lives the past ten years.

Many more girls are taking math, science, and computer science in middle and high school. Mortality, deaths from firearms, cigarette use, binge drinking, and illicit use of drugs are all on the decline among adolescents in the 1990s and into the early part of the new century.

On the downside, very young teens are becoming sexualized at an earlier and earlier age, says Diaz, and many teens of either gender lack adequate access to health services close to where they live and go to school. And while there’s been little decline in eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in the past decade, there’s been an increase in childhood and adolescent obesity so sharp it’s been labeled an epidemic.

None of this news, good or bad, will get through to the fifty thousand people who buy Reviving Ophelia this year, simply because none of it’s in there. Pipher has never revised the book; she has turned her scholarly attentions elsewhere, publishing books on elders, refugees, and psychotherapy itself.


So why can’t we turn our attention elsewhere? Why can’t we stop reading Ophelia? Because the book, in its enormous popularity, trained us a bit too well to pathologize teenage girlhood, to view every adolescence as an ongoing, irrefutable crisis. Wrapped inside Ophelia‘s “empower and protect” message is a darker theme, one that appeals in a forbidden kind of way to moms who aren’t ready to let go: your girl is helpless and under attack. A healthy, normally developing teen, after all, will naturally begin to turn away from her parents–even her loving mom–in favor of her friends and her teen-girl culture. But a girl in crisis, well, she still needs you, doesn’t she!

Intentionally or not, Pipher repeatedly reinforces this message. “[Vegetarianism] is popular with girls because they so easily identify with the lack of speech and powerlessness of animals,” she writes in Ophelia. Oh, dear, it’s the teen girl as veal calf, boxed up helplessly in her pen and set upon by enemies of every stripe–boys/men, society/culture, advertising/media, divorced/working parents and those awful, unenlightened science teachers.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of girls in our country who aren’t yet hearing the Girl Power message–read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family for an account of one such untouched neighborhood and the trials of the teen girls who live there. But inner-city and rural/poor moms aren’t the ones buying Ophelia, I suspect, nor the aftermarket of books by other authors that followed in Ophelia‘s wake–Ophelia Speaks, Surviving Ophelia, Ophelia’s Mom, and so on.

No, these book buyers are much more likely educated, hands-on parents out to give their girls every advantage–even if that means schooling them in potential disadvantages before they’re even out of American Girl dolls. Thus we get the specter of Abby on the playground, precociously reciting all the woe that awaits her with the same efficient good cheer that she tackles dance lessons, piano, tennis, and debate club.


As Pipher’s original call to arms has morphed into something more fetishistic, the teen-girl book market has only picked up speed, minus the activism. The second wave of books center not so much on the sexist indignities of the world as on the slings and arrows girls suffer at the hands of other girls–a phenomenon known in the industry as “girl-on-girl aggression.”

Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons (2002); Mean Girls by Hayley DiMarco (2004); Mean Chick, Cliques and Dirt Tricks by Erika V. Shearin Karnes (2004), and the queen bee of the genre, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes (2002), all document the carnivorous ways those poor veal calves are able to tear one another to shreds.

In Queen Bees & Wannabes, and in the Empower seminars that she conducts at middle schools and high schools, Wiseman delineates in anthropological detail the seven kinds of teen girl and their supposed behaviors. “Queen Bees,” for example, use fear and control to rule their cliques. “Bankers” create chaos in the hierarchy by hoarding and then strategically releasing information about other girls. “Wannabes,” “Targets,” “Torn Bystanders” . . . you might be able to guess at their roles; if not, Wiseman is right there with pages of description on each, the better to help you figure out which role your daughter plays in her school.

To go with these girl types are nine varieties of boys (from “Desperate Annoying Guy” to “Good-Boy Jock”), and as for you, hapless parent that you are, Wiseman lists off a whopping twelve different kinds of parenting styles, only one of which, alarmingly, passes muster in her opinion. (Congratulations, all you “Loving Hard-Ass” parents.)

At first read, this seems like just the book a teen and her mom could use to figure out why she’s on top of the world one day and cast out the next. So mesmerizing is Queen Bees, in fact, that it takes awhile to realize how deeply cynical and sexist this book is. Wiseman’s willingness to rigidly categorize people, her unapologetic enumeration of ages-old attributes of social acceptance, and her laser-like dissection of the smallest of social interactions is all very, well, high school. It’s a book about queen bees written in the style of a queen bee–authoritative and unquestioning–maybe even by a queen bee, that winds up validating the importance of the social hierarchy it claims to debunk.

You might very well be able to steer your daughter through the treacherous waters of adolescence following Wiseman’s morally relativistic advice, but what kind of young woman she’ll be when she reaches the far shore is still very much up for grabs.


