Scholars who abide by the conventional protocols of social science research describe adolescent girls in far more optimistic terms. Dr. Anne Petersen, a former professor of adolescent development and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and now senior vice president for programs at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, reports the consensus of researchers working in adolescent psychology: "It is now known that the majority of adolescents of both genders successfully negotiate this developmental period without any major psychological or emotional disorder, develop a positive sense of personal identity, and manage to forge adaptive peer relationships at the same time they maintain close relationships with their families." Daniel Offer, professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University, concurs with Petersen. He refers to a "new generation of studies" that find a majority of adolescents (80 percent) normal and well adjusted.
At the same time Gilligan was declaring a girl crisis, a University of Michigan/U.S Department of Health and Human Services study asked a scientifically selected sample of three thousand high school seniors the question "Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say you're very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy these days?" Nearly 86 percent of girls and 88 percent of boys responded that they were "pretty happy" or "very happy." If the girls who were polled were "caught in an accelerated downward spiral," they were unaware of it.
Clinical psychologist Mary Pipher calls American society a "girl-poisoning" and "girl-destroying culture." What is her evidence? In Reviving Ophelia, she informs readers that her clinic is filled with girls "who have tried to kill themselves." And she cites statistics suggesting that the condition of America's girls is worsening: "The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reports that the suicide rate among children age ten to fourteen rose 75 percent between 1979 and 1988. Something dramatic is happening to adolescent girls in America."
But Pipher's numbers are misleading. Insofar as anything "dramatic" is happening to America's children with respect to suicide, it is happening to boys. A look at the sex breakdown of the CDC's suicide statistics reveals that for males aged ten to fourteen, the suicide rate increased 71 percent between 1979 and 1988; for girls the increase was 27 percent. Furthermore, the actual number of children aged ten to fourteen who kill themselves is small. A grand total of 48 girls in that age group committed suicide in 1979, and 61 in 1988. Among boys, the number rose from 103 to 176. All of these deaths are tragic, but in a population of 9 million ten- to fourteen-year-old girls, an increase in female child suicide by 13 is hardly evidence of a girl-destroying culture.
Contrary to the story told by Gilligan and her followers, by the early 1990s American girls were flourishing in unprecedented ways. To be sure, some -- among them those who found themselves in the offices of clinical psychologists -- felt they were drowning in the sea of Western culture. But the vast majority of girls were occupied in more constructive ways, moving ahead of boys academically in the primary and secondary grades, applying to colleges in record numbers, filling the more challenging academic classes, joining sports teams, and generally enjoying more freedoms and opportunities than any young women in human history.
An American Tragedy
Gilligan's ideas had special resonance in women's groups already committed to the proposition that our society is unsympathetic to women. Such organizations were naturally receptive to bad news about girls. The interest of the venerable and politically influential American Association of University Women (AAUW), in particular, was piqued. Officers at the AAUW were reported to be "intrigued and alarmed" by Gilligan's findings. "Wanting to know more," they commissioned a polling firm to study whether American schoolgirls were being drained of their self-confidence.
Copyright © 2000 by Christina Hoff Sommers
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