Part I of a series about the specifics of female leadership models and empowering our young women as leaders.
By Laura Beebe
For a teenage girl, the thought of going into the wilderness for weeks, for the first time, can bring about a flood of self-doubting thoughts. “I’m not strong or fast enough, I can’t leave my friends, I won’t fit in and I’ll be alone, I’ll fail and people will see my mistakes/ will see the true me, I’m just not that type of person.” Females, and especially teenage girls can be incredibly skilled at talking themselves out of new and challenging situations, even if they are overly capable of being successful. Outdoor education scholars Karen Warren and TA Loeffler identify this behavior in females as a misalignment between their perceived sense of competences and actual competences. In other words there can be a grave disparity between what girls think they can do and what they can actually do. Sometimes, teenage girls can have unrealistic perceptions of who they are and who they think they should be, creating perpetual inhibitions from taking risks, actualizing their authentic self and claiming their strengths.
Several summers back I was leading a 30-day, all-girls backpacking course in the Rocky Mountains. Molly was a student of mine who was beautiful and bubbly, got straight As, was a varsity runner and an accomplished artist. On one of our first nights in the field we all huddled together in sleeping bags, under the thousands of stars in the open air. After the giggles and sugar rush from the night’s hot cocoa subsided, the girls began to talk about the challenges of their home life, the pressures to be “perfect” and the struggles to be their true selves. Molly turned on her flashlight and read us a card her mom had given to her before leaving for the trip. All it said was, “If I only had one wish in this world, it would be that you would see yourself the way that I see you.” Molly turned off her light and whispered into the dark silence “I don’t get it – I’m not the person she thinks I am.”
So, why the disparity and self-doubts? Why the different perceptions? Why the self imposed “glass ceilings?” In the 1980’s and 90’s, psychologist Carol Gilligan set out to research the developmental stages of girls and women. She found that around the age of 12 and 13, girls’ social behaviors and self perceptions dramatically shifted – from being assertive and outspoken, to intense self-questioning and quieting of the voice. Gilligan noted that as the girl grew into her later teen years, she often established a “doubling voice, one private and honest, and one public and acceptable.” If perpetuated over time, the girl would run the risk of forgetting her internal voice.
In 2009, Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, explored this idea deeper in her book The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. Simmons points out the extreme pressures teenage girls place on themselves and each other. The girls feel that they must be perfect (successful in all aspects of their lives without failing) and pleasing to all people (even at the expense of sacrificing their own needs and their true self). Simmons found that a significant portion of teenage girls feared failing, receiving critical feedback and being perceived as bossy, selfish or overly confident by their peers. These are all essential challenges for our girls to overcome in order to develop the necessary skills to become successful adult women who can perceive and actualize their highest potential.
Extended wilderness expeditions in an all female environment allow girls a safe space to confront their perceived competences, their fears of failures and to rediscover their authentic voice. They come to understand that there is no “perfect” girl, no ideal trip participant and most importantly, no glass ceiling. Removed from the pressures and stresses of their home lives, the girls have time to reflect on who they really are and they learn to break down the self-imposed walls to address those familiar doubting thoughts.
After a month of wilderness travel, Molly and our group were huddled together in a pile of sleeping bags, looking out at the stars, marveling at the passing of time. For hours we reflected on the trip, retelling stories of the hilarious events (the burned meals, the lost trails, the pursuit of the blown away tent) and laughing at every single inside joke. We talked of the lessons from the hard times and the good times – the girls all disclosed that before the trip they had had secret doubts about their ability to do the expedition. We spoke of the views from the land (the sunsets and sunrises, the moose in the lake and the multitude of summer flowers) and we told each other about the transformational views of ourselves which we had gained. Then and there, in the pile of down sleeping bags, messy braids and dirty fleece jackets, Molly understood, deep into her core what her mother’s note meant. With a teary, but confident voice, Molly said “I now see myself as my mom sees me – I am strong and beautiful and am capable of doing whatever I want to do and I’m not afraid to say it out loud.”
This summer Hulbert Outdoor Center is launching its inaugural wilderness course for girls, The Young Women’s Leadership Expedition. It is a three-week, white water canoe course in Quebec, Canada for girls ages 16-18. With the guidance of highly qualified female Instructors, a specific curriculum tailored for the girls’ needs, a supportive community and many healthy challenges, the girls will claim their strengths and recognize their fullest potential. Participants do not need to be outdoorsy, athletic, over-achieving or even close to perfect, they don’t even need camping or paddling experience – all they need to do is take the leap!
Laura Beebe is graduate of Prescott College with a double major in Environmental Studies and Adventure Education, with a focus in Women’s Studies, she has also been trained and educated with National Outdoor Leadership School, Exum Mountain Guides and Rainier Mountaineering Inc. Much of her experience has come from eight years of leading and directing wilderness trips with Camp Manito-wish in Northern Wisconsin, a premiere wilderness trip camp for girls. Laura is working on her Masters Degree in Circumpolar Geography at Prescott College. Laura has taught collegiate courses in winter camping, alpine and arctic expedition skills, natural history, and Northern Studies for Sterling College and the University of Alaska. She has worked for the National Park Service in Arctic Alaska teaching natural and cultural history of the region and taught science at a school for students with learning disabilities. Laura spends her free time rock climbing, snowboarding and paddling her new Greenland style wooden sea kayak. She is an avid bird watcher, often participating in community bird counts and banding programs. She is especially fond of the New England spring Warbler song bird migration. She also enjoys botany, snow science, personal wilderness trips and traditional travel methods of the North.