by Leslie Morgan Steiner
1974. Fourth grade. My large, loud family were heading home from a summer weekend at the beach. The station wagon windows were down to catch the breeze, swirling a light layer of sand throughout the car. I had refused to surrender my neon-striped fuzzy one-piece bathing suit for street clothes; the terry cloth was still damp two hours into the drive. I leaned into the front seat to plot my upcoming July birthday party with Mom. We debated different backyard games, cake flavors, whether afternoon or evening was preferable. I floated a trial balloon: I would invite everyone but Dorothy Ellis, an erstwhile friend with whom I’d recently quarreled. At that moment, I hated Dorothy and wished to punish her vociferously for whatever slight she’d delivered during our tiff, which I recall was inviting another girlfriend to see Black Beauty. In the front passenger seat, Mom fell silent. To my surprise, her voice was angry but firm, non-negotiable: “You’ve got two choices, Leslie. You can include all the girls in your class – or there will be no birthday party this year.”
Fifth grade. My mother was late coming home from my elementary school’s PTA meeting, where she was president. The committee was delayed because they’d formed an impromptu search team when my classmate Mercedes de la Cruz had come to them in tears: she couldn’t find her new ballet shoes. Mercedes was the daughter of a Spanish maid and groundskeeper who lived in the back cottage of a fancy Foxhall Road estate. The stiff ballet shoes, pink with long pale silk tie straps, were the young girl’s most prized possession.
So you can imagine my mother’s face when she finally came home and found me, lounging on the couch in our tv room, Mercedes de la Cruz’s ballet slippers proudly on my feet. Shock, fury, shame and disappointment froze Mom’s happy-to-be-home mien. And I had thought snitching my quiet classmate’s beautiful shoes would be a witty canard, sure to win my crew’s opprobrium! I spent that night calling the de la Cruz household, writing an elaborate apology note, and hand-delivering the shoes to Mercedes’ door while my mother waited like a sentinel in the car.
These two lessons, delivered so effectively by a woman who believed fiercely in the power of female friendship, taught me an indelible, non-negotiable lifelong lesson: always treat other girls with respect. Now that all the girls from those days, including myself, are women, the commandment still applies. And I teach it to my two girls, ages 12 and 8, because like me, they make baby-mean-girl mistakes too.
Girls under 13 can be cruel. Sometimes cruelty comes naturally. Girls are trying out new personalities, new methods of expression, learning lessons about friendship, trust and social dynamics. Young girls make mistakes – innocent miscalculations – not because they are inherent bullies but because human beings are competitive and uncivilized by nature. These errant girls should be forgiven – and taught the value of female sisterhood.
However, in my mind, girls over 13 who are cruel are to be avoided. Girls who backstab, badmouth, lie, cheat, flirt with married men, or engage in narcissistic self-destruction. With a few exceptions, you’re old enough to know by then how to treat your sisters, and why the sisterhood depends upon mutual reverence.
Unfortunately, writer Kelly Valen fell victim to a mass of cruel sisters – in a literal sisterhood, her college sorority. Thirty years ago, Valen lost her virginity two months into college, date-raped in front of classmates at a fraternity party. A terrible fate. But then, twisting the paring knife, her sorority ostracized her for the rape and ejected her from the sorority and her college home. Kelly’s resulting New York Times Modern Love article  – written three decades later -- and subsequent book, The Twisted Sisterhood , explore the lifelong destruction wreaked by female betrayal.
Most interesting to me is the postscript to Kelly’s college trauma: as the victim of female betrayal who is now the happily married and professionally successful mother of three daughters, how does she teach her own girls to avoid our society’s twisted sisters – and avoid becoming one?
To me, the answer is short and sweet: be unafraid to teach your daughters how to treat other women with care, and how to avoid girls and women who don’t.
Valen’s Chapter 10, The Importance of Mom, tackles the importance of teaching our daughters:
“The bitchiest girls usually have the bitchiest mothers… When all is said and done, about 80 percent of [women] think that the relationship they’ve had with their mother or stepmother has directly influenced their relationships with other women. ..A full 95 percent said they believe a mother’s own behavior and/or role modeling shapes, causes, or otherwise contributes to a daughter’s mean or negative behavior toward other females…Girls are sponges when they’re young, these women argue, and develop their core sense of self through their primary same-gender role model, which is usually Mom.”
I gotta agree. As I said this week on Michel Martin’s Tell Me More , I’m grateful to my mom for her harsh early lessons. Mom forgave me, as did Mercedes, who turned into one of my best friends. At 45, I have a dozen girlfriends who’ve formed my personal sisterhood for more than 30 years. I could wish no greater gift for my own daughters, and everyone’s daughters, than a lifelong ring of wise, honest female support. I tell my girls: look for the friend who never says anything mean about anyone. Look for the one who treats the new shy kid with kindness. Notice the girl who critiques her friend’s haircut behind her back, the one who first repeats an insult. Small moments reveal all. The perpetuation of positive sisterhood lies in our hands.