ALAN v23n1 - Can Anne Be Like Margot and Still Be Anne?

Volume 23, Number 1
Fall 1995

Can Anne Be Like Margot and Still Be Anne?

Adolescent Girls' Development and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Linda Irwin-DeVitis and Beth Benjamin

Anne Frank's diary has been a staple of junior-high and middle-school curricula for several decades. Indeed, Applebee's study of most-frequently- required books in American schools listed it among the top ten selections in public schools for whole class instruction ( Applebee, 1989 ).Traditionally, Anne Frank's story has been taught to highlight issues of the holocaust and has served as a powerful vehicle for discussion of that historical period. In addition, it has been an excellent basis for exploring issues of racism and prejudice.

We would like to suggest yet another avenue for which Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl can be a powerful and provocative basis for discussion --the issue of adolescent girls' development. Anne is expected to be like her older sister, Margot. Adults consider Margot, who is bright but passive and compliant, a model child. Anne's struggles, her resolve, and her strength in preserving her identity and sense of self are illuminating and provide a positive model for teens.

Girls' Psychosocial Development

Since the advent of developmental psychology, girls and women, when considered at all, have been a puzzle for theorists and researchers. Freud , Erikson , Kohlberg and others who have shaped twentieth-century thinking about human development, have all based their work on the male ( Freud, 1933 ; Erikson,1963 ; Piaget, 1932/1965 ; Kohlberg, 1981 ). Attempts to include girls and women in universal theories have resulted in models that portray girls and women as"less than," incomplete and underdeveloped persons (males), or at best, persons who undergo a development no different from that which occurs for boys and men.Recent research suggests this characterization simply is not the case.

In her ground-breaking examination of girls and young women, Carol Gilligan has posited theories that recognize differences in girls' development, yet do not rely on a deficit explanation. Interpreting Gilligan's assertion that females create a "different truth," Shea suggests that unlike males who "chart their development by increasing degrees of separation and individuation...women develop through increasingly complex sets of social interactions and personal relationships" (p. 37) . For Gilligan , women's primary commitment to caring and connection is not a deficiency but a valid alternative to male models that has much value for both the individual and society. This view,however, raises troubling questions for young women in Western cultures, whose consistently socialized to believe in the superiority of the male model of independence and commitment to abstract principle but who are at the same time surrounded by women who live a different ideal (1982).

In subsequent research, Gilligan and her colleagues in the Harvard Project on women's Psychology and Girls' Development probed into the developmental crisis that occurs in girls' lives as they move into adolescence ( Brown &Gilligan, 1992 ). At this point in their lives, girls must reconcile their individuality and growing independence with the strong rhythms of societal expectations and demands. Yet, though girls generally enter this phase with great strength and psychological vigor, the transition from girl to woman is a treacherous one in which many girls begin to doubt their own knowledge and experience, ignore and devalue their own feelings, and move toward relationships based on cultural stereotypes rather than honesty and truth. Gilligan, Lyn Mikel Brown , and their colleagues wanted to explore this crisis of girls' development and find ways in which girls might maintain psychological health and strength as they move into young adulthood. In their work with girls at the Laurel School, they found young women who embodied the issues at the center of girls' crisis and who could tell the story of the crisis as it happened.

For a brief period in early adolescence, usually about age twelve, girls appear to understand the centrality of relationships in their lives; at the same time, they are able to verbalize the frustration they feel when faced with the conflict between being themselves and maintaining their relationships with others. This conflict emerges vividly and poignantly in the pages of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl . As adolescence progresses, Anne Frank ,like many young girls, becomes increasingly confused and conflicted about her role as a young woman, and frequently silences herself to fit into a cultural stereotype of womanhood for the sake of relationships. Ironically, however, for Anne, as well as for the girls in the Harvard study, those very relationships are damaged because of the silencing.

As adolescence ensues, girls find themselves less and less able to reconcile their own voices (that is, their wants, needs, interests, and ambitions) with the ideal that society expects and frequently demands. Too often they become convinced that they are lacking and unworthy because they do not measure up to the impossible ideal. In the words of Anne Frank , "I try terribly hard to change myself, but I'm always fighting against a more powerful enemy.... A voice sobs within me... `You are uncharitable, you look supercilious and peevish, people dislike you and all because you won't listen to the advice given you...' " (p. 186) .

