Well-behaved women seldom make history. – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
My 7th grade Humanities class has been investigating the theme question, “How does government affect girls’ lives?” We are using Deborah Ellis’s novel The Breadwinner as a starting point. The book is about a young girl in the Afghanistan of the 1990’s who has to dress as a boy to earn a living and buy food for her family when her father is arrested by the Taliban. Their first questions arising out of our discussions had to do with choosing and/or being forced to wear a burqa, and to what extent wearing either a burqa or niqab would have a deep effect on how girls and women felt about themselves. In pursuing those questions and viewing an Al Jazeera video about women’s rights in Afghanistan, we ended up identifying several directions for further discussion, including the nature of the Taliban, what is being and can be done about educating girls and women in Afghanistan, and more broadly the interrelationships of education and power on the one hand, and government and culture on another.
It’s still quite early in the year, and hard to tell exactly where this class is going to go as we dig deeper into the emerging ideas and themes of this unit. However, this is quite clear: they are asking all the right questions, they have a good sense of the role and importance of power in people’s lives and their intuition is to work to build a fairer and more equal world.
All of this, of course, comes back to our mission as a girls’ school. Developing, promoting, and supporting girls’ and women’s voices is at the core of what we do. As Leonard Sax once wrote, “a girls’ school can foster subversive girls who rebel against the narrow social roles prescribed for them.” The word “subversive” may shock here – it is not a word often associated with girls; but in point of fact, immersed as our students are in a constant stream of negative messages about girls, women and femininity, perhaps a little subversion is exactly what is needed.
It takes a major leap of faith to nourish subversion. You have to be willing to allow yourself to be challenged on occasion. It can be painful to acknowledge when that challenge might have some basis in fact; but imagine yourself looking at a girl struggling against everything she has absorbed about how it is her job to “be nice” and preserve relationships, working up the courage to let you know she sees something that she thinks is wrong and what needs to be done about it. How could you not listen to her? The alternative is to watch her retreat inside herself and know she is likely to have an even harder time speaking out in the future, if indeed she does. I, for one, could not live with that any more than I could live with squelching the girl who already has a sense of her own power and how to speak it.
So, trying my best to help nourish subversion, expressed of course with appropriate respect for feelings and human dignity, is in a very real sense part of my curriculum. I know that research shows girls’ schools have the potential to help girls and women derive their self-esteem from within rather than from external sources such as their appearance or what others think of them. At some level, everything I do here is oriented toward making that outcome a reality for our students.
In 2009, the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, wishing to avoid the trap of confirmation bias, commissioned a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute into the effects of single-gender education. Entitled “Women Graduates of Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools: Differences in their Characteristics and the Transition to College,” the study examined over 20,000 alumnae of both girls’ and coeducational schools. In the executive summary, the authors noted several benefits to alumnae of girls’ schools including greater academic engagement and confidence, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Particularly pertinent to my Humanities 7 class, they also note that alumnae of girls’ schools have “greater political engagement.”
I hope and trust that this year’s 7th grade class will only deepen their sense of political engagement as they continue to grow up and eventually go out into the world. I am still getting to know them, but already, I have a sense of their potential to help make history.
-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean