Surely, the epidural could wait. Yes, Marisa Porges was in active labor, but she wanted to finish writing the last chapter of her first book before giving birth to her first child. Among the essentials she toted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania was her laptop, fully expecting to deliver both a baby and a manuscript. “I got a lot of work done in labor and delivery,” says Porges. “And I did send the manuscript to my publisher.”
Accomplishing the extraordinary is par for the course with Porges. A former Navy fighter pilot turned Pentagon counterterrorism expert, Porges was a senior advisor in President Barack Obama’s administration. In 2016, she became head of school at Baldwin, the first alumnae to do so.
In August 2019, Porges and her husband, Scott Moore, welcomed their baby boy. During the past year, the world has changed significantly—perhaps permanently—because of COVID-19. Porges believes that her book is necessary now more than ever.
What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous and Resilient Women (Viking, 272 pages) will be published this August. Packed with concepts, research and how-to advice, it’s Porges’ manual on creating confident young women. She selected the title’s adjectives deliberately, choosing words she deems necessary building blocks for girls’ self-esteem. “Bold is often self-reflective, not necessarily in relation to other things,” Porges says. “Courage is in relation to something or someone else, perhaps in the face of opposition or challenge. And resiliency is very necessary.”
“Pivot,” resiliency’s synonymic cousin, became an ubiquitous byword of the pandemic. And while she says it’s slightly overused, Porges believes that adaptability is a critical skill for women—so much so that she dedicated a whole chapter to the concept. “The topic of adaptability came to me one day, and I realized it was critical to raising strong women,” Porges says. “My publisher gave me extra time to write it. Now it’s become the cornerstone of the book.”
Adaptability got Porges and the Baldwin School through tough months of at-home learning. After Baldwin closed in March in accordance with Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 mitigation orders, the school segued into online learning. When Baldwin’s platform proved insufficient for prolonged virtual education, the school turned to a new technology and got teachers up to speed in record time.
Still, Porges says it’s too early to determine the ramifications it will have on students’ academic and social development. There are likely to be a cornucopia of consequences that educators and parents will handle in real time, without the guidance of clinical research or data like Porges uses to create policies. “But we have the strength of experienced faculty and staff, and we have the community of Baldwin itself,” Porges says. “Circumstances changed, but our core values remain the same.”
Those values have long been part of Porges’ life, something she credits to her parents, husband and bosses, many of whom are male. Porges believes that men are intrinsic to raising strong women. “Many of my mentors are men,” Porges says. “My first skipper in Navy, my first boss in Pentagon, a general in Afghanistan—they were all men who pushed me to be bolder and more courageous.”
Porges had women mentors, too. Now, she’s one herself, especially at Baldwin. “We couldn’t ask for a better role model for our daughters than Marisa Porges,” says Pat Weiser, incoming chair of the Baldwin Board of Trustees. “[She] positioned the school to navigate the changing landscape of education and prepare our girls to become the leaders of the future.”
While a lifetime of experiences prepared Porges to write the book, the igniting impetus came from a Baldwin leadership seminar. “We need to teach girls—and teach them earlier—the skills they need to thrive in their personal lives and work,” Porges says. “We can’t wait until they get into the workforce and are confronted with situations. They need to walk into adulthood with those skills.”
Rather than avoid struggle, you must learn to cope with it. Porges conveys that by relating stories from her time in the military, in the White House and at Baldwin. “The premise is my own moments of failure and struggle,” Porges says. “I was in a lot of male-dominated environments and needed to adapt.”
While not all young women have the opportunity to attend a private, all-girls school, Porges’ sees the book as applicable to those outside of Baldwin. While recognizing that Baldwin’s gender exclusivity makes it easier to instill a sense of self in girls, Porges says that skills are “transferrable and international.”
Part of that has to do with girls’ built-in advantages, one of which is empathetic thinking. “It’s the ability to understand people’s perspectives and give them what they need,” says Porges. “Empathy is one of the key things that sets good leaders apart from great leaders. It comes easily to girls. If we nurture it early, it will last.”
Porges calls herself a “process person” and strongly believes that engineering girls to be bold, courageous and resilient will make them—and the world—better. “Once you have those skills, you can apply them anywhere,” she says. “Learn that as a child, and you’ll carry it with you for the rest of your life.”