Smiling at the crowd of seventh-grade girls sitting cross-legged on the floor of their school library, Rosalind Wiseman picks up a piece of chalk and asks, “What are girls jealous about?” The responses from the students at Blue Mountain Middle School in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., come flying back: “Guys.” “Jewelry.” “Clothes.” “Boobs?” “That’s okay,” says Wiseman, scribbling on the blackboard. “You can say boobs.” She adds it to the list amid a wave of giggling. Wiseman’s got their full attention now, and she knows it.
She moves in for the kill. “Are girls critical of each other?” she asks. “Are girls competitive?” “Yes!” the chorus answers, with the fervor of cheerleaders at a pep rally.
Welcome to the cosmos according to Wiseman, 33, a Washington, D.C., author, educator and self-appointed shuttle diplomat between what she calls Girl World and Planet Parent. In workshops around the country, and in her new book Queen Bees & Wannabes, she strikes a note that seems to resonate equally with affluent suburban teens and their atriskinner city sisters by talking about their reality-the cutthroat cliques, the emotional bullying, the pressure to fit in. “Girls supporting girls is the key,” Wiseman tells her rapt audience at Blue Mountain. “I believe you are the key to helping each other, or tearing each other down.”
So do an increasing number of educators, many of whom invite Wiseman, who runs the nonprofit Empower Program, to give workshops that teach teens how to stand up for themselves and build more positive relationships. Among her tools: role-playing, Apologies Day (during which students own up to how they may have hurt others), even pledges not to gossip. Although Empower works each year with an equal number of girls and boys, Queen Bees focuses on the former. “Nobody ever talks about the mean things that girls do to each other,” Wiseman explains. “Girls can be vicious—it’s real,” concurs Irene Addlestone, who directs the prevention programs for at-risk teens at Washington’s Children’s National Medical Center, where Empower has run workshops for five years. “Rosalind gives kids an avenue to discuss stuff they haven’t talked about before.”
Wiseman herself is drawing on painful experiences from her own teen years in Washington, where she grew up as the oldest of three children of real estate developer Steve, now 57, and his wife, Kathy, 58, a management consultant. (Sister Zoe, 17, serves as Wiseman’s spy into Girl World and fashion consultant.) Although on the outside the “pearls-and-tennis-skirt-wearing happy girl,” as Wiseman describes herself, looked like one of what she calls the Queen Bees—the superpopular and often supermean girls at the top of the social heap-the reality was very different.
In retrospect, she says she was so concerned about remaining in the cool crowd that for four years she stayed in a relationship with a physically abusive boy because he was considered the catch of the school. “To prove you belong,” she says, “you can do incredibly stupid things.” Her family and friends never had a clue. Says mother Kathy: “She was a real master at keeping things to herself.”
Wiseman finally found the courage to break off the relationship after her freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She was introduced to martial arts there by fellow student James Edwards, now 34, whom she married in 1996. “Martial arts was sort of my therapy,” recalls Wiseman, who had earned a second-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do karate by the time she graduated with her B.A. in political science in 1991. “It was really empowering.”
So were the self-defense classes Wiseman and her husband—a second-degree black belt in two martial arts—began teaching to teens after their move to her hometown later that year. “Even a few days into that first class, we were sitting thinking, ‘You know, we’re really missing the boat,’ ” Wiseman recalls. Edwards chimes in, “These girls kept asking us all sorts of questions. About ‘My boyfriend this,’ or ‘My friend is dating this guy who blah blah.’ ” In about a year the program took on its current focus of promoting self-esteem and combating bullying.
Edwards, now a video producer, continues to share Wiseman’s goals, and the couple hope to pass them along to their son Elijah, 1½ “If I can raise him to speak out in a gentle but forthright way when somebody is being wronged,” says Wiseman, “I’ve done my job.”
Linda Kramer in Cortlandt Manor and Washington, and Theresa Crapanzano in Washington