Judy Mann

The Difference: Growing Up Female in America Part II

VTR Date: March 4, 1997

Judy Mann shares her perspective on growing up female in America.


GUEST: Judy Mann
VTR: 3/4/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest again today is Judy Mann, the prizewinning, longtime columnist for the Washington Post. Now, last time Ms. Mann and I talked about The Difference, the new Warner Books paperback edition of her examination of “the hidden ways we silence girls, and then women, in American life”. Obviously, we didn’t, couldn’t possibly, exhaust that subject last time. But today I also want to probe some of the many other things that surface in Judy Mann’s Washington Post columns. After all, I’ve now had the opportunity to read through “Mann for All Seasons”, an early collection of her columns’ wit and wisdom, and even to parse some of her more recent comments about the world-at-large, which seems now to be her oyster.

Ms. Mann, Judy, let’s go back to our discussion about The Difference, and let me ask whether there are things that you feel you want to say here about girls as distinct from boys.

MANN: One of the things that prompted me to do this book and to do the research was, I had written in my column about some of the things that are different in terms of girls and boys and how they’re treated in schools. I wrote, back in 1986, about the research that Myron David Sadker did on how boys speak out much more in classrooms than girls do, and how girls are silenced. But I realized that, as a parent, once my daughter was 11, I realized I didn’t know how I could help her get through adolescence in a way that was less disabling for her than it was for so many women of my generations. I talk about how women of my generation, we were sort of crippled by our adolescence, and then we spent our twenties in denial, and our thirties in recovery.

HEFFNER: Not rebellion?

MANN: Well, no. Some of us did rebellion. I know I did. [Laughter] But I think one of the things that I can offer to parents raising daughters (and to lesser extent raising sons, because my focus here was on raising girls) are some thoughts about what they need to know about girls growing up right now. And that is: One of the most important things is that they are still driven by the popularity agenda, just as women of my generation were; but instead of having the sexual pressure on them to come through at the age of 16 and 17 and 18, now it’s starting at the age of 12, and 13 and 14. And if parents use their own experience as the benchmark for when to have serious conversations with their daughters about how to relate and deal with the opposite sex, they will probably be between three and four years too late.

HEFFNER: That’s very interesting. Are you saying now, two or three or four years too late, as opposed to when you were growing up?

MANN: Yes. Yes. I know that within my circle of friends when I was in high school, the sexual pressure became very intense when we were around 16 and 17. And I would’ve taken that experience and figured, “Well, you know, I’m going to have to start really talking to my daughter seriously about this when she’s 16 or 17. For today’s generation of girls, that would’ve been three or four years too late. Girls who are 12 years old now have friends who are sexually active. And this is in the age of AIDS. So I think it’s terribly important for parents to know that. And then they also need to give girls tools for handling the sexual pressure. They need to teach them how to talk to boys about this. And they need to give them a sense that they’re entitled to say no and to protect themselves. And this is key to what we were talking about earlier: this whole business of sensitivity. Girls are so raised to be nice and to worry about other people’s feelings, that an awful lot of them are unwilling to say no because they’re unwilling to risk hurting another person’s feelings. And I think it’s critical for parents to raise girls who feel that they’re entitled to say no at the risk of somebody else’s feelings, and put their own needs first.

HEFFNER: You know, I guess, as I said in the beginning of our first program, I come from a family, my father and mother had two sons, and my brother has two sons, and I have two sons, and my sons each have sons only. It’s hard for me not to see how one would say that about boys too. You talk about the importance of helping girls understand the nature of life today. Don’t you think the exact same thing is true of parents of sons? Wouldn’t you have to, as the parent of two sons?

MANN: I think the culture automatically tells sons that they should put their own needs first. They are raised to feel that they should put their own needs first. This is where we’re not raising boys and girls the same way. Girls are being raised to take care of other people and pay attention to other people’s needs; and boys are not raised that way. One of the things that I did with my oldest son, for example, was — this happened, again, quite by accident — I was in the kitchen one evening and I was snipping green beans, and he walked in behind me, and he said, “Mom, can I ask you a question?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “What’s a diaphragm?” Well, you know, I gulped. Right. What do you do? But I ended up talking with him not only just about what that was, but also that began a series of conversations that we had about relationships between girls and boys and men and women, and this was a conversation that has lasted for many, many years. And I, as a mother, was able to tell him what it felt like to be a teenage girl, you know, deal with fairly predatory behavior on the part of young men. And I think that, as a result, he has, there is a certain empathy that was able to be developed in him that might not have occurred if I had left that conversation to be held simply between him and a father.

