Back in early August, as my son and I were scanning our phones seeing what interesting readings might pop up, he looked over and told me I’d find an interesting article if I googled The Atlantic, girls, and sports. The article, entitled “Soccer isn’t for Girly-Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports Their Daughters Play,” focused on dance, soccer, and chess as exemplars of three different “gender scripts” (to use Hilary Levey Friedman’s words) with which parents approached this decision: Graceful Girls, Aggressive Girls, and Pink Warrior Girls.
Parents following the Graceful Girls gender script may choose dance, focusing on its positive effect on appearance and presentation, and filtering the competitive element through traditional social graces. Parents following the Aggressive Girls gender script may choose soccer in the expectation that it will infuse their daughters with the kind of assertive, competitive spirit needed to smash through glass ceilings. Parents following the Pink Warrior Girls gender script may choose chess as it is ultra-competitive but non-physical, enabling their daughters also to present a traditional feminine appearance if they so choose.
I confess that I was confused at first by the Graceful Girls gender script. I found myself plunged back half a century into a world I thought was long gone. Girls at our school who choose dance do so knowing they are entering a physically demanding but artistically rewarding activity. 30 years ago, perhaps, dancers had a hard time convincing team athletes that theirs was a serious sport, but that is no longer true. It’s common knowledge that dance is a difficult discipline requiring strength, endurance, and precise control. Following a speech given at our school many years ago by JoAnn Deak, a noted expert on girls psychology, we have made a systematic effort to move beyond just saying “She’s a beautiful dancer” in describing dancers’ work so that the role of appearance is minimized and the notion of students as agents of their own lives is maximized.
Similarly, the Aggressive Girls gender script plays out somewhat differently in soccer and other team sports at our school than it does in the article. Rather than opposing competition to femininity, we integrate the two. Perhaps the fact that we are a girls school is an important factor – with our entire program focused on enabling girls to become their own best selves, the pressure on team sports to teach assertiveness is reduced. At any rate, the end result is that our team athletes can proudly say, “I am a girl and I am competitive.” rather than “I am a girl but I am competitive.” That makes a world of difference.
We don’t have a chess team, but arguably our debate team fulfills a similar “Pink Warrior” role in our school. The debate team is ultra-competitive and has a long history of superb results, all infused with a strong sense of pride that a girls school has compiled that record. In this one case, other than the specific sport, the gender script described in the article does play out similarly in our school.
You may have noticed that the article focuses on parents’ perceptions of different sport choices, while my description of how these gender scripts play out in our school has focused on the students. Indeed, the notion of parents choosing sports for their children is completely foreign to me. My son chose what sports he did every step of the way, and at Stoneleigh-Burnham, girls choose their own sports. Rarely, an advisee will say, “My (parent) wants me to take… but I don’t know…” and on such occasions, I will work with her to determine what she herself wants in her heart of hearts and then find a way for her to have a conversation with that parent before making her final selection. But for the most part, Stoneleigh-Burnham girls are agents of their own destiny in selecting a sport.
Sally, our Head of School, and I have often spoken about why girls schools have demonstrably positive benefits to their alumnae even as we learn that female-wired and male-wired brains aren’t all that different at birth, and furthermore that 20% of girls have male-wired brains anyway. We’ve both increasingly come to believe that a girl-positive atmosphere, explicitly designed to both acknowledge and smash apart stereotypes so each girl can truly be her own best self, is the primary factor in making this difference.
To my thinking, our girl-positive atmosphere explains the differences between how sport choices are perceived and made in our school and how they are presented in the article. By broadening the definition of femininity, by enabling girls to direct their lives rather than making decisions for them, we are in effect creating a “Pink Warrior” gender script for all our students – with a greatly-expanded notion of what “Pink” means.