“I can’t say anything,” said a long-time friend as she shared with me her opinion of a decision facing a mutual friend of ours. She was catching me up on the news of this friend whom she sees regularly. Her silence was triggered by an issue related to a child. The child’s parents disagreed on an educational decision. You couldn’t possibly say anything? I was stunned. Shouldn’t she offer a perspective or talk our friend through some options? I realize that I’m more confrontational than most…but silence? Really?
I would have quickly forgotten this exchange if I hadn’t been reading, “Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development” by Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan (1992 Harvard University Press). Quirky transition reading choice, right? I chose this book because it’s been referenced in almost every book I’ve read on women’s transition. As Novofemina’s 2nd Summer Reading project is drawing to a close….I thought it was finally time to see what these authors had to say.
In a nutshell the authors explore a troubling fact: “adolescent girls and adult women silence themselves or are silenced in relationships rather than risk open conflict and disagreement that might lead to isolation.” (Crossroads, pg 3) Connections with others, or relationships, are a “central organizing feature in women’s development.” (Crossroads, pg 3)
The book is thoroughly researched, well-written…and tough to read, probably most interesting to those with young teens in their lives. It organizes around vignettes taken from multi-year studies of 2nd through 11th grade girls. What the authors learn through their work is fascinating and disturbing. For example the authors’ research revealed that….
- As girls move from 8 year olds to 11 or 17 year olds they are more “willing to silence themselves rather than risk loss of a relationship.” (Crossroads, pg 62)
- Overtime girls replace their voices with foreign voice-overs of adults..girls replace their feelings and desires with the wants and expectations of others.” Expectations of friends? Adults? Others? (Crossroads, pg 86, 88)
- Girls act to “reduce conflict in relationships. Girls associate arguing with disconnection and relationship with ‘getting along better with people.’ This reveals a fine line between genuine relationship in which a girl speaks and also listens to others and false relationships in which she silences herself because she is afraid of what will happen.” (Crossroads, pg 91-93)
- There is a tendency as “girls become young women to dismiss their experience and modulate their voices.” (Crossroads, pg 217)
- “It was the adult women in their lives that provided the models for silencing themselves and behaving like ‘good little girls.'” (Crossroads, pg 221)
I kept hoping that since the book it twenty years old that none of this stuff is valid anymore. A little pollyanna-ish of me don’t you think?
As I read about girls’ notion of relationship and the parallels in women’s lives I couldn’t help but wonder what impact these social norms have on our effectiveness during transition? Relationship? Conflict? Both have played a starring role in my transition.
The authors offer two simple prescriptive tools: seek conflict and give voice to feelings. I had to smile about the first. Earlier this year we talked about conflict in Conversations: a critical transition tool. Have you found credible folks with whom you can disagree? We’re not talking Congressional partisanship. Simply informed discussion with disagreement.
Regarding voice & feelings, I can only say that I blew it. I should have spoken up when my friend told me that she couldn’t possibly say anything. Instead I sat there moderately horrified but mute. Inauthentic? Fearful?
In transition….seek conflict and give voice to your feelings. If these authors were right…not only will you benefit from the discourse but so too any young girl within earshot.
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