Women Learn to Hear The Varied Voices of Girls

Helpful listeners can make the difference for teens

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?

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.

The authors found that listening in an effective way is not as simple as it might seem. As a result, they expanded their collaboration to encompass an "interpretive community" - a group of women of different races whose perspectives would help them more accurately understand the layers of diversity, subtlety, and even silence emerging from the girls' stories.

The three researchers held six weekend-long "Women and Race retreats" over the course of two years. The 11 participants discussed the girls' interviews, confronted racial and other differences that have tended to divide women in American society, and examined the potential for more-constructive relationships among women and between women and girls.

Other retreats, conducted with teachers and social workers, had quick results. For example, one teacher changed her tack when boys in her class complained of boredom during a lesson on women's history. Instead of switching topics, she explained to the boys why it was important to continue. "She left herself open to kids who might go home and complain about her, saying she's a feminist," Gilligan says.

Sustaining the energy for change

But she concedes that sustaining the energy for change, especially in the face of resistance, can be difficult. "Three steps down the road and we started talking about real change - in every project. And the minute that happened - trouble started." One group of teachers, Gilligan says, "wanted to get beepers so they could beep each other to just feel that as they actually took action they would not be all alone."

Ms. Sullivan says that the girls expressed parallel fears: "We asked girls what got them into trouble [and many of them] said, 'My big mouth.' " For example, some of the girls silenced themselves rather than responding to hurtful rumors or insults at school. While this can be a reasonable strategy, the authors say, some carry it too far, to the point of isolating themselves.

Gilligan spoke enthusiastically of their work's implications within the context of a democracy. As long as women let themselves be divided by race or class, or are hesitant to take their own perspectives seriously, the fact that they are a majority will not translate into political power. Gilligan would like to see that potential power "used to work [toward] goals ... having to do with children and education ... and things that fall on women."

Stronger relationships

A yearning for honest and trustworthy relationships unifies the book's accounts of the girls and the Women and Race retreats. Oliva, a Hispanic girl, told her interviewer that she'd like to stand up for her mother, who lets other family members take advantage of her. Her mother complains, but also forbids Oliva to act, "so there's no real relationship there," Oliva concludes.

On one of the retreats, the goal of building "real relationships" was almost thwarted by an incident precipitated by a race issue. Many of the women were hurt and might have left if it hadn't been pouring rain. But the simple, fresh perspective of an eight-year-old girl broke the impasse.

Someone read from a small book on friendship written by Lily, who had recently come to the US from Afghanistan: "Fights. When you and a friend get in a fight, don't worry, because it is normal. Everyone gets in fights, right?... In a real relationship there is usually no end of friendship." The project, the authors stressed, was as much about girls helping women as it was about women helping girls.

While the girls in the study bear the burdens of being marginalized by gender, class, and in some cases race, it's important not to fall into "girls as victims" language in policy planning, Sullivan emphasizes. Despite the grim scenarios, many exhibit great strengths and have dreams for a future in which they have fulfilling work and relationships.

But at the same time, the authors say, these girls need more than just better relationships with individual women: "Healthy development for a diverse group of girls really means changing the system," Sullivan says. When it comes to distribution of resources in society, the authors believe that girls are still being tacitly sacrificed. But that can change as girls' voices are brought into the planning stages of efforts to help them.

For example, look behind the phrase "teenage pregnancy," Gilligan suggests. "Over half the girls who become mothers as teenagers, the fathers are not teenagers, which means 'teenage pregnancy' is a euphemism for statutory rape. They found this out by talking to girls and women.... [W]hen girls and women speak, it's going to change the way everybody talks."

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