Activist, author Rachel Simmons

Who she is: Author of Odd Girl Speaks Out

What she does: Writes about female bullying and champions girls and women who fight back appropriately.

Why she does it: “Why can men have a fistfight, then go out for a beer, yet women have a few angry words with each other, then never speak again?” wonders Simmons. “It’s perplexing, but I believe it has largely to do with the way girls and women are socialized. Men learn early in their lives about the rules of war, the rules of engagement. Women aren’t taught anything about how to deal with their anger. Instead, they are taught to be sweet and make nice, and that has led to a lot of pent-up anger among females in our culture.”

ODD GIRL SPEAKS OUT

By Hope Katz Gibbs

It happened on the playground. A nasty girl in Rachel Simmons’ third-grade class went around to the other kids and encouraged them not to play with the 8-year-old.

“I was mortified,” says the native of suburban Maryland, who admits the experience stuck with her. Fortunately, it also empowered her to write two books on the topic of female aggression.

“Why can men have a fistfight, then go out for a beer, yet women have a few angry words with each other, then never speak again?” wonders Simmons. “It’s perplexing, but I believe it has largely to do with the way girls and women are socialized. Men learn early in their lives about the rules of war, the rules of engagement. Women aren’t taught anything about how to deal with their anger. Instead, they are taught to be sweet and make nice, and that has led to a lot of pent-up anger among females in our culture.”

Simmons’ goal is to change the way girls are socialized, and so far the author has been profoundly effective. Her first book, Odd Girl Out, this month’s Costco Book Club selection, published in April 2002 by Harcourt, became an instant bestseller and catapulted her—and the subject of female bullying—to the national forefront.

In the past 18 months, Simmons has led lively discussions on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today, Dateline NBC, and NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.

A companion book, Odd Girl Speaks Out, debuted in January. It provides girls and women with a collection of poems, songs, confessions, and essays that show how deeply cruelty flows among girls.

“I wish there was more permission for girls to be able to speak their minds,” says Simmons, who is also the director of the Girls Leadership Institute and is affiliated with the Ophelia Project in Erie, PA, which sponsors girls’ support programs.

“Unfortunately, many mothers don’t feel comfortable with standing up to female bullying themselves, or even admitting that another woman has hurt them. So they internalize their feelings, or talk behind the bully’s back, and then convey this unhealthy method of coping to their daughters. My goal is to find a way to teach women to stop this pattern.”

For instance, she suggests, if a girlfriend repeatedly says mean and demeaning things, but follows them with “I’m just kidding,” it is OK to tell her that “just kidding” hurts your feelings.

“Girls need to learn to say no, say how they feel and speak up for themselves,” Simmons insists. “That’s the only way we are going to change the culture and teach women to address aggression and stop running from their feelings.”

This is just the beginning of Simmons’ war on unhealthy adolescent rage. “The issue isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it,” she says. “Yes, it’s fine for a girl to get angry. But when you do, it is better to be straightforward than calculating, vengeful and secretive.”

Simmons bases her philosophy on personal experience, as well as interviews with 300 girls at 30 schools nationwide about their chilling, often heartbreaking experiences with bullying, cliques, popularity, and jealousy. In addition to her books, she is in the process of coming up with a series of self-help tools for teachers and counselors, including downloadable Internet-based lesson plans and an assortment of curriculum kits with the Washington, D.C.-based Empower Program.

Simmons, however, is realistic about how quickly social change will come. Attitude and behaviors can be slow to shift, she admits.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I’m just going to keep traveling and talking to people in hopes that women come to realize this topic isn’t just about a silly fight their daughter may have on the playground in third grade. It’s about whether or not girls learn to stand up for themselves—first on the playground, then in relations with men, and in the workplace. Girls need tools, and they need to learn them as children so they will grow up with a voice and a choice. This is the only way that more girls will become strong leaders, and more powerful women.”


The Women