HEFFNER: Your concern then is largely about victimization in terms of the females.

MANN: I am concerned about that. I’m concerned, I think, more than anything, about trying to get a balance. So that girls feel that they have much more of sort of an emotional muscle, so that they can control the sexual agenda. They don’t have it now, and they pay the price. The boys don’t pay the price.

HEFFNER: “Emotional muscle.”

MANN: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

MANN: It means that they should feel entitled to say, “No, don’t do that. I won’t do that. Let me alone.” Or, if they want to say, “Yes,” that they do it with a full knowledge of what’s entailed. And I think for girls to have that emotional muscle, they are going to have to be raised so that they think of themselves as financially independent, quite self-reliant, that they don’t need a boy in their life in order to make it. So that the decision as to whether to let a young man come into their life is based on things like love and willingness to have a family together, and, you know, much more sophisticated concerns than sort of a primitive, shelter-boyfriend kind of thing.

HEFFNER: Do you think that is what is happening with the growing generations of young women?

MANN: I think a lot of young women now are very confused about the kinds of signals that are out there. Their mothers set up a role model of go off into the workforce and so on. Girls know that that’s what’s expected of them. I think a lot of them also want to have families. They see how hard it’s been for their mothers to do this. So they are quite confused. And they’re struggling, I think, with more complexities than women of my generation had, where we were just told, “Your job is to be a mother. And if you want to have a part-time job, you know, fine.” But these girls now are expected to become lawyers and doctors and, you know, professional people, and to have high-powered careers. They also want to have families. And we have not established the social support that enables them to do this.

I heard an analogy the other day that has stuck with me. And that is this: When everybody started having cars, we built highways. When women started going into the workforce, essentially nothing has changed. And we need to understand that we’ve got to get a lot more in place so that women can lead, you know, a very full kind of life, and that the men that they’re married to can also participate in all the different dimensions of family life as well as work life.

HEFFNER: Do you find that the position you’re taking now and the position that you take in The Difference is greeted sympathetically by men?

MANN: I think, yes, it is. I find fewer and fewer men say, you know, “What are you talking about?” I think they’re more and more aware of the problems that working mothers have, to a large measure because their daughters, the older generation of men may have daughters who are trying to sort these things out, and sons that are trying to sort these things out. And I think it’s made them much more aware. And that’s been a big change.

HEFFNER: You know…

MANN: They’re talking about it. You know? You hear men of a certain generation together and they will talk about the struggles that their children are having trying to build families and build careers.

HEFFNER: And you think that the talk is resulting in something positive?

MANN: Yes. Yes, I think they’re much more sympathetic to the idea, for example, of developing a good daycare system. You know, we now have after-school care in many of our elementary schools. One of the people who was absolutely critical to putting that in place in Fairfax County, where I live, was Jack Herrity, who is the conservative Republican chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. He understood that if they were going to get really top-flight industries into Fairfax, they wanted a topflight workforce, and that women in that workforce needed childcare.

HEFFNER: Now, there seems to be a drive in another area, in the direction of, not of single-sex education for girls, as you feel is important, but coeducational education. Is there any improvement that you see in the schools in terms of meeting the needs that you’ve described?

MANN: I’m very pleased to see some schools beginning to experiment with some single-sex classes. I’d like to see a varied menu within the schools, so that if a girl, for example, feels intimidated in her seventh- and eighth-grade math class, that there could be a class that just has girls in it, and a class that just has boys in it.

HEFFNER: But that’s a strange solution. I thought you were going to say that the solution clearly was in accepting the fact that we have coeducation by and large, and in teaching our teachers how to deal with the phenomenon that you describe.

MANN: I think we need to do several things. I don’t think that these are to the exclusion of one or the other. Ideally we would have a whole cadre of teachers who know what they’re doing in terms of teaching with gender equity in a classroom. But I also think that that is fairly impractical. We’ve been trying to get that in place for 15 or 20 years, and it hasn’t happened. So maybe we can do that in certain school districts, and maybe other school districts feel more comfortable giving girls and boys opportunities to have some single-sex experience. Whether it is legal or not, that’s being tested now. I think one way to make sure that, to try to enhance its legality is to make sure that if we provide a single-sex opportunity for girls, we also do it for boys, and vice versa.

