American girls: 'We're doing just great, thanks'

New book shows they're accomplishing more than advertised

American girls are bursting with self-confidence. That's just one of many encouraging discoveries made by Jenny, Martha, and Laura McPhee while researching their new book "Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits" (Random House, 223 pp., $30).

These three sisters - two novelists and a photographer - had heard enough bad news about girls' dwindling self-esteem and lack of drive. Surely press reports couldn't be telling the full story, they thought. Eager to see for themselves, the McPhee sisters crisscrossed the United States to talk with all types of girls - artists, football players, ballerinas, poets, chess champions, wrestlers, and more. What they found not only dispelled myths; it shattered them.

Megan Levin started playing the harp for pay when she was eight and now plays with the Austin [Texas] Youth Orchestra. Investment-savvy Stephanie Formas of Dallas has been successfully buying stocks on the Internet since the fifth grade. President of her high school class, New Yorker Annie Onoue spends summers working as a camp counselor in Bosnia.

Megan, Stephanie, and Annie are just a few of the remarkably accomplished and confident young women profiled in "Girls." But they are no less remarkable than most, say the McPhees, who were determined to seek out ordinary girls, not celebrities. Only two names, actress Jena Malone and painter Alexandra Nechita, are of the household sort - almost. The others, they say, are typical of girls today who just happen to be accomplishing great things.

"It wasn't as if we had to go searching," says Jenny McPhee. "Girls like this are everywhere. For every one we found, we could have found 50,000 more like her. We're just not used to celebrating our girls in this country."

Laura concurs. "It's really a matter of where you shine the light," she says, "At the end of the project, I felt that girls today are incredibly strong, and that the next generation of women will be remarkable."

Serendipity led the McPhees to the girls they included. From Harlem, N.Y., to San Antonio, Texas, they asked people for suggestions, read newspapers, and kept their antennae up. Geographical diversity was important, as was an ability to speak articulately.

Although they are a diverse group, the girls featured in this collection of essays share a lot. For starters, says Laura McPhee, "They don't believe in limitations. They have never had to look far for women role models. And they have only a dim [idea] of what their mothers and grandmothers may have gone through."

Most surprising to Martha McPhee was that almost all of the girls shied away from the "feminist" label. "It's not a word in their lexicon," she explains. "But I realized that's a good thing, because feminism opened up opportunities for them to such an extent that they don't even think about it."

Many of the girls talked about the impact on their lives of Title IX - a clause in the 1972 Education Act stating that no one shall, because of sex, be denied the benefits of any educational program or activity that receives direct federal aid. "Before Title IX," says Laura McPhee, "1 in 27 girls participated in team sports. Now it's 1 in 3."

This is significant, explains Jenny McPhee, not only because girls learn teamwork from such participation, but also because team sports boost girls' self-confidence in all areas.

The McPhee sisters had a mother who taught by example that women can achieve greatness. After a divorce, she had to go to work, and she channeled her love of photography into a successful business.

"This was a powerful lesson," recalls Laura, who was 12 at the time. Following her mother's lead, Laura now shoots pictures for her own books and teaches photography at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art. "I learned from her not only that women can do anything, but also how to use the camera as an economic tool."

Both Martha and Laura have daughters of their own, and Jenny has two boys. When researching the book, Jenny says, "I was aware of how important men have been to many of these girls - as fathers, brothers, coaches, and friends."

The McPhee sisters haven't been the same since they began their book project. As parents, they see more clearly than ever the imperative to support their children's interests. And as career women, they are inspired to stay focused.

"I think all the time about these girls and what they accomplish," says Jenny. "Some of them have terrible troubles, but they don't let that stop them from putting all their energies into their interests."

Eager to team up again, the McPhee sisters have yet to agree on what their next project will be. "Jenny wants to do a book on boys," says Laura, sighing, "I feel totally unqualified."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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