Giving girls the faith to believe in themselves

February 16, 1997|By Susan Reimer

TEN-YEAR-OLD Jessica came home from school one afternoon in a purple rage, threw her backpack across the room and before it even hit the wall was blustering into her story.

"Mom, you won't believe this. My teacher's daughter studies math in college and it is the first day of this really hard math class, right? And she and one other girl are, like, the only girls in the class with all boys, right? And the professor gives each of the girls a quarter and says, 'This is so you can call your mommies when you flunk my class.'

"Do you believe that? I can't believe that. He should be fired. They should pass that class and give him his stupid quarters back."

Nothing is clearer to this 10-year-old girl than unfairness and no one is more fearless than she when pointing it out. She is in fifth grade, at the top of her elementary school power pyramid, still the physical equal of any boy on the playground, and 51 percent of the world is hers.

But I fear that when she passes through the phalanx of middle school and puberty, that may change. That she will no longer say, "It's not fair." Instead she will say something like, "Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't seem fair." Or "I'm not sure, but is that fair?" She will still recognize unfairness, but she may lose the courage to point it out.

"When we were growing up, there was this idea that gender roles were natural. That they were due to God or Freud or whatever, but they couldn't be changed," says feminist Gloria Steinem.

"But this generation of girls expects fairness, and that's a huge change. They say what they want, and they name what is wrong."

Steinem has written the introduction to the new book called "Girls Speak Out." Written by educator Andrea Johnston, it is a kind of consciousness-raising study guide for young girls.

In it, Johnston talks to the girls -- her language is perfectly appropriate for 10- to 16-year-olds -- and the girls talk back. The book is full of the voices of girls just this age. Her goal is that this generation of women not fulfill the popular expectation and lose those voices.

"I have been working with girls for 30 years, and what I see is this," said Johnston. "Girls have been listening, and they have heard what women have been saying. And they have something to say."

Steinem and Johnston were at the Bryn Mawr School last week for the kind of "speak-out" workshop Johnston conducts all over the country and for which her book is the blueprint.

"Girls say again and again that people act as though they don't have feelings," said Johnston. "Our message is this: Girlhood is not all wonderful. But don't keep it a secret and don't blame yourself. TELL! Tell the good things and the painful things."

The auditorium was full of women whose lives changed because of the movement Steinem helped found 30 years ago. But they brought with them their daughters -- from newborn to adult -- with the hope that these daughters will not have to make the massive course correction that was required of those of us who were girls in one world and women in another.

"Inside each of these girls is this voice saying, 'I know what I want. I know what I think,' " said Steinem. "We can give each girl faith in that voice."

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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