Civil Liberties

Children and the Gender Wars


When Jane Fonda recently announced that she was donating $12.5 million to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a new gender studies center, the retired Hollywood star and estranged wife of cable TV mogul Ted Turner stepped right in the middle of a new war.

While feminist academics have hailed her initiative as a major service to the cause of gender equity, conservatives have assailed it as part of an effort to promote "gender propaganda." It's clear that the proposed interdisciplinary Center on Gender and Education will pursue not only academic research but also a social agenda.

Fonda has said that she wants to help liberate children from "cultural gender norms" that "impede their healthy growth." Her guru on gender issues is feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, a professor at the Harvard School of Education (who is moving to New York University but will serve as a consultant to the center). Gilligan argues that our patriarchal culture robs girls of their "voice," rendering them passive and docile, and damages boys by forcing them to hide tender feelings under a macho mask—themes echoed in Fonda's remarks.

However, many researchers and theorists question Gilligan's claims and her research. Some critics such as Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of the recent book "The War Against Boys," assert that traditional masculine and feminine norms are far less harmful to children than are misguided attempts to dismantle these norms.

Maybe the real danger is that, in these ideological gender wars, the needs of children of both sexes will take a back seat to scoring points in the debate.

Endangered girls?

One problem Fonda wants the gender studies center to tackle is girls' loss of self-confidence in adolescence. Girls who are "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" at the age of 9, she told an enthusiastic Harvard audience last year, are shy and unsure of themselves at 13. Such concerns are hardly new. In 1991, the American Association of University Women released a study showing a dramatic drop in teenage girls' self-esteem. (Gilligan, whose claims that girls were being stifled in a "male-voiced" culture inspired the study, had some input in designing the survey questions.)

The resulting media blitz sparked a national response, including the hugely popular "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" pioneered by the Ms. Foundation in 1993. Eager parents snapped up copies of therapist Mary Pipher's 1994 book, "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls."

Sommers, however, offered a scathing critique of the self-esteem study in her 1994 book, "Who Stole Feminism?" Among other things, she pointed out that the AAUW's publicity focused solely on the percentages of girls and boys who answered "always true" on such survey items as "I am happy the way I am"; if those who checked "sort of true" and "sometimes true/sometimes false" are included, the gender differences turn out to be negligible.

Sommers also noted that the alarmism about a "girl crisis" ignored the fact that boys were more likely to suffer from serious behavioral disorders, to drop out of school and even to commit suicide.

No sex differences

Although the AAUW continues to defend its study, most research, going as far back as the early 1980s, fails to support the notion that girls are afflicted by plummeting self-esteem. Many studies of children and adolescents find no sex differences in self-worth and self-confidence; when girls do worse on these measures, it is typically by a tiny margin that does not widen with age.

In several studies led by University of Denver psychologist Susan Harter in the late 1990s, teenage girls were found to be at least as outspoken as their male peers with parents, teachers and classmates. Nor is there factual support for much-ballyhooed claims that girls are silenced in the classroom.

Research reported in the 1985 book "Gender Influences in Classroom Interaction" showed that girls asked and answered questions in class no less actively than boys (when boys received extra attention from teachers, it was usually in the form of scolding). In the AAUW's own study, girls at every age level were as likely as boys to say that they liked to speak in class and that teachers listened to them.

Girls do appear to be more vulnerable to emotional distress, perhaps because they tend to focus more on their feelings. In a 1997 Commonwealth Fund survey, 19 percent of adolescent girls but 12 percent of boys reported feeling stressed, overwhelmed or depressed on five or more days in the past week. However, in the same survey, the vast majority of girls—like boys—had a generally positive attitude toward themselves and toward life.

Finally, the belief that American girls are squelched by an oppressive culture is contradicted by their achievements. Since the mid-1980s, women's college enrollment has outpaced men's; women now get 55 percent of all bachelor's degrees, and are becoming the majority in medical and law schools. More women are succeeding in such nontraditional fields as science; in recent years, girls have outnumbered boys in advanced high school courses in algebra, chemistry and biology. Recently, for the third year in a row, the top prize in the Intel Science Talent Search went to a girl.

