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Women Learn to Hear The Varied Voices of Girls

Helpful listeners can make the difference for teens

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 1996


If adults took the time to really listen to adolescent girls who are labeled "at risk" - for dropping out of school, early pregnancy, and other potential obstacles to healthy development - what would they learn?

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A great deal, according to Carol Gilligan, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. In interviewing 26 poor and working-class girls in an urban public school setting and tracing their development through 8th, 9th, and 10th grade, Dr. Gilligan and two fellow researchers got a bird's eye view of the complex landscape these girls must navigate as they grow up. And they gleaned important new insights into how women especially can help girls voice their needs and aspirations.

The girls spoke about everything from racial differences to relationships at school and at home:

*Sandy, an Irish American, on being teased: "... it really hurts my feelings ... after a while I just ... don't talk ... 'cause when I'm upset, I don't talk to nobody."

*Lilian, a Latina, when asked to describe an "ideal mother": "She would treat us all equally, all fair, you know, not just like, treat my brothers different ...."

*Ana, a Latina: "My aunt ... she's the type that - she's crazy.... I start talking and she'll start asking me about boys and stuff like that ... and she's like, 'Yeah, in my time this and this happened,' so I feel like it's almost the same. So you know, she listens."

At an interview in Gilligan's Cambridge, Mass., home, she and her co-authors - Jill McLean Taylor, an assistant professor in the Department of Education and Human Services at Simmons College in Boston, and Amy Sullivan, a researcher and doctoral candidate at Harvard University - discussed the work that resulted in their new book, "Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship."

By calling her aunt "crazy," Ana hints at what the researchers found: For these girls, at least, helpful listeners are a rarity. In earlier research, Gilligan had found that girls in general tend to be resilient and open about difficult emotions when young, but as they get older they "begin to not feel their feelings ... to not feel it is all right to say what they mean." These girls welcomed the interviews because they offered the girls a space in which they could "take their own voices seriously," Gilligan says.

Looking for mentors

The thirst that girls had for being heard encouraged Gilligan to expand efforts to bring together teachers, social workers, and female mentors to focus on responding to girls and helping them envision ways to go beyond what the "at-risk" label predicts for them.

Gilligan has long been a dominant voice in the field of girls' development, gaining national attention for her challenges to traditional psychology models. She argues that psychologists, in tending to generalize out from the male experience, have long missed a relational aspect of development that emerges in research focusing on women.

"For the girl to listen to her own experience, there has to be some resonance with that experience," Gilligan comments. "And it's women who are in the best place to provide it."

One of psychology's shortcomings, Gilligan says, is that it typically has been framed by "a language of separation: 'This is adolescence and your daughter needs to separate from you.'"

She responds: "This is adolescence and your daughter really needs you, because you can speak from experience."

As the messages around adolescent girls begin to call into question their sense of reality, Gilligan says, "the voice of a woman is very powerful.... When we look at the girls in the study who went on to college and who didn't fulfill the at-risk prediction, in every instance there was a relationship with a woman."

And the job doesn't fall to mothers alone. "If girls are not able to talk about certain feelings [around issues such as sexuality] with their mothers," Ms. Taylor says, "there need to be other women available."

Indeed, 85 percent of the girls described an important relationship or experience with women. For one, it was as simple as a job interviewer taking her seriously. For several, it was a relative who could listen and share experiences without giving orders.

When they find themselves without relationships they feel they can trust, girls may move into isolation. This is a warning sign, a point at which intervention can be crucial, Gilligan says. Of the 26 girls they studied, the six who dropped out of school (four of whom also had babies) all started a move into isolation a year or two earlier.