I'm often asked how I wound up co-writing a book for teen girls about how to boost their self-respect and spread respect for all. The short answer is: I grew up and lived to tell about it. The slightly more in-depth answer is my mother survived girlhood first, found her strength as a young woman, and told me all about it--often while applying mascara in the mirror with her crown of rollers drying under what appeared to be an inflated shower cap.
My mom was married and a mother by age 17. By the time she was 25, she was a single mom with no high school diploma or permanent address for that matter. Out of desperation, she says she leafed through the phonebook and found the unemployment office in Palo Alto, Calif. It was
1968, and the only job she could get was an entry-level gig cooking up what we now call the computer chip.
Growing up, I loved hearing stories about her early days on the job. How she met other women like herself at work. How the now infamous Silicon Valley was built on their backs. How they helped raise each other's kids and babysat when someone got called at the last minute to
work the "graveyard" shift. How they'd made casseroles and divvied them in the break-room so their kids would have some variety for dinner. How they'd split the rent on cheap apartments and spent weekends laying out at the beach in Santa Cruz because it was fun and free. And how they'd stood up for themselves and by each other through labor disputes, layoffs, breakups, breakdowns and personal tragedies.
To some, these stories might have sounded like the "horrible life and times of women living below the poverty line." But for this girl hovering around the kitchen table, what I heard was high-drama heroics peppered with pride and profanity. I heard the mythology of a different
kind of women's movement. I heard something revolutionary. Even then I wanted in.
During my teen years, my mom gained more ground (and the self-respect to got with it). We lived in a good school district and she became a first-time homeowner. She climbed the ranks in high-tech. She also stayed honest about the mistakes she'd made and pitfalls to avoid. And she held me accountable for my choices. Like many moms and daughters in survival mode, though, we often had to make do and both had some growing up to do.
Even though my mom showed me the way toward independence, like the thousands of girls I've interviewed, met or swapped emails and IMs with since, my full liberation still had to be an inside job. By the time I was 16, I'd made cringe-inducing and painful mistakes--mostly because I didn't trust my gut or speak up when I should have. I was hurt by boys and my father's addictions and incarcerations. Like mother like daughter I thought I was "fat." On the surface I'd been an outgoing girl with "a lot going for me" but I felt downgraded by some of my choices and some circumstances I now know were outside of my control. Yet these hard-knocks started to lay the foundation for what I would later come to know as my own Revolution From Within.
Then a significant thing happened to me senior year that I tell girls to watch out for in their lives, too. I discovered a heartfelt passion. I joined the high school newspaper and found something I did well and loved. That spurred me to start digging around (thanks to that resourcefulness learned from mom) and to realize that my not-so-stellar high school performance didn't have to haunt me forever. For instance, I could go to a community college and then transfer to a university. I realized I could do something my mom had admittedly hoped for but hadn't experienced full-tilt. I could purposefully organize my life around what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be versus what had happened to me in the past.
I quickly experienced that when I followed my passions, self-respect and confidence blossomed. When I listened to my gut, which became easier as I trusted myself again, I made better choices. To avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over, I learned to set boundaries. My "no's" got assertive instead of passive or aggressive. On top of this, during college (yep, I went!) and my first jobs I experienced the true sisterhood I'd so admired in my mom's crowd. Other women connected me to a wider network of resources, opportunity and awareness. And, just like mom and her friends, my girlfriends and I split the rent as we pursued our dreams. All told, sisterhood is the linchpin in my overall success. It also keeps me sane.
When I compared my battle stories of growing up girl with my good friend and RESPECT co-author, the Respect Basics we wanted to share with girls became clear. It turns out the basics were drawn not only from our shared trials and errors, but also from the backyard-barbeque wisdom of mom and company. And the vision I picked up from my mom and "aunts" is exactly what I still want for girls and women today. Because no matter the progress we've made, I've seen first-hand how girls' rights are still violated or how they don't reach their potential when they're not empowered in the ways of self-respect, sisterhood and
When I share these Respect Basics with girls, they totally get it. Forget what you read about mean girls, alpha girls and girls gone wild. In my experience, girls aren't and have never been that
one-dimensional. At their heart, girls long for the support of other girls and women. They want to know they're not alone and that they matter (a lot). Mostly, they just want to be themselves and talk openly about what they're going through without fear. The girls I connect with do want to create a world where girls are valued for who they are on the inside. They are learning that this starts with how they treat themselves and each other. Most are eager to take on this challenge or have already started the hard work in their own way.
I know I'm still working every day to embody the Respect Basics. Part of this work is to empower girls with goods much in the same way I got them. I show up as I am--totally not perfect and not there yet--but with high ambitions and stories to tell. I reassure them that we all have certain fundamental rights (like the right to be yourself, speak your mind and change your mind). I share what I've been through, what I'm learning and what I still don't know (a lot). I tell them my hopes
for myself and for all girls. The best part is when they tell me the same things (which they always do because I ask).
To me, our conversations sound a lot like those late-night trips down memory lane my mom and her girlfriends shared over games of dominos. What I hear is the enormous potential of girls and women to create lives and a world in which "respect for all" is simply the status quo. It sounds like that different kind of women's movement I eavesdropped on as a girl. Only now I don't just want in--I'm in all the way.
Follow Courtney Macavinta on Twitter: www.twitter.com/respectrx