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I Am Girl, Hear Me Roar!

By Sara Terry GabrelsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1998



BOSTON

When Mary Pipher was writing "Reviving Ophelia," her book about adolescent girls and their heartbreaking struggles to maintain their self-esteem, she hardly felt upbeat about the world young girls were facing.

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"My point of view was from the trenches," says Ms. Pipher, a Nebraska-based clinical psychologist, who has treated girls for more than 20 years. "So naturally, it was very pessimistic."

Today, some four years after the book's publication (nearly three of those years spent on The New York Times bestseller list), Pipher's view is more optimistic. "There's been a new enthusiasm developing for helping girls," she says."I meet with group after group of smart movers and shakers who care about girls."

Pipher and other researchers like her warn that American girls still face many challenges, including insecurities about self-image - aggravated by the media's glorification of thin and perfect as the norm for feminine beauty. And they say girls still must face a world that includes many gender inequities - including wages. But they also agree that girls have begun to come into their own in American culture as a distinct group - with special needs that deserve attention and unique voices that deserve to be heard.

"Being a girl is more celebrated than it has ever been before," says Pamela Ezell, a professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who studies women's issues and the media.

The carving out of a niche for girls - and the defining of an agenda for them - is a relatively recent trend, driven by a variety of factors, including feminist-inspired academic research on the social development of girls and the federal Title IX statute, which requires school sports programs to include teams for girls.

The culture of 'go girl'

At the same time that shifts in academia have been taking place, a kind of cultural boom has been pushing girls and their strengths to the forefront. Hollywood has weighed in with a long list of movies, including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Clueless." The "riot grrl" trend in rock music - featuring young, strong, angry women - lent a new cachet and a new spelling to the word "girl," suggesting strength and independence. In fact, American women have increasingly shown a tendency to reclaim a word once shunned by feminists, with phrases such as "You go, girl" virtually obliterating the memory of politically correct birth announcements that once proclaimed, "It's a baby woman."

"For so long, the subculture of girls was confined to the bedroom. Girls were very private, they had a best friend who they shared their secrets with," says Donna Gaines, a sociology professor at Barnard College in New York. "They were only studied in relation to the male culture."

As recently as 1980, in fact, little research was available on the development of girls. According to an anecdote that Carol Gilligan, a pioneer in the field, has shared with her students at Harvard University, when the editor of the Handbook of Adolescent Psychology asked an expert to submit a chapter on adolescent girls, the expert drew a blank: There wasn't enough research to fill a chapter.

Although research by Ms. Gilligan and her colleagues soon began to fill the void, it wasn't until a decade later, with the huge and unexpected success of "Reviving Ophelia" (rejected by 13 publishers), that girls began to move into the national spotlight.

"People started to take girls seriously," says Lyn Mikel Brown, author of the upcoming book, "Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls' Anger." Publishers "all want the next 'Reviving Ophelia.' People are realizing that books on girls and the issues around girls are really selling," she says.

(Publishers have also discovered there's a market for books on boys as well; over the next several months, a slew of books on boys are due out. This newly emerging field is welcomed by many female researchers as long overdue - although they caution that girls' needs are only beginning to be explored and warn against a possible backlash against such work.)