Anne writes of her longing for someone who could offer "a word of comfort...but alas, I keep on looking" (p. 224). The research conducted by Brown and Gilligan as well as Debold, et al. , Orenstein , and Sadker and Sadker suggests that today's female adolescents also seek someone who will acknowledge the reality of their dilemma and recognize their attempts to maintain their real selves in the context of a society working hard to silence them ( Brown &Gilligan, 1992 ; Debold, Wilson & Malave, 1993 ; Orenstein, 1994 ; Sadker& Sadker, 1994 ).

To date, most of the work in girls' development has been done outside the classroom. We believe that teachers have a critical role to play, first incoming to understand girls' development better themselves, and second in helping girls to be able to see their difference from males, to accept and relish it, and to build on it to make their own unique and important contributions to their personal and societal worlds.

Girls' Development and Literature

Recognizing the powerful role that literature can play in awareness and education about issues of adolescent girls' development, several researchers,have suggested reading lists for adolescent girls ( Debold, et al., 1993 ; Sadker & Sadker, 1994 ). Robert Probst has written, "It seems reasonable that learning about oneself might be a legitimate purpose for the study of literature. The significance of introspections and reflection on one's own values and beliefs, one's own place in the culture, should be recognized, and our teaching should invite and encourage such exploration" (p. 64) .

Applebee (1989) found, however, that only two titles with females as central characters -- Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Frank's Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl -- emerged among the ten titles most frequently studied in American public schools. Moreover, the Sadkers found little opportunity in school settings for girls to recognize themselves,explore their thinking and viewpoints, or validate their abilities and aspirations ( Sadker & Sadker, 1994 ).

As teachers become more aware of such research findings, they also recognize that much remains to be done if girls are to find an individual niche and voice. A first step for teachers of English would be to include more literature by and about females in the curriculum. A second step would be to change the lenses with which we customarily encourage our students to explore literature.A third would be to open up opportunities for girls to voice their thoughts freely, frequently, and honestly in school settings.

Both the Sadkers and DeBold include Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in their recommended lists. As previously stated, the story of Anne frank and her family is widely required -- in 36% of seventh and eighth grade public school classes and in 56% of classes grades seven through twelve nationwide ( Applebee,1989, p. 28 ). It is also required reading in 10% of the nation's Catholic high schools (p. 31) and 14% of independent high schools (p.34). Perusal of curriculum guides, however, suggests that the diary is generally treated as a historical tract focusing on issues of the Holocaust rather than as a record of the issues associated with a young girl's entrance into womanhood ( Kunczt, 1993 ; Powers, 1989 ).

Exploration through Discussion

As researchers who agree with Probst's view that learning about oneself is a valid purpose for reading literature, we organized a summer literature discussion group that included nine girls, aged 11 to 13, who volunteered to participate. The girls represented four schools from the same community. We took field notes during each conversation and transcribed and analyzed audiotapes of each of the five sessions. The names of the girls have been changed here to ensure confidentiality.

We wanted to know whether young adolescent girls are able to identify, relate to, and speak out about issues of voice when they encounter literature portraying early adolescent females struggling to balance voice and relationship. When given the "prompt" of someone else's experience, would girls see the struggle and discuss it in relation to their own situations? When in a room with only females present and with young female literary figures and characters as the centerpiece of discussion, would they explore the feelings and beliefs that they hold in relation to themselves, their abilities, and their place in their social, familial, and educational worlds?

Believing that Anne's diary could be employed effectively to reach our discussion goals, we selected it as one of the pieces for the discussion group.Although these discussions had a summer informality about them -- evening meetings, refreshments, seating around a large table -- we wanted to shape them to some extent as reflections of the current thinking about classroom discussion of literature. Langer Langer's research has shown that the most provocative and life-like literature learning occurs through a process of discussion that invites and encourages what she calls a "horizon of possibilities" ( Langer,1991 ). Through this process readers begin with their initial impressions,offer hypotheses and interpretations to one another, and consider and weigh multiple perspectives in order to shape and reshape their own thinking about the literature and its relationship to life as each reader/discussant knows it.

We identified three main strategies to support our goals in discussing each book. First, each reader had an opportunity to share her impressions, feelings,and personal connections. The questions we used to begin the conversation were intentionally open-ended and often affective in nature (Myers, 1988; Probst,1992 ). They included:

* What were your first thoughts as you finished the book?

* Did any parts of this book make you think about an experience of your own?

* Were you reminded of people you know?

Second, the group explored a series of questions on issues of adolescent development as they related to the book.

* How would you describe the female protagonist's attitude about, or outlook on, life?

* Is this girl "nice"? Would your parents or teachers like her?