While we’ve spent the past decade chasing the bogeyman in the science classroom and unraveling the mysteries of teen tribes under Wiseman’s tutelage, another group, a mammoth, well-organized, deep-pocketed, truly scary and worthy opponent has been working with tireless efficiency to mess with the heads of teen girls and create strife in their homes.

They’re marketers, and if you think you’ve already heard the yadda yadda about the evils of Barbie and Seventeen magazine, it’s time to take another, closer look. Since 1992, marketing aimed at children, including teens, has increased by two-and-a-half times. It now amounts to some $15 billion annually, according to the New York Times.

Pipher complained about marketing’s ill effects on teen girls in Ophelia, and today says she believes it’s the single most significant element of girls’ lives that’s gotten markedly worse since she published her book. “If anything, girls are even more targeted by vicious consumerism, branding, and marketing. The message is, if you don’t own these products, you cannot love yourself,” says Pipher.

“I think it’s a terrible thing to do to young people.”

As always, there are people who want to sell anxious parents books about this burgeoning threat, and indeed, the past eighteen months has seen the advent of tomes like Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart (2003), Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor (2004) (excerpted in Brain, Child’s Summer 2004 issue) and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (2004).

We’ve all heard by now that teenaged girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of advertising, marketing, and media messages, but in Linn’s book at last we find the answer to why that’s so. The chain of vulnerability goes something like this: Children are being exposed to material ostensibly intended for adults earlier and earlier in their lives–c.f. the Coors twins, Sex in the City reruns, and thongs for ten-year-olds. Meanwhile, physically, girls are going into puberty at a younger age, but their emotional development isn’t keeping pace. When they look to the culture around them for cues on how to act, they find MTV, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Maybelline ready and waiting.

Linn’s book doesn’t focus solely on girls, or teens, but chapters on food marketing, the alcohol and tobacco juggernauts, and sex as a commodity strike at the heart of the pressures teenaged girls feel to simultaneously conform and rebel. Linn explains just why Barbie has the influence she does over the way girls feel about their bodies; makes the connection between obesity, anorexia/bulima, and food marketing; and exposes the subtle ways the tobacco industry gets the message out to girls that smoking will keep their weight down.

Perhaps most tragically, marketers have benefited handsomely–and cynically–from the girls’ movement, co-opting its message of hope and empowerment to move products off the shelves.

“The media is worse, more sexist, more limiting in how it portrays girls than it was even ten years ago,” asserts Nancy Gruver, who founded New Moon magazine in 1992. “Before, we had benign neglect. There was not a lot of focus on girls. Now they’ve co-opted our message. Now girl power is about what kind of lip gloss you wear.”

There we have it. In ten short years, we’ve leapt from girl-as-victim to girl-as-power-shopper. Linn’s call to arms–that all marketing toward children should be banned–is of particular import to people who care about girls, because girls can’t and won’t flourish without space to make their own creative decisions apart from the impervious, insistent marketplace.

What Ophelia helped to start–a movement to empower girls–has been hijacked by marketers who are a more potent threat to girls’ developing creativity and self-esteem than some bumbling science teacher will ever be. IM to Ophelia: Get out of that weed bath, girlfriend, we’ve still got work to do.

Author’s Note: The more pop/psych/parenting books I read, the more deeply I am coming to mistrust the whole genre. At best, they rob you of perspective; at worst, they induce parental paranoia. As an antidote, try a broader take on girls in the world, like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, or Catherine Hardwicke’s 2002 movie, Thirteen.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2005)

About the Author: Tracy Mayor is a long-time contributor to Brain, Child. She is the author of the parenting-humor book Mommy Prayers. Follow her on Twitter@mommyprayers. Stacey Evers contributed research for this article.

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By Robin Galguerat

motormama It’s a gorgeous mid-winter day in Northern California. Recent rains have turned the hills into apple-green velvet and washed the roads clean of broken glass and gravel. I find myself yearning to ride my motorcycle; instead, I’m lumbering up the hill in my Volvo station wagon, a.k.a. the Mommymobile, my boy in the backseat happily singing “Baby Beluga” from the safety of his securely fastened booster seat.

People generally seem to have trouble with the words “mom” and “motorcycle” in the same sentence. Why in the world would I want to jeopardize my life just to ride a stupid motorcycle? How could I be so selfish, so unconcerned about my own safety, or its consequences for my nearly-five-year-old son? Move over, Sir Edmund Hillary.

I began riding about seven years ago, long before I had a child, and even then, folks had problems with a woman riding a bike. “You mean a scooter?” or “What kind of motorcycle is that? Wow. That’s a big bike for you.” Yeah, well, I don’t have to carry it, I just have to ride it. Why is it that no one makes the same sexist, snide remarks to the suburban housewives driving those behemoth SUVs that make my Volvo look wimpy? Certainly that’s more engine than they really need.

