As spring arrives, so too does another annual ritual: the Ms. Foundation’s “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” slated this year for Thursday, April 26. First launched in 1993, Take Our Daughters to Work (TODTW) Day bills itself as a celebration of girl power, an opportunity for young women across the country to skip school for the higher purpose of experiencing the adult world of work. Wrapped as it is in the feel-good rhetoric of self-esteem building, Take Our Daughters to Work Day is difficult to criticize. But a closer look at the message behind the rhetoric suggests that this particular holiday is more about the inculcation of feminist myths than it is about expanding the horizons of American girls.
TODTW Day has evolved little since its initial launch. Having weathered some early gaffes (such as the female Wisconsin lawyer whose career advice to a class of seventh graders was “sleep around all you want but don’t get married”) the event’s organizers still hope to publicize an agenda that is far from mainstream. One of the original founders of the holiday, Nell Merlino, told the Chicago Tribune that the purpose of the Day was to deliver a strong political message in an appealing package. ?We could have said “Let’s smash the patriarchy,” Merlino mused, “but I’m not sure that everyone would have signed up for that.” Indeed.
Each year, the Ms. Foundation chooses a new theme for TODTW Day. (It has also trademarked “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” to prevent any would-be entrepreneurs from horning in on the foundation’s merchandising arm, with its “wide range of official TODTW Day products to help girls navigate the murky waters of adolescence”). Last year’s theme was the vaguely multicultural “Free to Be You and Me,” and the intent was to encourage girls to “think about diversity and gender equity in the new millennium.” A glance at the activities the nation’s girls participated in gives pause. The suggested exercises encouraged politically correct pandering and ethnic balkanization among participants — not real workplace skills. Participating girls identified themselves by ethnicity, said “hello in their ancestral language” and wrote down a “person from [their] own culture” who had influenced them. In another game, girls were told to “change chairs if you can name someone famous who is the same ethnicity as you.”
This year, the Ms. Foundation is stressing a new “Girl Force” theme and is focusing on technology. Partnering with organizations such as America Online and ChickClick.com, TODTW Day will tackle the supposed “growing digital divide between girls and boys.” Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation, has decreed that the nation’s working parents must create “safe spaces for girls to explore technology” and give them “a much-needed boost of confidence in this area.” Once again, TODTW Day promotes a vision of American girls as embattled and distressed, in need of “safe spaces” where they can improve their self-esteem.
Oddly, for an organization that seeks to build girls’ confidence and skills, the Ms. Foundation literature reminds TODTW Day’s adult “facilitators” that a girl “always has a right to pass” if she is not comfortable speaking in a group. Such hypersensitivity to adolescent self-esteem is hardly a recipe for success in the real world. Few working women enjoy a “right to pass” when asked to speak during a business meeting, nor can mothers “pass” on speaking their minds to their child’s teachers or doctors, for example. Why send the message to teenage girls that they don’t have to speak up for themselves?
Alas, as with previous TODTW Days, the message sent is the familiar and factually corrupt vision of women and girls as victims. The underlying purpose of the event — to combat “the radical and distressing shift that occurs in the lives of girls in early adolescence” — is based on misguided assumptions and shoddy social science research promulgated by the American Association of University Women and others. Scholars such as Christina Hoff Sommers have debunked thoroughly this “girl crisis” research, which claims to demonstrate lowered self-esteem and higher rates of insecurity among young women. Similarly, the Ms. Foundation claims that women are paid less than men and are “underrepresented” in American boardrooms and executive suites — both deliberately misleading assertions that nevertheless serve as staples of feminist rhetoric.
And what of the nation’s boys, you might ask? While a Foundation representative told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that “we believe if boys are included, it shortchanges the girls,” boys are not to be left out completely. Interested parties can purchase a curriculum plan from the Ms. Foundation for classroom use while the girls are away for the day. The “Especially for Boys” section includes a recommended reading list with titles such as “Challenging Macho Values.” While the evidence from previous TODTW Days suggests that many parents and educators ignore the “girls-only” message and take sons and daughters to work with them, it is worth noting that the Ms. Foundation officially disapproves of such inclusiveness.
There are lessons to be learned from Take Our Daughters to Work Day, but they are not the ones the Ms. Foundation is pushing. The lesson America’s youth — male and female — can take from this stunt is that actions speak louder than empty rhetoric. And as the evidence demonstrates, American girls are doing just fine. Girls are outperforming boys educationally, graduating from high school and college at higher rates and with higher grades. Young women are leaving college to enter a working world where they demand and get equal pay for equal work, and where women’s entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing.
Rather than take your daughter to work, why not take her aside and talk about the positive message of American women’s achievements? Why not emphasize that self-esteem is something one earns by pursuing excellence and exceeding expectations and standards, not something society owes you. Instead of taking our daughters to work, let’s take a moment to expose feminist myth-making and recognize what girls are really doing: succeeding.
Christine Stolba, Ph.D., is a member of the National Advisory Board of the IWF and coauthor of Women’s Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Success of Women in America.