‘The courage to interrupt the status quo or go against the grain’

Lyn Mikel Brown of Waterville co-founded Hardy Girls, Healthy Women in 1990. It is a national, research-based nonprofit organization that seeks to educate adults in how to empower girls to think for themselves and enact social change.

For Brown, a Colby College professor for the past 21 years, Hardy Girls, Healthy Women was a way to put her extensive research about the way adolescent girls give up their independent voices into practice. Curriculum materials developed by Hardy Girls, Healthy Women are being used in 40 states and five countries.

These days, Brown, 56, has authored or co-authored five books about girls and their roles in society. But her latest efforts involve helping girls utilize new media to enact “their own social change.” With Deb Tolmin, a Hunter College professor, she co-founded “Spark,” a girl-fueled movement that is a response to an American Psychological Task Force report on the sexualization of girls by the media. As Brown explains, the Spark team, which includes her 16-year-old daughter Maya, brings girls together to educate girls and to enact change through blogging and letter-writing campaigns.

Recently, the Spark bloggers, who include girls from all over the country, got a meeting with Lego executives. The bloggers had organized a 55,000-signature petition through Change.org against the company’s new line of Lego that features girls with breasts and long legs – as opposed to the traditional chunky-bodied, gender-neutral figures that were the hallmark of the brand.

“The hope is that we can reach a tipping point where sexualization of girls is unprofitable,” says Brown. “It goes back to my original work, which is helping give girls their voices. I’m doing that more on the ground these days.”

Q

What do you think are the top characteristics of an innovator – a woman who breaks the mold?

A

Someone comfortable in her own skin, who listens well, is willing to ask hard questions, has the courage to interrupt the status quo or go against the grain, is curious and interested in learning new things, someone willing to risk failure.

Q

Who are your role models?

A

I’d have to say my mom, who left an abusive relationship with her youngest two children. My dad, who never met someone he couldn’t connect with in some way, but also had incredible radar and low tolerance for bulls—.

Q

Do you or have you had a mentor, and how significant has this person been in helping you achieve your goals?

A

Carol Gilligan, my dissertation adviser and co-author. She was an incredible muse; she saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself, she taught me how to see beneath the surface of things, listen to the unspoken, to be honest about my emotional investment in my research and to explore its political implications.

Q

Have you been thwarted by sexism at any point?

A

Of course, but for me I’d have to say that sexism and classism often intersected in ways I couldn’t always sort out, especially growing up and going to school in small-town, Down East Maine. There was no one big experience; for me it came as a steady series of microaggressions – lower expectations from teachers, assumptions about the kind of person I was, how smart, what I could accomplish, what my life choices might be, opinions and judgments about the kind of girl or woman or mother I should be.

Q

What can mothers do to encourage breaking-the-mold thinking in their daughters?

A

They can live their own lives fully, speak up in the face of unfairness and hurt, be honest about their feelings, choices and the compromises they make so their daughters can see and hear their imperfections and their struggles to live with integrity. Take their daughters seriously, work hard not to judge or impose an idealized version of girlhood, listen well, pose problems rather than give solutions and give her practice working things out for herself, fighting her own battles, defining what matters most to her.

Lyn Mikel Brown

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