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Volume 1, Number 3          Spring 2000

Lyn Mikel Brown Raises Her Voice About Her Own Crossroads

The facts in brief about Lyn Mikel Brown are these: she was raised in Maine, studied with Carol Gilligan at Harvard, and wrote Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology And Girls' Development and Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls' Anger. She is married, has a five year old daughter, and teaches at Colby College. On June 5th, Lyn went to the heart of the matter about her work with girls.


How did you become interested in this work?

I came to this work through the back door, pursuing my own very genuine questions about the social construction of reality and how to make sense of the world for myself. I think those questions were motivated as much by class as by gender, but no one was naming class, and gender was as close as I could get....I was trying to make sense of, to find a language for, so many things I had experienced growing up as a working class girl. I found myself struggling while doing a masters degree in general experimental psychology. I felt like I was being asked to construct a reality that was not my own, to reproduce someone else's view of the world. During my second year I took a psychology of women course and it blew the lid off--I suddenly had a language, an interpretation of the world that gave meaning to my struggles.

Carol Gilligan's book, In A Different Voice, had just come out and I thought, "This is it!" I dropped two years of masters work and started over in a doctoral program at Harvard. Carol was my advisor. My original interest was adolescents and their social construction of reality, especially how girls try to name and hold on to their experiences in a culture that subordinates girls and women and denegrates femininity.

As a member of The Harvard Project On Women's Psychology And Girls' Development, I directed the Laurel School study, which ultimately became my dissertation and the basis for Meeting at the Crossroads. It was the first project that interviewed younger girls; almost all of our previous work had been on adolescent girls or women. At Laurel we followed 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th graders for five years. We were immediately struck by the younger girls' voices, their outspokenness and liveliness, in relation to the adolescent girls who were really struggling around voice....the surprise was the seemingly natural strength, courage and entitlement of the younger girls. Our initial surprise and pleasure in these voices soon turned to dismay. If such strong voices exist in younger girls, where do they go? And how can we get them back?

We began to trace the ways in which teachers and parents, often mothers, responded to girls outspokenness, how they became really uncomfortable with girls' direct voices and strong feelings, and how they very subtly policed their behaviors, moving them to tone down and be "nice" girls. Such "voice training" was very effective, so that over time girls came to regulate themselves and police each others' voices and behaviors. First this regulation comes from the outside--this is how you need to look, sound, act to be an appropriate girl. It can come from men and women, but the surprise to us was the degree it came from women.

As a result, we did a series of retreats with Laurel School faculty to talk about what we were hearing. Much of our work with these teachers focused on our own memories of growing up and our struggles to be heard and taken seriously as girls. We looked at our own responses to girls who are direct and outspoken, in excess, "inappropriate" and not proper, and why they make us nervous. We learned that before we could be more genuine and honest in girls' presence and demand different things from them, we had to confront our own demons, get our own stuff together. At every level our work changed that place; it's the kind of work that should go on in every school.

In doing research for my second book, Raising Their Voices, I came to see how much of my life was influenced by social class. At home i didn't learn how to be the appropriate, white, middle class, feminine girl. We were outspoken at our house. We just said it. And then when I went out into the world and "said it," I was punished socially and academically. It took me a long time to figure out that this response was class-related.

Because I was "smart," I was tracked high, so my friends were daughters of the head of the mill, lawyers, and so forth. In terms of schooling and peer relationships, I soon learned to play by the rules, and I knew them really well, but they did not reflect what I knew to be true from my experiences.

So when I got the chance to do my own study, I felt I couldn't go anywhere else but back to the class issue: what it meant to be working class and then middle class with a working class core, and to straddle these worlds in Maine.

I think the most pertinent issue for Maine girls is the interlocking oppressions of gender and class, and what they mean for the ways girls negotiate schooling and negotiate society. There are different languages here, and working class girls and poor girls are not privy to the white, upper middle class language of success, the language of the culture of power. They suffer because of this.

Just like with race, schools are likely to say, "We don't discriminate against poor kids; this is neutral territory; we're all the same here." It's another way of glossing over, denying differences that really make a difference in kids' lives - their economic lives, their social lives. We have to find a way to have these conversations with each other, to think of ways to name class related differences, and to bring the conversations about class to the surface. I think that in many cases kids would just be relieved to be heard and understood, and in other cases they would learn things that are important. If we don't name such differences and talk about them and find strategies to change them, we're complicit; we pretty much assure that nothing changes for these kids.

I think we need to become aware of our own biases, expectations, and social languages, of what we expect other people to know and understand, and what we think of them when they don't. In Raising Their Voices I talked about this a lot. The issues of different class-related languages and different cultural expectations has not been brought to the table.

We also need to understand the interlocking nature of various oppressions: economic, racial, gender, sexual identity, disability... We need now to go deeper: it's not just gender. Girls are located differently in this culture. Girls in the same community are very different in complicated ways, and we need to appreciate that.

What are you working on now?

My next project is about the dark underside of girls' friendships and peer relations, the ways girls exclude and tease and hurt each other in the name of popularity or to be liked by boys. I think we need to look at this relational underground so that we can recognize how and why girls participate in divide and conquor strategies that keep them from organizing with other girls on their own behalf. I'm looking at the culture in which girls come of age: popular t.v. shows, fairy tales, myths, and how they affect our construction of girls' relationships with other girls, and girls' relationships with women. Lately i've been thinking that we need to return to the old consciousness raising groups of the '60's - get girls together to meet and share their experiences, naming what they know so that they can name the damaging effects of these messages and imagine new, healthier possibilities.

I want to write this as a more popular book. I'm tired of doing academic press books where I feel like I am constrained by a certain kind of language and a certain way of doing research. Returning to my working class roots, I want to just say it.

In closing, could you leave us with a piece of advice for girls and a piece of advice for people who work with girls?

My advice to girls is to stay connected with what you know, and to find people who can help you do that -people who encourage your perception of reality and help you name it and stay with yourself. This is easier to say than to do, I know! Trust your reality; don't allow yourself to be demeaned by people who don't want to know you for who you are, or who devalue who you are.

The dominant cultural reality encroaches in such subtle, slow's the constant repetition that finally gets us, not any one thing. That's where girls get stuck because at a certain point they don't trust any more that what they know to be true - is true.

And for adults: work with girls requires a lot of attention and awareness and openness. There is really a two-part goal: 1) to help change things on a personal level so that relationships with our daughters and students are more genuine and healthy and 2) to translate the personal into the political, to create systemic changes that create good environments for girls and foster their growth and development.

The second can't happen unless we get a handle on the first.

Read Lyn Mikel Brown's keynote address, Cultivating Hardiness Zones for Adolescent Girls

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