What would your life be like if you were born the opposite sex? Peggy Orenstein frames her book SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (1994. New York: Doubleday. 335 pp., $12.95 ISBN 0-385-42576-7) with this question. Her book chronicles her courageous, painstaking gender journey, in which she exposes the problematic reality of the loss of self-esteem which occurs among adolescent girls. The American Association of University Women's report Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America (1991), the most extensive survey on gender and self-esteem ever conducted nationally, confirmed that between the ages of nine and fifteen girls suffer a tremendous decline in confidence in themselves and their competence, particularly in the areas of math and science. Orenstein credits this report, based on information gleaned directly from children, as the impetus which led her back to eighth grade to investigate the causes and realities of the "confidence gap" experienced by young women most drastically at the dawn of adolescence.
Orenstein centers her study at Weston Middle School and at Audubon Middle School in California's San Francisco Bay Area. Only forty minutes apart by car, socioeconomically, they consist of two different worlds. Weston Middle School is comprised of both working-class poor and young professionals. The bumper stickers on the cars delivering the children to school reflect the mix: "Toyota vans advertising the local NPR affiliate pull up behind rusty pickups that proclaim: 'My wife said if I buy another gun she'll divorce me; God, Ill miss her'" (4). Well supported by parents and the community, Weston has earned a "California Distinguished School" award based on student standardized test scores as well as exemplary staff performance. The teachers at Weston are progressive in their methods, seeking ways to engage students actively in learning as they teach from new, inclusive text books. Outwardly the school has the potential to provide an equitable environment, yet the hidden curriculum reaches young women here just as consistently as at Audubon Middle School, a very different place in many ways; yet somehow it delivers the same message regarding gender roles.
Audubon Middle School rests on the cusp of a residential neighborhood and the warehouse district of a Northern California city. The school has been neglected by the wealthy population in the area. Ninety percent of the students are African American, Latino, Asian, or Filipino. The same standardized test scores that led Weston students to statewide recognition rank Audubon among the lowest in the area. Two thirds of Audubon students live in poverty; many of them are first generation U.S. citizens with the responsibility of acting as translators for their parents at the store, the post office, and even school. Although Weston and Audubon differ tremendously in socioeconomic makeup, a common lesson is somehow being passed on to the girls from parents, from boys, from other girls, and from educators, both by what is being done and by what is not being done, and that lesson is that girls have less valuable roles and potential than their male counterparts.
For one year, Peggy Orenstein divided her time between Audubon Middle School and Weston Middle School. During this time, she attended classes, talked to faculty, met with families, and talked with administrators, but most importantly, she forged relationships with the pseudonymous Amy, Becca, Evie, Lindsay, Lisa, LaRhonda, April, Marta, and Dashelle. The book is so compelling because we hear the voices of these girls as they tell their very real stories openly on such issues as self-esteem, academics, suppressed sexuality and desire, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and parental expectations. Sadly, self-esteem for adolescent girls is still largely connected to their appearance and their wavering sense of confidence in their abilities. Instead of placing blame on any one particular institution or phenomenon, Orenstein exposes in great detail the many factors contributing to this phenomenon, for example, gender bias in the classroom, relationships with family and others, and cultural expectations.
The final section of the book includes a visit to Everett Middle School where teacher Judy Logan asks the question which started Orenstein on her gender journey: What would your life be like if you had been born the opposite sex? Ms. Logan, by beginning one of her language arts classes with this question, offers a perspective vastly different from what the students have previously experienced. She poses this question in order to explain to her students why they should learn about women. The students' responses to this question, posted on butcher paper in the front of the classroom, indicate that boys' perspectives on being women involve "have to's," while girls' observations on being male involve "get to's." For example, the girls feel that if they had been born male, they would "get to play a lot more sports," or they "could stay out late," while boys feel that if they were female, they would "have to spend lots of time in the bathroom on hair and stuff," or they would "have to help mom cook." This exercise explains why Ms. Logaes students should study women, and it also explains why we need to be aware of what young women are learning today and to find ways to dispel this gender disparity. There is no simple solution for the problems the girls in this book reveal to us, but Ms. Logan's class encourages us and reminds us that we must take these matters very seriously, for not to do so is to lose the selves of too many young women.
SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap is vital to anybody who knows, teaches, parents, or is a (young) woman. Orenstein's insights demonstrate how and why society disempowers adolescent girls. These problems that begin in adolescence extend throughout the remaining years of a woman's life. They affect not only her, but society; for her losses are also society's losses. Can any society prevail if more than half of its members lack the self-esteem and the self-confidence to be all that they can be?
© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Milanovich, Robin. (1996). "Review of Orenstein's SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap." WILLA, Volume V, pp. 22-23.