Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap

By Peggy Orenstein, in association with the American Association of University Women

Doubleday. 335 pp. $23.50

When you think of heroes, when you think of fearless leaders, when you think of grace under pressure, you tend to think of men -- until you read this excruciatingly painful book. The most heroic, fearless, graceful, tortured human beings in this land must be girls from the ages of 12 to 15. If Peggy Orenstein is right, women outlive men not because they're "sheltered" or "don't work as hard" or have some specified "genetic advantage." It's because when they were kids they were forced to undergo ritual societal hazing by their schools, their parents and especially flocks of ratty little boys that -- just as specifically as the ancient Chinese practice of binding feet -- was and is designed to cripple females in every possible way.

It's horrible; it's far worse than we allow ourselves to imagine or remember. It's agony for the girls, and the side effect of it is to encourage many of those ratty little boys to grow up to be murderers, rapists, cannon fodder, oafs, jerks, dimwits, clueless fools. For either men or women to survive this ritualized upbringing and retain any humanity at all is a tribute to the individual human spirit.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) conducted a study of how, during adolescence, the self-esteem of young girls plummets. The study had to do with how teachers ignore girls in classrooms, don't encourage them in math and science, don't acknowledge the girls who raise their hands and so on. The study was called -- how naively! -- "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," taking the very sweet position that if girls were encouraged in school, America might be a better place.

Soon after this, Peggy Orenstein, a young but distinguished journalist, was commissioned to do a follow-up book, taking one school year to study eighth-grade girls in two schools, one white, middle-class school and one urban, multiethnic, inner-city middle school. She hung out for a year, keeping tabs on about half a dozen girls in each particular hell. Since her work is tied to the AAUW study, the first and last chapters deal with classroom situations where feminine "equality" is taught, but all the material in between transcends the sweet little study and the idea that if America mistreats girls it might be "shortchanging" itself and so on and so forth. This book is to young girls what "Black Beauty" is to horses, what Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" was to the processing of meat. To read "School Girls" is to remember -- how reluctantly! -- what it meant to be a girl in junior high. It is enraging if you're a woman. But if you're a certain kind of guy, you might snicker in fond memory.

If you're a certain kind of guy, you might smile as you remember thrusting your legs out in the center of the room and shouting out wrong answers just to be shouting, and sneering at the girls who held their arms over their developing breasts and jamming up against them in the halls and grabbing every part of them that you could get hold of and generally driving girls to tears. Because "boys will be boys," won't they? And that rule in America is stronger than the Constitution.

In the middle class it plays out that boys grab "power" as much as they grab bodies, and they keep that power with bullying intimidation. The girls are systematically shamed, torn between fear of being made fun of, being wrong, being too smart or being a slut. These middle-class girls are paralyzed: They can't eat, they think of suicide, they get panic attacks. The teachers don't care and the parents can't see. The girls remain invisible, miserable. Does Orenstein exaggerate? Think, dear reader, of "junior high," "middle school." We know she's right, we just don't want to remember. Junior high is where we're first "socialized," where we learn our place in society. For girls, it's not a very great place.

In the inner-city school, society's plan offers an equal-opportunity hell. There is no power here. These African Americans, Latinos, Asians, "white trash" Caucasians are taught in no uncertain terms that they have no real right to be here. The teachers let Orenstein listen when they say to their students, "You people are all animals," or when they call little girls "bitches," or when they insolently present the same lesson plan two days in a row. (And that's when there's a journalist right there with them. Who knows what they do when there's no one around but luckless kids?) So the girls in the working-class school consider their very limited options. Do they quit school? Get pregnant? Join a gang? Paradoxically, the inner-city kids don't seem as sad: They've got strategies for fighting back, and they know from hard experience that America doesn't have plans for them.

The middle-class white girls just hunch their fragile shoulders over their young breasts and endure it. They live through truly scary sexual harassment, emotional humiliation, spiritual degradation. Math and science -- or whom the teacher calls on -- are peripheral to the problem. Encouraging brutality in boys is what "shortchanges" America, unless we plan on having a land war very soon. And the girls -- for all our edifying, deceitful rhetoric about equality -- just get to hunker down and remember that what doesn't kill them makes them strong.