“I couldn’t get a job,” said my sister-in-law as she was relating her story to a sympathetic audience at a recent family event. She sent out resumes. She interviewed. It didn’t go as she’d planned. Road block. Full stop.
The first time I heard an iteration of this story was more than a decade ago. It still bothers me. If you listened to the story you’d come away with an understanding of a multi-year search peppered with countless interviews. If I’m not mistaken there was only one interview. Very rough terrain. So much so that she stopped dead in her tracks.
Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (Harcourt, 2002) reminded me of my sister-in-law’s trials. Simmons’ well researched work introduces readers to some new thinking on the root cause and implications of girl aggression. Her basic premise is that as a society we lack vocabulary for aggression and conflict in girls. In turn girls develop “relational aggression” techniques which harm others “through damage to relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship or group inclusion.” (Odd Girl Out, pg 43)
Simmons relies on research from noted psychologist and NYU professor Carol Gilligan in stating, “relationships play an unusually important role in girls’ social development.” She goes on to note that “girls perceive danger in their lives as isolation, especially the fear that by standing out they will be abandoned. Boys, however, describe danger as entrapment.” (Odd Girl Out, pg 30)
So what can this possibly have to do with transition? I reached for Simmons’ book this week to get up to speed on ‘girl conflicts’ after my 9-year-old daughter hit a major relationship hurdle in early July. It was painful to watch. But, I was also inspired by her willingness to keep trying; even addressing the issue directly with the other little girls. As I read I realized that many of the issues affecting women in transition are similar to those issues affecting girls as they experience aggression. Isolation. Disempowerment. Vulnerability.
For those interested Simons offers many powerful vignettes of real girl conflicts taken from her multi-year research on the subject. While the book isn’t a treatise on bullying, it does evaluate those behaviors. Here are some thoughts that might interest you:
- Simmons concludes that relational aggression is rooted in society “denying girls individual acts of aggression. Open conflict is feared and forbidden.” (Odd Girl Out, pg 86) She laments that “society silences and invalidates female aggression” (pg 207). Throughout the book she offers perspectives on retaliation, social status, and meanness.
- Simmons appeals to readers to establish positive behaviors in girls. On her list are the benefits of honest communication (pg 216); the benefit of honest relationships (pg 269); and a clear, open dialogue with girls about the unrealistic image of “idealized, conflict-free relationships.” (pg 269)
I drew a fair amount of parallels between transition and the take-aways from this book. The most notable is that as a society we lack vocabulary for transition. Here is a funny story. I recently inquired about re-starting my membership to the Boston Club, a networking organization for professional women in and around Boston. I’ve been a member on and off for >20 years. Here is the funny part. They couldn’t process that I had no professional title to list in their directory. The woman who was helping me stumbled. She was simply focused on the directory listing. Vocabulary.
The other night my husband and I went to a benefit performance by Whoopi Goldberg in Provincetown, MA for Provincetown Cares, a not-for-profit organization that supports women’s health services. “Where are all the smart women?” said Whoopi in her coffee talk monologue. Her remarks swam amidst a political rant; a war on women? Where are all the smart women?
I would put my sister-in-law in the category of ‘smart women’. A confluence of events caused her to stall. That stall led to a full-scale retreat. Is that why Whoopi is wondering about where we all are? Has a lack of vocabulary for truly wrenching situations caused us to step back, and back, and back?
The most hopeful vignettes in Simmons’ book describe aggression as, “a blessing in disguise, as many are guided into a more centered, authentic self-awareness.” (Odd Girl Out, p 199)
Transition for me has been a blessing in disguise…. although I feel no better able to articulate a vocabulary for it now than when I started. Any ideas?
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The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking these mean girls are now mean women, and they may have refined their tactics but they now part of our adult lives. Also, it made me think about In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict into Powerful Alliances which, although somewhat outdated (2001), I found eye-opening regarding the conflict that arises due to power imbalances in work and in our personal lives.