Rachel Simmons is a writer and a teacher who has penned two New York Times bestsellers. Not too shabby.
In 2002, Simmons’ wrote Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, which shed light on the “mean girls” phenomenon and examined for the first time the cliques and codes of teen girl culture in an academic but accessible way. Like Odd Girl Out, Simmons’ second book The Curse of the Good Girl, is based on hundreds of hours spent interviewing and teaching young girls, which Simmons does all over the world. At her summer camp the Girls Leadership Institute, during the months she spends every year teaching at a girls school in South Africa, Simmons gets a rare, honest look inside the torturously complex inner workings of Girl World. The Curse of the Good Girl was written for the parents of young girls, so that their daughters can not only survive Girl World, but emerge as authentic and self-aware young women.
Simmons lives in Brooklyn and, during the course of our phone interview, managed to parallel-park her car according to that borough’s complex alternate-side parking rules, while also answering questions about the many challenges facing the modern feminist movement. Again, not too shabby. As you’ll see from her interview, Simmons is a very impressive lady.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Rachel Simmons.
Chloe Angyal: What led you to work in teaching and writing about young girls?
Rachel Simmons: The informal answer is that I hated graduate school and was totally miserable with my choices. I was on track to go to law school, I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and I was brutally miserable. I had realized that while I really, really wanted the glory of being a Rhodes Scholar, I had no profound interest in studying at Oxford, and I also realized that I had completely disconnected from my own authentic interests by becoming one of these overachieving people who just wanted to win lots of awards but didn’t know why.
So during that period of grad school melt-down, I started to think about the things I really cared about in life, and the thing that came immediately to mind was when my friend Abby had tried to take all my friends away from me, which was a profound event in my childhood that I had never made sense of and that had never really left my consciousness. And so I started to pursue that topic, mostly to heal myself from my realization that I had lost touch with myself. And that was how I started.
The actual working with girls started when I was invited, in the course of my research for Odd Girl Out, at a girls leadership summer camp. At which point, I fell madly in love with teaching and working with and hanging out with young women. And from there, I developed the Girls Leadership Institute.
And I had to hustle, too. I was 24, and I just had to beg, borrow and steal to get people to let me into their schools to do these interviews. I didn’t have a PhD, I had no real authority to do what I was doing, so I just had to be really scrappy about it and use every connection that I had. And it was really tough, but I did it, and I think other people can do it too. I’m not an expert; I was just out there doing it. Most people develop their expertise and then write a book; I wrote a book and then developed my expertise. And now I am an expert, and I’m not a lawyer.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?
RS: Elvira in the book Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton is one of my favorite fictional heroines. And Robert Rohbeson in Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. She would be my number one, because she’s just totally hilarious, and tortured, and real, and adventurous and crazy in the best way. It’s probably one of my favorite books in the world for that reason.
CA: Who is your heroine in real life?
RS: Caroline Knapp. She should be required reading for every young woman. She died of lung cancer in 2002. She wrote a few memoirs; one was called Drinking: A Love Story, one was called Pack of Two, which was about people and dogs, and she also wrote this book called Appetites: Why Women Want. And it is such a beautifully written book. It’s a feminist memoir in the best sense, in that it’s funny and self-deprecating and vigorously smart and poignant. If there was any one book that wrapped it all up, about why women want and how society feels about women wanting, this is the book. And I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know about it, but it’s one of those hidden treasures that I wish more women knew about. She’s my heroine. The fact that I’m now a published author means that I can now call people up sometimes and say, “Will you have a cup of coffee with me?” and if I could call anybody up right now and do that, it would be her.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
RS: It made me want to scream when the New York Times wrote in the Week in Review that it was really big news that girls at Millburn High School in New Jersey found it exciting to be put on a “slut list.” I was like, “really?” For me it was just a sign of how out of touch the New York Times is with reality.
But the other thing that really made me want to scream is that bi-national gay couples are probably going to be left out of the immigration legislation that’s being drafted right now. I am in a bi-national gay couple, which means that my partnership with my South African girlfriend is not recognized by the United States, and therefore, I cannot bring her to the United States legally unless she enrolls herself in a school or gets hired. Which won’t happen, because she’s a psychologist and she needs to be retrained in order to work here, and that means that if we don’t find a different route, I will not be able to stay in my own country, and I will have to leave. Because the law doesn’t support my life and my desire to create a unit with this person. So that makes me want to scream, and it also makes me want to cry. It sucks total ass, and you can print that.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge facing feminism today?
RS: I’m not going to name the biggest challenge, but I will say that a large challenge facing feminism today is the need to value all the different choices that women make. I’d like to see feminism focus a little bit more on motherhood and mothering, and not just work-family balance, but also valuing the choices associated with mothering and with being a mother. I think that it’s a shift that will occur intergenerationally, because our mothers’ generation was so determined to win the rights associated with equality feminism, the right to be equal to men rather than being seen as different than them. And I’m so glad that happened, and I think it’s so important. But now, in my generation, I see all these women who want to be mothers and don’t feel like they have the social or structural support to do that. So I think it’s so important for feminism to work on that.
There was a time when mothers were honored because they were the ones raising citizens. They were valued because they created the next generation, and they were honored for that role, but I think that it makes the old guard of feminism nervous to talk about mothering as something very distinct that women do, and that men don’t do. Because in the past, the things that make us distinctive have justified our oppression. But there are so many challenges to feminism, and that’s just one; I could go on and on.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you bring?
RS: I’m taking two foods: cheese and chocolate chip cookies. And I’m taking some kind of seltzer with juice, and Courtney Martin.