Yet perceptions of girls as victims may have contributed to a climate in which girls are allowed to assert themselves by putting down boys. Some teenage girls have taken to wearing "boy-bashing" T-shirts (one has "Boys Will Be Boys" stenciled over a donkey's behind). At the 1999 Women's World Cup soccer games, some girls in the stands waved posters proclaiming, "Girls rule, boys drool."

Boys: The new victims?

When feminists sounded the alarm on girls' plight, critics such as Sommers pointed out that boys' problems were being overlooked (for instance, the AAUW's 1992 report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," barely mentioned boys' deficits such as lagging literacy skills). But lately, the gender reformers have discovered boys—to the even greater dismay of the critics. Gilligan, who helped launch the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boys' Development and the Culture of Manhood in 1995, theorizes that young boys are severely traumatized by being forced to break away from their mothers and "internalize" aggressive patriarchal values. In the same vein, William Pollack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the 1999 best-seller, "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood," asserts that boys must be freed from a "gender straitjacket" that forbids them to show weakness or express their nurturing side.

In "The War Against Boys," Sommers argues that this seemingly compassionate advice is really an insidious attempt to "rescue" boys from their maleness. In her view, aggressiveness, competitiveness and stoicism are natural masculine qualities that should be channeled in a positive direction, not overcome. "Being a boy," she says, "is not a disorder."

Pollack retorts that his critics "want our vision of boyhood and manhood to be a vision of 50 years ago."

Some claims "frightening"

However, it's not just conservatives who challenge the assertion that patriarchal norms are causing a "silent crisis" among American boys. "All these claims that boys are repressed, cut off from relationships, that they're emotional mummies—it's a dangerous exaggeration," says College of New Jersey psychologist Mark Kiselica, past president of the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity. "It's not supported by empirical data."

For instance, boys are as likely as girls to have secure attachment to parents —contradicting claims that they are damaged by premature separation from their mothers—and are no more likely to suffer from alexithymia, a mental illness that involves inability to access and identify one's emotions.

What Kiselica finds "frightening" is that some of the literature about the alleged plight of boys describes the state of the average boy in terms similar to the clinical definition of this psychiatric disorder. Kiselica also believes that Pollack greatly overstates the degree to which today's parents force boys to be tough and manly.

However, although he agrees with Sommers that most boys (and girls) are reasonably well-adjusted, he is wary of her "gross generalizations" about the nature of boys and sees no harm in encouraging boys to pursue interests or cultivate qualities traditionally viewed as feminine. Judith Kleinfeld, a psychologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who has criticized feminist claims about "shortchanged" girls, also believes there has been hyperbole on both sides in the "boy wars."

Virtually everyone agrees on one thing: generally, boys today are not faring as well as girls in the educational system. Although Kleinfeld cautions against claims that "boys have become the second sex," she believes it's important to investigate these problems and possible solutions.

Studying gender today

A gender studies project combining elements of various disciplines, from neuroscience to sociology, could shed light on many important issues. But the value of such research depends on how it's approached. Unfortunately, judging by its ideological pedigree, the proposed Gender Studies Center at Harvard is likely to be mired in a simplistic, outdated view of boys and girls as victims and of American society as a rigidly oppressive patriarchy. The conservative alternative—upholding traditional ideals of manhood and womanhood—is equally unsatisfying.

Clearly, male and female roles are evolving, and although some of the enduring differences between boys and girls may well be because of biology, there is also great variation within each gender. "We should be sending a dual message," says Kleinfeld. "One, boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are; two, boys and girls are also individuals."

In America, boys and girls now have unprecedented freedom to be individuals. If Fonda and her fans at Harvard were to recognize this, they could use their resources to help address problems that remain.