HEFFNER: What is the legal question? Discrimination?

MANN: Well, you know, it has to do with the whole question of equal opportunity, and, you know, the whole VMI Citadel question, the taxpayer institutions providing something that’s not the same for both. There has to be a very, very powerful reason for doing that.

HEFFNER: Judy, could we go back a moment to a point we were making in our first discussion about the differences that there are in nature? How would you… You started to talk about the scientific work that has been done. How would you summarize it? What do we know? And what are the directions in which we’re pointing in terms of the plain, physical differences that come from answering the question, “Is she born with a doll in her mind? Is he born with a truck?”

MANN: I think by far the most fascinating area of science now is in brain research. And this is really just in its infancy. We’re beginning to see some brain structural differences between men and women. What seems to be unclear at this point is what difference those brain differences bring about. Nobody has sort of located a sensitivity circuit. Nobody’s identified an aggressiveness circuit, or a math gene. That stuff isn’t there yet. It may be that they’re going to find that there are some real physical differences in brain structure that really do result in some very different behaviors; but it’s not clear yet.

HEFFNER: What will that do to this book?

MANN: Well, it’ll certainly overtake it. [Laughter] I think people do admit that there seems to be some biological basis for some of this. But I think most people feel very comfortable with the idea that environmental socialization forces capitalize and maximize what small differences may exist, and then build them into these two very different kinds of creatures. It’s the interaction of the two. And I don’t think anybody really disputes that there is that interaction.

HEFFNER: You live in Washington, around Washington. You watch the Washington scene. You write for the Washington Post. As you’ve watched women legislators over the years, are we better for them? Much better for them? Doesn’t really make all that much difference?

MANN: I think we’re much better for them. I think we’ve had a very different conversation about what our political priorities should be as a result of them being not only in Washington but also in a lot of the statehouses. I keep getting very struck by the fact that women legislators were the ones who had been critical to releasing a great deal more money for breast cancer research. We were spending in, I believe, 1989, something like $90 million a year in federal funding on breast cancer research. I remember writing a column at one point saying that we were spending 40 times more on AIDS research than on breast cancer research, and it was claiming far fewer lives per year than breast cancer was. We’re now spending $600 million a year on breast cancer research, and that’s because of women who are in Congress.

HEFFNER: You wrote a column on January 8, 1997, the headline was “Discovering cancer, embracing life.” Did your own bout with a mastectomy change your mind about what women can do, enhance, strengthen your feeling about what the sensitivities of women might bring to our concerns about health and what we do about healthcare?

MANN: Well, it certainly made me much more attuned to the problems of breast-cancer patients, and what women in Congress and women in some of the state legislatures have done to try to do things like stop these drive-through mastectomies, which are the…

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “drive-through mastectomies?”

MANN: It’s a pattern in which the health insurance companies are refusing to pay for overnight stays in hospitals…

HEFFNER: For mastectomies?

MANN: That’s right. I recently saw a woman at the White House describe how she had to have a mastectomy, and she was in and out of the hospital in the same day. To me, that’s an unbelievable cruelty. It’s barbaric. And I’m very pleased to see that women doctors and surgeons… I know my surgeon went back to make sure that I stayed in several days. And I had the beginning of reconstruction done at the same time as the mastectomy. And that enabled him to argue with my insurance company to enable me to stay in several more days.

HEFFNER: But it didn’t take a female sensitivity, or a woman’s sensitivity…


HEFFNER: …as a legislator, as a reader, to understand what a brutal, brutal thing that is.

MANN: That’s right. And this was a male surgeon. All of my surgeons who have been involved with this have been men. It was a female surgeon in Connecticut, however, who really catapulted this into a national issue by going to bat for her patients, then going to the legislature, and finally, Rosa DeLoro, who was her Congressman for Connecticut, has sponsored federal legislation to prohibit HMOs from restricting women’s stays to under a day.

