By Jerry Carroll
The San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1994
(*Daily Datebook, Pg. E1)
Even though she’s 32 years old, Peggy Orenstein could pass as a teenager with her mass of blond curls. What a big help in her research for “SchoolGirls” (Doubleday; $23.50), an exploration of why it is the self-esteem and confidence of girls take a sudden dive when they enter adolescence.
“That I looked young made the girls open up to me. I wasn’t in a standard category they have in their headâ€”I wasn’t a parent, I wasn’t a friend of a parent, I wasn’t an aunt and I wasn’t a teacher,” she said. “I think parents will be surprised at some of the things girls reveal in the book.”
Boredom with school and fear of failure in science and math are what they reveal. Resignation about the power that society grants boys because of their assertiveness and power to disrupt. Pressure to emphasize appearance and minimize brains to win favor. Pressure to acquiesce in second-rate status despite all the advances of the past two decades.
The Crisis of Puberty
Orenstein, a former managing editor of Mother Jones magazine, was inspired by a 1990 report by the American Association of University Women to plumb why the onset of puberty dims the shining hope of the earlier years of girlhood, when all seemed possible. She found that race, poverty and cultural expectations conspire with sexism to push girls into corners from which it seems only the plucky and lucky find their way.
Females as Victims?
Some critics like “Who Stole Feminism?” author Christina Hoff Sommers say this view of girls as victims is greatly overdrawn, underestimates the strength and staying power of women and is based in part on faulty research by psychologists Myra and David Sadker, pioneers in gender studies.
The critics point out that women outnumber men in college 55 to 45 percent. Enrollment in law and medical schools is 40 percent female, with the ratio tipping farther in their direction. In 1993, for the first time in history, more female than male undergraduates said they intended to seek advanced degrees.
Yet for all that, when Orenstein returned to three Bay Area middle schools to see how girls in their early teens fare, she found conditions little changed from her own painful time as an adolescent when fear of being wrong kept her hand down in math classes, and diet binges caused her to lose 40 pounds, “eventually losing the ability to eat at all.”
Orenstein found middle-class white girls, African Americans and Latinas who would share their thinking about life over the course of a school year. As a condition of receiving their confidences and being allowed to sit in on classroom instruction, Orenstein agreed not to name the girls or the schools.
In some cases, thanks to Orenstein’s skillful questioning, the home lives of the girls emerge as so tumultuous or tense that it’s possible to ask whether these were as much responsible as gender inequality for the blighting of hope and the self-limitation of ambition.
Mom Uses Crack
April, one of the black girls, lived with a mother who supported her crack habit by prostitution. She stuffed her ears with socks and put a pillow around her head to drown out the sounds in the next room. Sheer survival was her priority and all else came after. Another black girl, LaRhonda, faced with deciding what was more important to her, education or caring for her younger siblings, chose the latter.
When she was able to turn her attention to school work, Orenstein said, LaRhonda found that the teachers at her raucous inner-city school ranged from indifferent to hostile, but were in agreement that her academic future was nil. For her part, the girl found little to interest her at school. Once, Orenstein timed classroom activities over three periods. An hour and a half was spent in crowd control and only 40 minutes in instruction.
A female African American teacher told her at the end of one school day: “You see how it is? They’re animals. No, animals are better-behaved than that.”
Complained Orenstein: “The students are told that they’re stupid, treated as if they uneducable and accorded no respectâ€”then blamed for their behavior.”
Becca, a white girl, lived in a more affluent species of hell. Her mother was in a loveless suburban marriage and suffocated her with complaints about her father, including his constant sexual demands, which the mother saw as rape. The mother felt she couldn’t leave the marriage for economic reasons, conveying an image of female helplessness to her daughter.
Orenstein saw that Becca wanted to please and studied people toward that end. “Becca views her sensitivity primarily as a virtue and, in particular, as a uniquely female trait. Like Lindsay (a friend), Becca believes that girls ‘express their feelings’ more than boys and are innately more emotional. Neither has ever considered that girls are only encouraged to express certain feelings, and that their emotionalism might, in part, compensate for what girls are denied: feelings of independence, competence, control.”
Becca’s grades, A’s in grade school, drifted down to C’s. Her mother said she hopes to blend in. “She’s a very sensitive person, and if it’s easier for her to be average, then that’s OK with me.”
At one point, Becca allowed Orenstein to read her journal, where there was an entry about a suicide attempt. Orenstein decided to step out of her role as observer and, with the girl’s permission, told her mother. Becca was put into therapy.
Latinas Worst Off
The worst off when it comes to self-image, according to the AAWU study, are Latinas. From age 9 to 15, the number who are “happy with the way I am” drops by 38 percentage points, compared to 33 points with white girls and 7 points for black girls, who benefit from a tradition of strong women.
“Latinas are less likely than the other girls to be called on or to speak out in class, the least likely to be recognized as gifted, and the least likely to believe they can achieve their own dreams,” wrote Orenstein.
One of the Latinas she tracked was Marta, who went from scorning gangs to pondering which to join. She didn’t like to think of the sexual submission to the boys in the gang believed to be part of the initiation. “Anyway,” she said, “sometimes they just beat you up, so I don’t know.”
Orenstein says she avoided putting together any kind of 10-point list parents and schools could consult to undo the damage done to adolescent girls, although she says all-girl schools and participation in programs like those the YWCA offers are helpful. She is most encouraged by teachers like Judy Logan of San Francisco, who try to help boys see from a female point of view. All the pictures on her classroom wall are of great women in history, and the course of study emphasizes the achievements of women. To deepen empathy Logan has boys pick female examples from history and deliver accounts of their lives in first person. This kind of enforced switch in consciousness has great potential, Orenstein believes.
Boys “have to think about what it means to be a girl. It will affect how they treat females when they get older.”