When I bought the bike, my grandmother, an amazing women, had just died a horrible Alzheimer’s death at the age of ninety-four. I suppose I needed to celebrate her life somehow, and for reasons unclear to just about everyone but myself, I decided that a used Japanese motorbike would be just the thing. My parents thought I’d finally gone round the bend. My husband was stunned but thrilled, given that he’d crashed his own Suzuki ten years earlier, nearly died, and had been clamoring for another motorcycle.

At about the time I decided I wanted a bike, my husband had a fender-bender in his already trashed car. When the insurance check came, I teasingly said, “Well, we could do the grown-up thing and get the car fixed . . . or we could buy a bike.” Next thing I knew, we were in San Francisco handing over $1,200 in cash to a paranoid cocaine addict in exchange for a Kawasaki GPz 550.

In the first six weeks of owning a motorcycle, I dropped it–all four hundred pounds of it–on both ankles, had x-rays, limped a lot, and felt like a real bikerwoman. It was grand. I learned all of the pertinent lingo so I could hold my own in the bull sessions that are de rigeur among the biker crowd. I became intoxicated with the heady perfume of gas and grease, and was soon able to talk cam shafts and swing arms with the best of them.

I loved the attention I got every time I rolled up to a stop sign, my long braid sticking out of an obnoxiously bright helmet. Other women stared and either silently applauded or shot me that “humph” of disapproval, as though I were a traitor to my entire gender. Men, on the other hand, just stared. I once yelled at a guy in a Honda Civic, over the din of my after-market exhaust pipe, “What? You’ve never seen a woman on a bike? Get over it!” Me, the same woman who was painfully shy, the family peacemaker. After thirty-two years, I was choosing to do something on my own terms. Finally. It was, well . . . empowering.

Then I got pregnant. I rode a little, but I was so dizzy it didn’t seem wise. And the looks from my neighbors, though I am loathe to admit it, kept me from rollin’ on down the highway. How could I possibly risk harming my unborn child? Wasn’t it against the law? Nine months later, I had a son, swollen breasts, and hips that refused to fit under my leather jacket. I seriously thought about selling my Kawi, buying a jogger stroller, and leaving that nutty part of my life in the dim, pre-child past. My motorbike high jinks would make for a funny story to tell the grandkids someday.

Once my son grew a bit and didn’t need to be nursed every two seconds, I saw an opportunity to reclaim parts of myself that I’d thought were gone for good. I had been through a major redefinition; I felt as though I’d been mourning those moments of intense exhilaration and fear when I’d twisted the throttle wide open and felt that hunk of metal beneath me accelerate like nobody’s business. But, oh brother! You think I got disapproving looks before? No one could understand my desire to accept risk, to look at it head-on and say, “All right. I know this could kill me, but I need to do it anyway.” My mother screwed up her courage and said, in the most polite, Donna Reed kind of way, “Just remember . . . If you kill yourself on that thing, your dad and I are going to have to raise the baby and, honey, we’re too old!”

A few days later, I was cruising up a sweeping boulevard to one of my favorite stretches of road that snakes along a creek and through a redwood canyon. As I leaned into the turn, I realized rather suddenly that the chick in the Acura in the lane next to me, while chatting and making hand gestures to her friend, could easily have changed lanes, smashed the hell out of me, and left my son motherless. I rode to the top of the hill, pulled over, called my husband on my cell phone, and made him come fetch me.

I felt utterly defeated, as though I’d given in to what this culture expects of me. Motorcycles are for tattooed, beer-swilling Hells Angels and man-boys with too much disposable income–not for stay-at-home thirtysomething mothers of toddlers. I had finally come to my senses. “Thank goodness! Now, let me show you our new line of frumpy, hausfrau-wear,” said one gloating inner voice.

So, it’s prime riding season here in northern California, and my old Kawi is gathering dust in the garage. The other day, I overheard my husband talking with our son. He said, “Oh, that’s a photo of Mommy when she was a biker chick.” Made me want to cry and scream and break stuff. Yes, I am a mother. Yes, I ride a motorcycle. And I really want to know why men don’t have to struggle with these overwhelming feelings of guilt regarding the acceptance and taking of risks. Sure, there are always those ads for used bikes in the paper that say, “Getting Married, Wife Says No,” or “New Dad Must Sell Ducati, Buy Minivan,” but that’s just one more way to make women bear the blame. If Suzie Q can’t settle with your desire to ride, don’t marry her!

I’ll put up with puttering along in the Mommymobile for the time being, sure, but you wait. Someday, I’m going to get back on that beautiful charcoal gray motorbike and ride. Anyway, you know what they say about girls and horses? Try 50-plus horses thundering at 5,000 rpms. Utter bliss.

Brain, Child (Fall 2002)

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