Popular, Pretty, Polite, Not too Smart

By David Halberstam
The New York Times, September 11, 1994
Review of Books

RECENTLY two young teachers from a neighboring boys' school came and did a practice turn teaching history to the seniors at a girls' school in New York that I observe closely. After class the regular teacher asked the young men what they thought of the students. The girls, they said, seemed passive compared with the boys they regularly taught. Passive! She was stunned. Our girls passive? This was a school of talented, well-focused students, one where teachers, administrators, parents and the girls themselves took a particular pride in how industrious, articulate and intellectually confident they were.

The teacher, who also had had experience teaching boys, pondered this and finally came up with an answer. It was not passivity on the part of the girls that the visitors were seeing; rather, it was a significant difference in the behavior of boys and girls. Boys dissent in class noisily, almost raucously, she explained; they are eager not merely to get credit for their own answers but to score points off one another. Girls, on the other hand, disagree with the utmost courtesy, making sure that they do not diminish those who have already spoken.

That profound difference is explored in "Schoolgirls," by Peggy Orenstein, a fascinating look at eighth-grade girls just entering adolescence at two pseudonymous coeducational schools in northern California: the suburban Weston Middle School, with mostly middle-class white students, and the inner-city Audubon Middle School, with a largely low-income, minority student body. These patterns of behavior become extraordinarily clear in Ms. Orenstein's book. Why they exist is the tantalizing question before all of us watching children grow: Are the patterns biological? Are they cultural? Do parents and teachers and peers have such vastly different expectations for girls than for boys, and if so, how do they convey them so that girls become prisoners of those expectations?

"Schoolgirls" arrives at an important moment; young women are finding themselves increasingly conflicted about the behavior that is expected of them in school, in contrast to the professional demands they will face as working adults as the job market continues to change. While daily role models for some of these girls may be scarce — discounting their mothers, their teachers and women they see on television — women today have a far larger stake in the economy than ever before. Two-income households predominate, and the majority of American women with young children carry the dual burden of holding jobs while being mothers and running households.

It is not surprising that many young women, particularly those under the most pressure to succeed, feel anxious: recent studies show a sharp increase in eating disorders among young women generally, and significantly higher increases for college women than for women who do not go to college.

In January 1991, Peggy Orenstein read news articles about an American Association of University Women (A.A.U.W.) report, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," and "felt my stomach sink." The attitudinal survey of 3,000 boys and girls between 9 and 15 showed, headlines said, that "Girls' Low Self-Esteem Slows Their Progress" and that "Girls' Self-Esteem Is Lost on Way to Adolescence." A journalist who has been an editor at Mother Jones and 7 Days magazines, Ms. Orenstein decided to examine the report in the context of reasonably representative eighth graders.

"Schoolgirls" is not an academic study, though it draws on the accessible scholarship of Carol Gilligan, Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Carol Tavris — research scholars who have studied and written widely in the past decade on the psychology of young women. Ms. Orenstein's achievement is that she is an accomplished reporter who writes clearly and well. She brings the scholarship to life. Her vignettes of school and family life, chosen to highlight aspects of the A.A.U.W. report, are sharp, sometimes novelistic and memorable. Occasionally the narrative slips away from the girls themselves and into discussion of sociology, and then the going gets heavier.

At a time when it seem everything concerning culture and gender has been politicized, and elements of the A.A.U.W. report have been controversial, the fact that Ms. Orenstein's book is supported by the organization both adds to and subtracts from her work. Her instincts and reporting support the report, but the results sometimes feel a little too pat. Still, her stories of the daily lives of some of the girls she came to know have an unshakable ring of truth.

Her own experience of youth was an advantage. Ms. Orenstein, 32 years old, says that her research was not just a journey to visit girls in school; it was an experience that forced her to remember and reconstruct her own transit through adolescence. She recalled the moment when she was 13 "when I lowered my hand in math class, never to raise it again, out of a sudden fear that I might answer incorrectly and be humiliated."

And she remembered, at 16, "when I winnowed 40 pounds from my body, refusing food and binging on laxatives, eventually losing the ability to eat at all." At 21, when she "became paralyzed during the writing of my senior thesis," her adviser told her not to worry about her fears of being fraudulent: "You feel like an impostor? Don't worry about it. All smart women feel that way." Her candor strengthens the resolve of her research.