HEFFNER: If we move from the question of the mastectomy, from the question of work and this matter of how long do you stay, is it a drive-through matter, as you referred to it… Judy, I find it so hard to believe that it requires a woman’s sensitivity, female sensitivity to know what a brutal thing that is. And yet I guess you would say, until women took up, you talk about a woman Congressman from Connecticut, took up the cudgels.

MANN: In fairness, in Maryland, where this became an issue before it became an issue at the federal level, a woman legislator and a male legislator both took up this because they had a constituent who was denied coverage. I think that men are very sensitive to something as barbaric as this particular behavior on the part of HMOs. But I think that women are more inclined to put something like a women’s health issue right at the very top of their radar screen, because they can identify with it instantly. Rosa DeLoro, for example, had ovarian cancer. So the treatment of women with certain kinds of female cancers is something that she’s going to connect to as a problem very, very quickly; whereas, a man who has not had any experience with this, he’s got other things he’s got to worry about. And this may not be able to grab his attention the way it can grab the attention of a female legislator who has… But I must say that Congressman Dingle, who had one of his staff people be denied coverage, he has signed on to this legislation. I think it’s when it affects you personally with somebody in your family or somebody you love, that’s when you get involved with this.

HEFFNER: Sure. That would be the number-one instance. But I’m thinking of something else. I’m thinking of a philosophy, a marketplace philosophy, a for-profit philosophy that underwrites or undergirds the HMO situation. Do you think that women in the legislature will more quickly apply to all of the social decisions we must make, all of the political decisions we must make, a gentler and kinder set of lenses through which to see what choice we have?

MANN: I would hope so. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for women to get into the legislatures, so that they can bring a value system that is different. They can bring the results of their socialization to the political mix, and complement what’s already there. Because what’s already there doesn’t really work that well.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

MANN: I mean we’ve had a history in this century, for example, of some awful wars. We have school systems throughout the country now that are very deficient. We have roads that are deficient. We have a lot of problems in all of our communities. And I think that if we bring women to the political mix, they may have some very interesting ideas about how to do stuff differently.

HEFFNER: But aren’t we going to bring women now who will have been raised and socialized very differently from the way you have criticized in your book, The Difference? Women who will be more like men? Now, I know that that’s anathema to you, that expression, but think that one out.

MANN: I hope that we will be raising a generation of women who will feel very, very secure in the value systems and the framework of ideas that they bring to the mix, and that they will feel strong enough to articulate their values and what they think is important in the same way that men feel that they can articulate their values and what they feel is important. And then they can hash them out.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that saying, “Men, be more like men; and women, be more like women?”

MANN: No, I’m saying basically that women ought to be able to speak out more, they ought to use their voices more, and men ought to listen more.

HEFFNER: If they speak out more, Judy — and maybe it’s a good thing we only have a couple minutes left, because I feel confrontation here — if they speak out more, isn’t that going to mean that, by definition, they bring a different kind of sensitivity to the fray, one that is more traditionally male, you don’t want them to be disadvantaged any longer with “Is there a doll in the brain rather than a truck in the brain?” Aren’t they going to be coming more with trucks in the brain and more accepting of the dog-eat-dog marketplace philosophy that we seem to be dealing with?

MANN: You see some of that in younger women in corporate life. I do see, for example, in newsrooms, I see a lot of that. But I think that that tends to wear off a little bit, and when the women get a little bit more mature, they are able to feel a little bit more confident in their femaleness and what they bring to it from that. You certainly… I would not want to have women lose the female good stuff that they bring to the mix. What I think I’m trying to get at is a better kind of balance within both, so that men have a higher developed sense of listening, for example, so that they prize more the areas of caretaking, and that women have a stronger sense of their own leadership, and that they develop a better sense of their own voice. I don’t think they need to lose anything; I think both of them need to gain some stuff, some talents in their repertoire.

HEFFNER: And I suspect that you feel, correctly, that Katherine is going to bring more of that as she grows to maturity.

MANN: I certainly hope so. She has not lost her voice. And I think the critical thing for parents to try to do with girls is to keep them, encourage them to maintain their voice and to speak their minds.

HEFFNER: Well, Judy Mann, certainly you have done that in your book, The Difference, in its new incarnation, which I find so fascinating, with the new subtitle, Discovering the Hidden Ways We Silence Girls, and Finding Alternatives that Can Give Them a Voice, in your column in the Washington Post, in you, yourself. Thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

MANN: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.