* Does the female protagonist ever feel that she must sacrifice something important in order to get along with people who are important to her?

* How would this book be different if the female protagonist were male?

Finally, the group analyzed and interpreted quotes (selected by the researchers as relevant to the concerns of female adolescent development) from the book itself. An effort was made to allow the girls to explore the issues of interest to them and to include all of the girls in the discussion. The nine participants in the study shared their perceptions and opinions in regard to Anne and her relationships with others.

Adolescent females in Literature and Life

Much of the discussion revolved around girls' deference to societal expectations for young women -- what Brown and Gilligan call "the tyranny of nice and kind" ( Brown & Gilligan, 1992 ). This societal mandate pressures girls to subsume their own feelings in consideration of those of others. It constrains them from claiming their own knowledge and teaches them to act and speak cautiously, taking care not to be too forthright, loud, or verbose. Other areas from the Brown and Gilligan research that emerged in the discussion were the ways women define their lives based upon their relationships with others and the role of physical beauty in the lives of girls and women ( Brown &Gilligan, 1992 ).

A number of feminist authors and researchers have documented the increasing demands upon young women to live up to images of beauty in the media ( Wolf,1991 ; Faludi, 1991 ). As the girls explored the diary, they questioned the societal emphasis on the appearance of girls and women. They felt a connection with Anne, who, feeling outcast, writes in her diary, "Nothing, I repeat,nothing about me is right; my general appearance, my manners are discussed from A to Z" (p. 29).

On the surface, the girls seemed clear that appearance should not be their central concern. Yet their awareness of the importance of looks in our culture and the pervasive influence of the media brought ambivalence and tentativeness to their words. Kara commented, "When you turn on TV, pretty girls with coke...[a pretty girl] comes with it. It's like blackmailing."

When asked whether she would rather be known as someone smart or someone good-looking, Sallie responded that she "guessed" she would choose smart, but it "would be nice to be both" although "it doesn't always happen that way."She then indicated in a burst of honesty that her choice might depend on" how ugly I'd be!" Mary, in fact the youngest in the group, captured the ambivalence and the dilemma for girls when she stated, "I don't know. I think most girls would say they'd rather be smart," and then quietly added,"but they'd probably rather be pretty."

These girls, like Anne Frank , were torn between what society expects and their own ambitions. Considering her future as an adult female, Anne declares, " I know that I am a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage. If God lets me live, I shall attain more than Mummy has ever done, I shall not remain insignificant, I shall work in the world, and for mankind (p. 187). Amy agreed: "You kind of want to be known in your life, not just like your mother."Mary added that she thought Anne Frank and her mother did not get along well due to differing goals. She pointed out that Anne wants to be a writer and then alluded to herself. "I want to be known. I want to be famous." Kara was careful to point out the value of the traditional role of wife and mother even as she envisioned a different goal. "I think for some women, it's their lifetime goal to have children. I think women should have the choice, but it'snot what I want." These young women were already grappling with their own desires and attempting to separate the rhetoric of women's choice from the reality of their own experience and that of their mothers. Anne's diary provided a forum for their reflection on the roles and choices potentially available to women.

The Double Standard Revisited

Their own experiences had clearly led them to understand that there are different societal expectations for young women and young men. While these girls, particularly Kara, were articulate about the choices available to women and the progress in the area of women's rights, they were also keenly aware that males are still rewarded for speaking up and voicing their opinions while girls are not. When asked how the diary would have been different if the author had been a male, the girls did not hesitate:

Jackie: It would be a whole different story.

Mary: I don't think they would criticize [the diary's author] as much if it had been written by a boy.

Kara: Seeing how the Ann Daans treated Peter, he would be allowed his opinions... would be listened to. I think the problems they have with Anne is that she talks too much about what she thinks.

Mary: I think the reason why her mom is not happy with Anne is because Anne is not the way her mother wants her to be. And if she were a boy, it wouldn't matter. She really might not expect as much.... Anne was expected to be quiet,but maybe a boy wouldn't be like a prisoner.

The girls perceived the gender-bound expectations of their parents and society,expectations that Anne Frank , too, outlines, "One must apply one's reason to everything here, learning to obey, to hold your tongue, to help, to be good, to give in, and I don't know what else" ( p. 56). Anne rages against the role she is assigned, resenting the mandates of obedience, submission, and self-sacrifice.

Anne Frank's words resonated with these girls who also felt the pressure to be passive, to obey, and to please others. Mary wistfully acknowledged the possibility of finding unqualified acceptance, but her voice was tentative and full of doubt. "They expect you to be good... they're proud of you. If you weren't good for them... I don't know... maybe they would still find the good in you."

