Educator investigates why esteem crumbles


May 01, 1991|By Jean Marbella

She speaks ever so softly, barely above a whisper. But for impact per decibel, Carol Gilligan's voice comes through loud and clear.

With her groundbreaking research on adolescent girls, the distinctive voice of this Harvard psychologist and educator has risen above the usual academic fray to find a broader audience, especially among those who once were 11-year-old girls or are the parents or teachers of such beings.

That age, Ms. Gilligan's work has shown, often is the point in a woman's life at which she has the most self-esteem and the surest knowledge of herself and the world around her. A few years after that, Ms. Gilligan concluded after studying hundreds of girls, this self-confidence and clarity begin to seem so out of sync with what society says about girls that they become adrift in a sea of doubt.

While Ms. Gilligan's conclusions have rung true to many, they also have generated controversy among those who believe she is merely reinforcing popular gender stereotypes -- that girls see themselves only in connection to others, while boys go their independent ways.

"It certainly has started a conversation," Ms. Gilligan said, with some understatement, during an interview before a recent lecture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It's become a springboard to talk about girls and think about girls. Insofar as that has initiated conversation, it's exciting. [Research] should resonate."

Hers certainly has, in a way unlike other studies issued from the ivory tower. She's become a cult hero of sorts among women who feel their childhood and adolescent experiences are validated by her books, the 1982 "In a Different Voice" and last year's "Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School."

"Somehow, once someone articulated it, it makes it more useful," said Kathy Levin, a Baltimore woman whose "Magic Me" program works to develop the self-esteem of middle school students. "Her work has been crucial in my thinking. There certainly was [in my life] a transition between thinking you could do whatever and be whatever, then overnight you wake up and wonder how you're ever going to cope with life.

"There's this enormous cultural weight on girls that they can be perfect," Ms. Levin continued. "And then at 15, you wake up, and you're not perfect, and you think you must have done something wrong or someone lied to you."

That is what Ms. Gilligan, a mid-40s woman with frizzy long hair, Laura Ashley dress and short boots, calls "the mesmerizing image of the perfect girl."

As Ms. Gilligan sees it, girls receive a constant barrage of messages from the rest of the world that they should be nice and quiet and hide their true knowledge to avoid hurting other people's feelings. And so, as she puts it, girls "go underground" to survive.

"The pressure on them to look and not see and to listen and not hear is immense," she said in her lecture at UMBC. "The rewards for conforming are enormous."

Ms. Gilligan began researching girls as part of her work on the psychology of women.

"To understand women's developmnt, I needed to look at work that was done with girls," she says in the thoughtful, considered manner of someone who hasn't given in to the sound-bite mentality of the over-interviewed.

She found, however, that girls hadn't been studied. In fact, she learned that one 1980 handbook on adolescent psychology didn't have a single chapter on girls because there wasn't a large enough body of research about them.

Her work, on which other women have since collaborated, has filled some of that vacuum. And while it is academic in nature, even the researchers found their own memories triggered by what the young girls were telling them.

"The girls' voices were very resonant," said Ms. Gilligan, who is -- to some people's surprise -- the mother of three sons and no daughters. "Girls began to teach us about women's development. Most of us have

been very powerfully affected."

Her work has been particularly popular among women who work with young girls, and, indeed, Ms. Gilligan believes women are the ones who can help girls through the seemingly esteem-crumbling adolescent years. Her work tends to support the desirability of girls-only schools, she said.

"There's a possibility for flourishing [in school]," she said. "It certainly is where they're spending a lot of time. Here's a major opportunity for prevention."

Ironically, she added, single-sex schools are not as important for boys.

"The evidence is boys do better in co-ed schools," Ms. Gilligan said. "It's easy for boys to think of the world from the male perspective. So the presence of girls is educational for them because it's another viewpoint, whereas girls lose their voices when boys are introduced to their school."

At Roland Park Country Day School in Baltimore, a girls' school that allows boys into some classes on an exchange program, Ms. Gilligan's work has been widely read and discussed among teachers and administrators.

"Research in the past hasn't been female-oriented," said Margaret Smith, headmistress at Roland Park. "What she's done is reconfirmed what we've observed. . . . We believe there should be interaction. What Carol has shown is the interaction has to be done carefully," she said, adding that boys are allowed to take classes at the school mainly in the upper grades.

At those levels, said math department chairman Teddy Reynolds, "The girls have had the opportunity to develop, to mature, to develop confidence that they can do the work in the field. There is some adjustment, but they adjust to the boys."

This works in girls' schools -- but perhaps the rest of the world has some catching up to do, according to Ms. Gilligan.

"Everyone in this culture," she said, "should spend at least a couple weeks a year with an 11-year-old girl."

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