It's nearing midnight, and we just kissed as the ball dropped in New York City. I finished my hundred and thirty-second book in time to pour the sparkling cider.
All the cool blogs have had their "year in review" posts today-- and I've don't have much to report-- I don't even have the reports on the last four books yet, but I promise to deliver the reviews tomorrow. I also have birthday pictures to post and Christmas to review. But tonight, tonight I'll grab a new book off the top of the pile, snuggle down under the covers, and read myself into 2011.
Kelly Valen’s book The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships hits stores tomorrow. A few months ago, Kelly approached me about reviewing her book for fMh, because fMh played a small role in inspiring her to write it. In December 2007 Valen, an attorney and mother of four, wrote an article for the New York Times about running into a former sorority sister in a California Gymboree. Two decades earlier, Valen was date raped at a fraternity party, and this woman was instrumental in getting the sisterhood to band together against Valen. When they met again, the woman apologized for her behavior, but for Valen the encounter dredged up all the feelings that she’d tried to lock away after that experience as an eighteen-year-old when “I withdrew socially and pretended it didn’t matter. I hid under my Sony Walkman, hit the books and donned a defensive armor of sarcasm and cynicism. And I gave up on female camaraderie.”
The article spawned discussion all over the blogosphere, including this post by ECS. In the wake of the discussion, Valen felt both beaten up and empowered, and she decided to explore the themes she laid out in the article in a book. In all honesty, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to read the book (I’m a little busy these days with school and teaching and being a mom to four little kids) so I sat down yesterday intending to skim it, but I found that a simple skimming was impossible. Yes, there are lots of books out there about girls being uncivil and bratty and downright mean to other girls (Reviving Ophelia, Queen Bees and Wannabees, and Odd Girl Out, to name a few) but fewer that deal with the same issues in grown women. In researching the book, Valen interviewed over 3000 women, and found that a shocking 84% of the women felt significantly damaged from their experiences with other women. These damaging experiences sometimes came one on one, but more often when groups of women or girls ganged up on someone. She writes about women who avoided book clubs and Mommy and Me groups, because those groups felt like an extension of junior high school cliques, where women were constantly being sized up and compared.
Maybe I’m lacking in emotional intelligence, but I have a hard time recalling experiences from my past that have left me feeling significantly damaged. Yes, I was bullied by a girl in elementary school (who mixed foods on my lunch tray and then forced me to eat them), and I often knew that other girls were talking about me behind my back in junior high. My best friend as a child bossed me around. My first female boss out of college had an inner circle of “cool girls” who got promoted, and I wasn’t among them. But I had either a healthy sense of self-esteem, or a great mother, or an ability to forget, because none of these experiences in my young life have given me a lasting sense of self-doubt. I’ve stayed home from book club because there were good things on tv or because I’d already read that book, but never because I was nervous about facing a cadre of snippy women (although I have seen women feel very threatened when the topics of our discussions have veered from books).
Valen’s book did help me see times in my life when I wasn’t as nice to other women in my sisterhood as I should have been. Times when I’ve judged another woman’s parenting style or her food choices or her clothing. And because I’ve done (and sometimes continue to do) those things, Valen would argue that it puts my girls at risk for perpetuating the twisted sisterhood that exists among women, where we want to be friends, but we can’t help competing with and judging each other.
I felt that the sections in Valen’s book where she talks about a mother’s responsibility (she is a mother to three girls, ages 15, 10 and 10) were the ones that made me squirm the most, the ones that made me analyze my own mothering. And that’s exactly her point. In the second half of the book, I felt almost as if I were reading a book by Julie Beck, not in the sense that she was talking about religious issues, but in the sense that Valen feels it’s a moral responsibility for mothers to teach their daughters how to navigate the complicated waters of building positive relationships with other women. She says:
“This book offers up a tall order of issues, but possibly its greatest contribution would be to inspire more mothers to meaningfully commit themselves to raising a more compassionate, inclusive, and integrated generation of girls, and to give them the tools to define and feel good about themselves, and to help them protect and nurture that rather than look to others for self-worth and happiness.” (152-153)”
My own daughters are eight and three. I feel lucky to be exploring these issues while they’re relatively young. My older daughter, in fourth grade, already comes home from school stressing about various friendships. I talk through the problems with her, trying to help her see how she can be nice, try to stay above the fray, and still not jeopardize friendships, but it’s hard. I often wonder if I’m doing enough. Valen might say I’m not. She says, “One school counselor told me point-blank she thinks that not only are most mothers not engaged enough, ‘most of us are failing our daughters miserably. It’s a lucky girl who has a good enough mother.’” While Valen talks about some programs that mothers and daughters can engage in together, I gleaned from the book that in order to teach our daughters well, we have to be the example of women who aren’t catty and backbiting, who don’t compare ourselves to others, who don’t avoid the company of women who we feel inferior to. She also says, “I’ve come to crave a new default mode for my daughters and for me, one in which females a priori tend toward openness and propping one another up versus dressing each other down” (177).
Valen also engages in a lengthy discussion of feminism, and talks about how many younger women feel that feminism doesn’t apply to them. It’s another interesting conversation, but it felt a little bit far from the issue that seems closest to Valen’s heart– the responsibility mothers have to raise a generation of daughters who are smarter, kinder, and more self-assured than they were, and the mothers just might find themselves possessing those characteristics themselves in the process.