Chronicle of what it means to be a girl

Book: Sisters discover young women are more free than when they were young.

January 07, 2001|By Lori Price | Lori Price,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Girls investing. Girls cheerleading. Girls dirt biking. Girls riding horses sidesaddle.

Like the commercial says, it's a great time to be a girl.

And three authors traveled the nation to find out just how cool it is to be young and female in America.

They've chronicled what they learned in "Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits" (Random House, $30).

Written by sisters Martha, Jenny and Laura McPhee, the book is a compilation of accounts from the lives of girls everywhere. Eye-catching black and white photographs accompany each short chapter.

The McPhees, daughters of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee, spent two years crisscrossing the country in search of girls pursuing passions that some might see as not so girly.

"We traveled through the rolling golden hills of the Palouse of eastern Washington, along the shaded banks of the San Antonio River, onto the trading floor of a brokerage firm in the dizzying heights of a Dallas skyscraper," the women write. "We talked with a blues-rock musician, ballerinas, surfers, an ice skater, a girl who makes and plays with dolls."

The McPhees wanted to show girls doing positive things that would encourage others who come after them.

"One of the things we wanted to convey through both words and photos is how empowered girls are now," says Laura McPhee, photographer for the project.

The idea for the book came out of the authors' own lives. The trio grew up in a family of girls, as Martha McPhee puts it, with one other full sister, a half sister and four stepsisters. The brood came up in the 1960s and '70s at the height of the women's movement. With that perspective as a backdrop, the sisters also used the book as a way to show how the way girls think has changed.

"Now, feminism is almost taken for granted," says Martha, 36. "Their options are much broader than our options were. The sky is the limit for them, and they are really not aware of any glass ceilings and feminism is not a part of their vocabulary."

But that doesn't mean the barriers have disappeared. Girls seem to have a plethora of activities and causes to pursue, but life for them is still not its rosiest. This is a hard culture for girls, Laura says. There are images portrayed in a number of arenas that leave women out, she adds.

Her reference point is a story of her 4-year-old daughter looking at New York Times photos of the top executives of General Electric.

"She looked at me and said 'There are no girls in this picture,' " recalls Laura, 42. "She perceives just in visual information like that that there are places that she doesn't belong or isn't included."

That didn't seem to be an issue for girls like Stephanie Formas, a Dallas resident who was featured in the book. Stephanie, 13, has been investing in the stock market for the past four years. She picked up the pastime from her grandfather and mother, a business owner who once was a day trader.

"I want to feel financially independent by the time I'm older," Stephanie says in the book. "I don't want to have to ever rely on anybody."

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