The War Against Girls and Young Women
The War Against Girls and Young Women

Nari Rhee looks at oppressive systems in the home, in
schools, and in society at large.

     During a speech sponsored by the Institute for American
Values in December 1993, deputy director of domestic policy
William Galston decried the "relaxation of social, moral,
and cultural stigmas against out-of-wedlock births." This
February, the Clinton administration declared an "all-out
culture-based war" against unwed teen pregnancy.
     But there is already an "all-out culture-based war"--
not only against teen pregnancy, but against girls and young
women. Studies by researchers, including psychologist Carol
Gilligan's groundbreaking work on girls and self esteem,
reveal that girls' lives are fraught with contradictions. On
the one hand, media fantasies depict the modern woman who
enjoys a lucrative professional career and ample
opportunity. On the other hand, stark realities prepare
girls for a life of disadvantage.
     The high school drop out rate for teen women in urban
centers is often as high as 60 percent. But problems persist
even when girls stay in school. They are harassed on a daily
basis while most teachers and administrators simply stand by
in complicity. The widely-cited report, Shortchanging Girls,
Shortchanging America, by the American Association of
University Women, paints a bleak picture of how schools play
a key role in perpetuating women's disadvantage in the work
world. Girls consistently receive less attention and
encouragement than do boys from teachers and are discouraged
from pursuing math and science. Very few girls are enrolled
in training programs for high-skill, technical jobs
Instead, they are steered into marginal career paths that
guarantee a lifetime of poverty wages.
     According to a recent survey by Girls, Inc. of San
Leandro, a major problem for girls from low income
backgrounds is stress from family crises such as alcoholism
and unemployment. Girls are also at higher risk for sexual
abuse, which is correlated with substance abuse,
prostitution and other problems later in life.
     In society at large, media bombard girls with images
that tell them that they will be unworthy and unlovable
unless they consume a battery of products ranging from
cosmetics to diet shakes to designer jeans. Beauty and
promises of some handsome prince are held for ransom in the
form of the consumer dollar. They are told to "just say no"
to sex, and then pressured to be sexy. On the public agenda,
girls and young women are invisible except when attention
zeros in on teenage mothers as the great scourge of society
and a drain on public coffers.
     Contrary to conventional wisdom, over half of girls who
drop out of school do so for reasons other than pregnancy.
Poverty and poverty-related family problems, not teenage
pregnancy per se, are the primary reasons why girls drop out
of school. Teen pregnancy itself is a problem because young
women are systematically channeled into jobs that guarantee
poverty, or no jobs at all, and because of the stigma
attached to teen pregnancy -- not because it's a reflection
of "moral deficiency." The rhetoric of morality only serves
to dehumanize economically disadvantaged young women.

ARE EDUCATION AND JOB TRAINING CURE-ALLS?

     The need for girls and young to receive better
education and training for high-wage jobs is well-
recognized. Among programs that answer this need are
programs that help girls to excel in math and science,
preparing them for the much-touted "high wage, high skill"
job market. Other steps include training teachers to avoid
both overt and subtle sexism in their instruction. These are
necessary steps.
     But these programs also reflect the usual limits of
working through existing institutions and do not raise
broader systemic issues. The push to include girls in math,
science, and technical job training programs has largely
been driven by predictions that by the year 2000, two out of
three new entrants into the labor force will be women. This
figure has been used to argue to both business and
government that it is good for the economy (read: good for
businesses) to have girls trained for skilled jobs. The
ultimate purpose of corporate and government initiatives to
train girls is to make more efficient use of them as
resources and to beef up the labor pool. Students will not
be encouraged to question the economic structures that
decide which jobs are created -- the very jobs for which
they are being trained. The system will continue to generate
low-wage jobs with no security that are reserved for women
and people of color. While education and training will give
some young women access to greater income , they will hardly
liberate girls and young women as a class.
     Other questions remain to be asked as schools attempt
to prepare young women (and men) for the workforce: Will
they be taught about workers' rights, health and safety, and
the need for work to change to accommodate family life? Will
young women be alerted to the widespread reality of sexual
harassment and be taught how to file a complaint against an
offending employer?

WHAT IS REALLY NEEDED

     Girls and young women need more institutional support
to deal with their immediate problems; access to information
to be able to contextualize their lives; and training and
skills development to begin mobilizing themselves around the
issues that affect them. The following are some good
examples of how each of these needs might be met.
     Few programs address girls' lives as comprehensively as
Girls, Inc. of San Leandro (GISL). Through a wide spectrum
of services and education, the organization helps girls
understand their lives in the context of poverty, racism,
and sexism and gives them the tools to build a future for
themselves and their communities. The program staff work at
18 schools counseling girls about sexuality, and helping
them in stay in school, plan careers, and excel at math and
science. The organization takes a holistic approach to
addressing issues that affect girls -- for example, teenage
sexuality and pregnancy. Staff begin with nine-year-olds,
talking about their bodies and about how to communicate with
their families. Girls in middle school learn skills for
avoiding early sexual involvement. In "Taking Care of
Business," high school girls don't just talk about
contraceptives. "They think about careers, life plans, and
other things in life besides having a boyfriend," says Pat
Loomes. If they do have children, the School Age Mothers
program provides child care, parenting classes, and a high
school diploma.
     While GISL, as a mainstream service organization, is
constrained from taking "radical" tactics, it does enable
girls to formulate their own agenda and act to change the
forces that affect their lives. Last year, a group of GISL
participants organized the Teen Leadership Summit. At this
day long event, over 50 teenage women explored issues around
women's reproductive health, sexism, women at work, and
violence against women. At the day's end, they lobbied the
attending local politicians for mandatory ethnic studies,
date-rape counseling, and contraceptives at school campuses.
     Most girls don't have the information or the context to
begin recognizing and naming their oppression. One of the
few sources of accessible information about girls'
experience is Teen Voices magazine, published out of Boston
by Women Express and written by women in their teens and
early twenties. The magazine covers issues such as violence
against women, substance abuse, racism, reproductive rights,
women's health, lesbianism/bisexuality, workforce issues,
and more.
     There are few organizing efforts in junior high and
high schools that address girls' and young women's' issues.
There is a clear need for organizations that specifically
target girls and young women for political education,
leadership development, and s kills training. One such
organization is Students Organizing Students (SOS), a
national organization based in New York. SOS runs Students
Keeping Issues Linked Leadership Semester (SKILLS), a
leadership development program for high school women.
Workshops draw the connections between social issues such as
racism, sexism, and homophobia. Students also learn
organizing and fundraising skills. They then apply their new
knowledge through projects like videos and pamphlets on teen
violence and pregnancy.
     Finally, women's organizations must devote more
attention and resources to ally with girls. There are
several ways in which this can happen. Women's organizations
can:
     1. Foster the leadership of teen women within their own
organizations;
     2. Offer resources, such as in-kind contributions and
technical assistance, to young women's efforts to organize;
     3. Encourage members to make it a practice to bring
their daughters, including younger girls, to meetings and
other activities; and
     4. Recognize the integral link between girls' realities
and women's realities -- a link which is often ignored.
     Overall, there needs to be greater awareness of the
issues raised above, both among girls and among the public
at large. Significant resources should be devoted to helping
girls develop resilience and resistance. We must turn the
tables and address the real problem: the systems that
oppress girls, at home, in schools, and in society at large.