The dilemma: Being Right or Being Nice

At times the girls puzzled over their desire to be strong, courageous,and outspoken contrasted with the adult expectation that they be submissive and silent. In sharing an account of an incident from her fifth grade year, Sallie expressed both pride and embarrassment, possibly even a hint of shame, in relation to the stance she took and the outcome that ensued. Sallie knew, as early as fifth grade, that "nice" girls should not prove adults wrong. Telling the tale three years later, she frequently employed a questioning tone that indicated uncertainty about her actions.

Sallie: At one point I did, um, stand up for myself. They were sending me down to a special class to work on my math. And I didn't need it. I needed reading help. And, um, I just stood there and wouldn't go. I insisted I am not going into the room. And then I was sent from there... and sat in the office.And so we had a parent-teacher conference of seven teachers, my parents, and the principal! ... Luckily, I got taken out of that class. They ended up giving a test for that grade ...and I ended up being on an eighth-grade math level but a third-grade reading level, so they decided they would help me in reading.

Researcher: Were you glad you stuck up for yourself?

Sallie: In a way, and then -- in a way, I didn't. Well, um, I guess I just, um, I guess it was just that I felt bad that I was kinda right, in a way,I sort of wished I was wrong, but in another way I wasn't. I was trying...,hoping to prove the teachers wrong. And when I did [giggle] I just felt bad....You're not supposed to prove teachers wrong.

Sallie's confusion over this incident exemplifies the key dilemma addressed in Brown and Gilligan : how can an adolescent girl speak out with honesty and remain true to herself, yet not sacrifice relationships? For all of the girls in our discussion group, this conflict between being oneself and being what others expect loomed large. Amy captured the dilemma succinctly when she pondered, "Can Anne still be Anne and be like Margot?" Sallie, who continues to wonder if she did the right thing in fifth grade, seemed to feel that a split personality could be a solution. "Anne could act like her sister,but she herself [would know] she really isn't her sister. I can act like my sister and still be me." Yet even in suggesting this duality, she vacillated as she went on to say, "[But] after a while I would speak up. I wouldn't keep as quiet as [Anne's] sister. That's a bit quiet." As the girls teetered back and forth between what they knew to be right and what society urged them to forget, they appeared to be capitulating to societal stereotypes in ways similar to those mentioned by the girls interviewed by Brown and Gilligan .

Anne's growing need to be accepted by family and friends, to conform to expectations, and the resulting pressure to stifle her own ideas rang true to the girls in our group and emerged as a real issue for them. They discussed the journal entry where Anne Frank wrote ,

I might tell you I don't want to be in the least like Margot. She is much too soft and passive for my liking and allows everyone to talk her around, and gives in about everything. I want to be a stronger character! But I keep such thoughts to myself: they would only laugh at me, if I came along with this as an explanation of my attitude. (p. 59) .

The girls identified with Anne's silent resistance to the role of the model child and her resentment of the praise heaped upon her older sister for playing the part so well.

Mary: Anne has a lot of pressure. She's always trying harder. Everyone wants her to be like her older sister. She's different. Margot is a model child. She's under a lot of pressure to be like her, not to be herself."

Reseacher: Model child?

Kara: One that doesn't argue, one who is smart, but doesn't voice her opinion.

The girls described the "perfect girl" in terms similar to those expressed by girls interviewed in previous studies ( Brown & Gilligan, 1992 ; Orenstein,1994 ). They had already internalized the culture's lessons and identified the model female child as one who either lacks intelligence or hides it.

Early in Anne Frank's diary, she demonstrates a remarkably strong and assertive stance. Her sense of self is palpable when she writes,

I'm expected (by order) simply to swallow all the harsh words and shouts in silence and I am not used to this. In fact, I can't! I'm not going to take all these insults lying down.... Am I really so bad-mannered, conceited, headstrong,pushing, stupid, lazy, etc., etc., as they all say? Oh, of course not. I have my faults, just like everyone else, I know that, but they thoroughly exaggerate everything. (p. 29);


It is hard to speak the truth, and yet it is truth: she [Anne's mother] herself has pushed me away, her tactless remarks and crude jokes.... They expect me to apologize; but this is something I can't apologize for because I spoke the truth and Mummy will have to know it sooner or later anyway. (pp. 69-70).

Yet,as months in the Secret Annexe pass, Anne begins to worry that she is losing the fight to be herself, to speak out and speak truth.

