BLAMING FEMINISTS FOR BOYS' PROBLEMSBy Clarence Page
May 21, 2000
WASHINGTON -- Once I thought you could raise boys and girls in a pretty-much gender-free environment. Then I became a parent. It didn't take long for my son, helped along by the other kids in our neighborhood, to wise me up.
From ages 3 and 4, the boys and girls quickly self-segregate themselves into diametrically opposed behavioral standards--the girls to dolls, makeup and talk about relationships, the boys to roughhousing, competitive games and lots of head-shattering noise.
I generalize, of course, but not by much.
I am particularly interested in gender differences as my son blooms into an 11-year-old and enters one of life's most critical periods, pre-adolescence and the dreaded teenage years.
In recent years it has become chic to think of girls as losing out to boys at this stage of life. Since at least 1982, when Carol Gilligan, Harvard's first professor of gender studies, published her book "In a Different Voice," the notion has grown that America's adolescent girls are in crisis. Vulnerable and demoralized, teenage girls were in danger of "drowning or disappearing" in a "sea of western culture," she wrote
Similar books followed, including Myra and David Sadker's "Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls," Peggy Orenstein's "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap," and the best-selling "Reviving Ophelia," by Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist, all of which came out in 1994.
"Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle," Pipher wrote, "so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn."
Yet, by most social and academic measures, the girls I see in my son's school seem to be miles ahead of the boys. When, I have wondered, does the crashing and burning begin?
One answer to that question shouts to me from the June cover of The Atlantic Monthly. "Girls Rule!" it exclaims. "Mythmakers to the contrary, it's boys who are in deep trouble."
The cover story by Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the mother of two sons, is drawn from her upcoming book, "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men," to be published in June.
Yes, as author of the controversial 1994 book "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women," Sommers, a former philosophy professor and a mother of two boys, is an old hand at critiquing the women's movement. Academically, this subject offers her a target-rich environment.
Contrary to the popular notion of girls crashing and burning in the sea of western culture, Sommers points out, a review of easily available facts "shows boys, not girls, on the weak side of an education gender gap."
In fact, the typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing, he is less committed to school and less likely to go to college. Full-time college enrollments have been running 45 percent male and 55 percent female in recent years and the Department of Education expects the female portion to continue to grow.
Girls read more books, do more homework and get better grades. They also, sadly, are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to succeed.
Boys do better on standardized tests for the college-bound, but that's largely because girls from lower-income homes or whose parents never attended college are more likely to take the test than similarly situated boys, which depresses the overall averages for girls. Perhaps, she asks reasonably, we should be asking how to encourage more boys to take the tests and pursue higher education.
Sommers details gaping flaws in the research commonly cited to support claims of male privilege. None of it has been published in peer-reviewed professional journals.
Much of what Sommers writes will bring smiles to the lips of social conservatives, but we cannot blame all of the problems of today's boys on "misguided feminists." Silly as some of them may be on occasion, they are no sillier than those who believe we can solve all of our youth problems by hanging the Ten Commandments in the corridors.
Sommers makes a good point when she argues, for example, for more character education and responsible male leadership in the lives of our boys. Like chicken soup for a cold, it couldn't hurt.
But, girls need encouragement, too. I wonder if girls have been doing so well in school, what happens to them after they graduate? Why aren't more of them running corporations? What kind of message does the absence of women in power positions send? Maybe those feminists aren't so goofy after all?
Problems as multi-faceted as those facing our teens call for multifaceted responses. All kids need guidance and encouragement to be all that they can be. It's not a guy thing or a girl thing. It's part of growing up.
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