By Peggy Orenstein, in association with the American Association of University Women. New York: Doubleday, 1994. 335 pp. Hardbound, $23.50; Softbound, $12.95.
In a junior high classroom, the teacher asks her students to imagine how their lives would be different if they had been born as the opposite sex. The responses of the students are revealing. According to an adult observer, "almost all of the boys' observations about gender swapping involve disparaging `have to's": "I'd have to help my mom cook; I'd have to spend lots of time the bathroom on my hair and stuff; I'd have to stand around at recess instead of getting to play basketball; I'd have to sit down to go to the bathroom; And I'd have to worry about getting pregnant." The girls, however, according to the observer, "seem wistful with longing" in their responses about being the opposite sex: "I'd have my own room; I wouldn't care how I look or if my clothes matched; I'd get to play a lot more sports; I could stay out later." Thirty years after the rise of the women's movement in the 1960s, it appears that there is still a lot of work to do, if, as these responses seem to indicate, "both boys and girls have learned to equate maleness with opportunity and femininity with constraint" (xii-xiv).
The above passages are from Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, by journalist Peggy Orenstein. Her book was written in the wake of the American Association of University Women's (AAUW) 1991 report, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, which received a great deal of media attention. Based on research with over three thousand girls and boys aged nine to fifteen, the AAUW report concluded that girls experience a huge drop in confidence in their journey through adolescence. Gender roles are, of course, imposed and absorbed much earlier in youth, as other studies have indicated, but adolescence marks the transition to adulthood with an emphasis on physical changes that traditionally have been considered definitive in terms of sex roles as well as relationships that have involved the subjection of women. As Orenstein writes of the AAUW study, "The results confirmed something that many women already knew too well. For a girl, the passage into adolescence is not just marked by menarche or a few new curves. It is marked by a loss of confidence in herself and her abilities.... In spite of the changes in women's roles in society, in spite of the changes in their own mothers' lives, many of today's girls fall into traditional patterns of low self-image, self-doubt, and self-censorship of their creative and intellectual potential" (xvi). Another recent work, Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship, by fill McLean Taylor, Carol Gilligan, and Amy M. Sullivan, comes to similar conclusions through interviews with twenty-six "at risk" high school girls. However, the markers of female adolescence, or the female gender, need not be expressed by a "confidence gap." Feminist mothers and teachers influenced by...
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