This "self-consciousness" haunts me, and every time I open my mouth I know as soon as I've spoken whether "that ought to have been different"or "that was right as it was." (p. 234).

Through her diary Anne Frank discloses the struggle faced by the girls in our group,that of "defining themselves within a web of relationships" ( Shea, p. 36 ).These girls are faced with choices between maintaining themselves and speaking the truth as they see it and the growing realization that such honesty jeopardizes the relationships that they also prize. Like Anne, they are in danger of having their real selves shrivel up and disappear. Like Anne,although without exception they expressed strong preferences for being defined by their intelligence, wit, and character, they have started to frame their answers in deference to their desire to maintain relationships. Like Anne when she says, "I never utter my real feelings about anything... and [I] keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and what I could be if... there weren't any other people living in the world" (pp. 240-241),they fight to preserve their intelligence and strength, though they are often"betrayed by a culture that doesn't really want either" ( Debold, et al .,p. xiv ).

The challenge: Including Girls' Voices

The girls in our discussion chafed at the unfairness of Anne Frank's treatment and concurred with Kyle, "They should leave her alone. I think she was fine the way she was." Jenny was convinced that if the people in Anne's life would try to "understand her, let her talk, then they'd like her." We could all benefit from Jenny's wisdom. If we care about girls and truly want to understand them, we must provide opportunities for them to talk about the issues of growing up female that are so real and relevant.

Yet, confining discussion of these issues to girls alone is not the only possibility. While our literature group was exclusively female (a factor that probably contributed to the honesty and frankness of the discussion), Shea tackled the same issues in her co-ed high-school English classes. She observes,"Sometimes the differences between male and female interpretations revealed strikingly different assumptions," concluding that the dialogue was richer for having both male and female points of view ( Shea, 1992, p. 40 ).

Truly, educators have an important role in encouraging girls to confront the dilemma of maintaining voice in relationships and helping them to question societal expectations to be pretty, passive, and compliant. Thoughtful discussion may provide the basis for a collaborative effort to redefine the model female adolescent. Through such discussion, male students may also come to better understand the reality of growing up female in this culture. Vibrant literature depicting strong female adolescents is one avenue through which such discussions can begin, and the healthy development of all our adolescents, male and female, can be fostered.

Additional novels

Three books that also include issues of adolescent girls' development and the struggle to maintain voice are listed below.

Avi. (1990). The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle . New York: Orchard books. 210 pages.

This adventure finds thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle crossing the Atlantic on a ship with a treacherous captain and a mutinous crew. As Charlotte is drawn into the conflict, she first becomes a pawn, and then uses her wits to save herself from a murder charge. Charlotte begins the voyage as a submissive and obedient young girl, bound by all of the prejudices regarding gender, class, and race that were typical of her time. Her intelligence and courage help her to become more independent, and ultimately she finds the strong voice that saves her life, though it costs her the good opinion of her parents as she breaks society's stereotypes of acceptable female behavior. Recommended for grades 5-7.

O'Neal,Zibby. (1990). The Language of Goldfish . New York: Puffin Books. 179pages.

Carrie's adolescence is a difficult one. Her way of resisting the demands of being a woman is to avoid growing up. Her withdrawal into a world of daydreams results in her attempted suicide and a stay in a mental institution. Carrie's struggle takes place despite a life that looks comfortable and secure. As Carrie confronts the reality of women's lives and struggles to define herself, she must cope with distant, if loving, parents and a world that still enforces double standards for men and women. In Carrie, O'Neal has created the "girl next door" and a character that girls will understand and with whom they will identify. Recommended for grades 7-9.

Mori, Kyoko. (1993). Shizuko's Daughter . New York: Fawcett Juniper. 214pages.

Yuki, a young Japanese girl, struggles with the cultural expectations of modern Japanas she grows up with her father and stepmother after her mother's suicide.Yuki, strong, creative and intelligent, uses a passive and silent resistance as she struggles to find herself in a cold and hostile environment. Her support comes from her memories of her mother, her mother's family, school, friends,and eventually in the young man about whom she begins to care. This novel adds a multi-cultural dimension to the crisis of adolescent girls' development.Viewing another culture's mores and customs lends a powerful perspective to examination of our own cultural demands. Recommended for grades 10-12.


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(This research was sponsored by Nuala McGann Drescher Grants supported by the New York State United University Professions Affirmative Action Committee.)

Linda Irwin-DeVitis and Beth Benjamin carried out this study at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York.