The section of "Schoolgirls" about Weston ("a suburban middle school with a reputation for excellence") seems to me more successful than the one about Audubon, the inner-city school, in part because there has not been much good journalism about the anxieties and other problems of white female adolescents. Other books — including Alex Kotlowitz's excellent "There Are No Children Here" — have portrayed the complex plight of young, mostly black women who are mothers in the inner cities, and who struggle in family situations without adult male support but who develop impressive personal strength. Ms. Orenstein says that while at Weston there was a "hidden curriculum" for teaching girls that "power is disproportionately conferred by gender," at Audubon "the children learn a more comprehensive lesson: that, for them, power will not be conferred at all."

Ms. Orenstein followed the girls at the two schools for four days a week during the 1992-93 school year, and she seems to have succeeded admirably in gaining their confidence. She bided her time, getting to know a large number of the students before settling on a fairly representative group; in time, these would become the core figures in her book. She says she was "astonished by how consistently articulate and insightful the girls were, including those who were doing poorly in school."

Her portraits are almost minimalist: sharply drawn and telling. She has been skillful in triangulating the experiences of her subjects, going back and forth among the girls as they see themselves and as their friends see them, then talking to their teachers and finally getting to know their parents. She describes the immense contradiction between the traditional definitions of what a girl should be (popular, pretty, polite) and should not be (not too aggressive, not too outspoken and certainly not too smart).

It is those negative qualities, she concludes, that tend to make adolescent girls dumb themselves down to avoid threatening other girls, boys and adults. Sadly, few of the parents Ms. Orenstein visited seemed to sense the burden this self-imposed silence placed on their daughters, either academically or in their family relationships.

In class the girls seem far more tentative than the boys, several of whom habitually shout out answers, right or wrong, despite the presumed classroom protocol that demands they raise their hands and be called on first. The boys are confident that their way is the right one, sure that because they are the wheels that squeak, they will get the attention. And they do.

Nate, in one eighth-grade math class at Weston, says, "I think my opinions are important, so I yell them out. . . . Girls will sit there until the bell rings with their hands up." Ms. Orenstein watches Renee, who according to the teacher is the brightest girl in the class, "lay her head on her desk when Nate overwhelms her and mutter, 'I hate this class.' " The responsible and aware teacher worries because the boys in her class "tend to improve over the course of the school year" but the "girls stay exactly where they were in September," and she fears that "we're going to lose them."

THESE schoolgirls at Weston and Audubon feel that their brothers are favored at home and are more readily rewarded for comparable achievement than they are. Worse, it sometimes seems that their parents hear their brothers as they do not hear them, and whether this is the parents' fault for not listening well or the girls' fault for speaking softly is part of the developmental puzzle. For LaRhonda, an Audubon student who is the eldest of six children, "the benefits of education are both dubious and remote, while the rewards of caretaking and the self-esteem she derives from it are immediate." At Weston another girl, Lindsay, unlike her own brother, is always aware that "she must balance drive with deference."

In addition to shifting problems and relationships at home, these girls are confronting age-old problems as sexual rituals begin: a boy who is promiscuous has his reputation enhanced, while a girl who is perceived to be available to boys has hers diminished or destroyed, and Ms. Orenstein catches the subtle yet fraught behavior of groups and of individuals and the way it affects the self-esteem of girls in both schools.

One of the chapters set in Weston is called "Bodily Harm: Purging, Gorging, and 'Delicate Self-Cutting,' " and in it Evie talks about her bulimia, which her mother does not even notice, while Lindsay fights anorexia. Only Lisa, of all the girls Ms. Orenstein met, is actually overweight, and she sees "failure as inevitable" because she "equates thinness with success and intelligence."

The rise in eating disorders, noted in national studies but made real to the reader in the experience of these girls, is, the author believes, a response to the pressures she is describing. The story of Becca, so thin her friends call her Twig, is particularly poignant. She is talented and likable, but seems determined to become physically and spiritually invisible to evade both her troubled home and her school life, eventually making a clumsy attempt at suicide.

Ms. Orenstein's affection for and sensitivity to her subjects helps her catch the degree to which the girls feel the contradictions of the pressures bearing down on them. There is one obvious road to academic success (and surely to professional success) — work with confidence and diligence. But that road seems, at both middle-class Weston and poor Audubon, quite alien and distant, even dangerous.

There is a certain sadness to "Schoolgirls," a sense of young gifted children slipping away from the possibilities that might be theirs, a sense of lost talent and lost confidence. While the academic and political debate about biology and behavior continues, for parents and other tax-paying adults "Schoolgirls" is a valuable glimpse of reality. This important book should be read by parents raising children of all ages and of both sexes.

© 2000 The New York Times Company