Sowing The Seeds of Self-Doubt

By Kathleen Kisner — August 01, 1990 5 min read

One morning as Sharon Miller rushed into her homeroom at Cleveland’s all-girls Laurel School, she noticed a group of 7th graders scowling and huddling conspiratorially. She soon learned what was behind all the unhappy faces. The male teacher with whom she shared the homeroom had just announced a new lunchroom policy he had formulated--without consulting her.

Miller had her doubts about the policy, which dictated that all the girls remain seated until the last girl finished eating. Still, she kept her objections to herself. Finally, on a day when most of the girls had finished lunch before the last stragglers had even gone through the cafeteria line, Miller overrode the policy.

“The girls said, ‘Good for you, Mrs. Miller. You don’t have to ask his permission,’ ” she recalls. ''They had observed the whole little drama and hadn’t liked my attempts to uphold his authority.”

Miller recalls the story now, not as a lesson in cafeteria crowd control but as a disturbing parable about the socialization of girls. Simply put, girls reap what women sow. And what they sow, unwittingly, are the seeds of self-doubt.

Miller never realized the kind of example she had been setting until she and other female educators at the Laurel School were asked to become members of the ''Women Teaching Girls” study group, the latest phase of Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan’s Project on the Psychology of Women and the Development of Girls. Not quite feminist consciousness-raising and not quite group therapy, ''Women Teaching Girls” is designed to help women teachers examine their impact on female students. The group took shape in 1988, in the midst of Gilligan’s four-year longitudinal study of girls’ development at the Laurel School. The study itself was an outgrowth of earlier research done at the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. Fifteen teachers and administrators at Laurel volunteered to work with the Harvard team to devise strategies for educational intervention.

Best known as the author of In a Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 1982) and co-editor of Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School (Harvard University Press, 1990), Gilligan has previously studied female adolescence and the role of gender in the development of moral reasoning. The Laurel study, completed last December, hinged on yearly interviews with 99 girls in grades 1 through 12. It represents Gilligan’s first attempt to trace girls’ development from the primary years through secondary school.

The road to womanhood seems rocky indeed, Gilligan’s research suggests. Up to the age of 11, girls are outspoken about their true feelings, accepting disagreements and conflicts as a natural part of healthy relationships. But, at age 11, as they begin to identify with adult women, they become acutely aware of the cultural ideal of the calm, quiet woman. They begin to fear that disagreements might jeopardize their relationships. They spoke to interviewers of their image of the “perfect girl"---one who never raises her voice or argues.

Scrupulously transcribing every little hesitation and syntactical idiosyncrasy of the taped interviews, the Harvard research team noted key words that cropped up again and again.

“We began to hear the phrases, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘you know,’ ‘what do you know’ over and over,” explains Gilligan, who at 54 look almost girlish, with her flowing mane of Pre-Raphaelite hair and loose-fitting dresses. “When we heard, ‘I don’t know,’ we began to pay close attention. The girls often said this when they were trying to find out what we knew and what it was safe to say. As the girls start to identify with adult women and ask how it is possible to be a woman in this world, their real voices go underground. The phrase ‘I don’t know’ shows the struggle and conflict between what the girls know and are encouraged not to say.”

Although the girls demonstrated a sophisticated knowledge of human relationships from an early age, Gilligan suggests that their sensitivity to others’ needs proved detrimental to personal growth during adolescence.

Jesse, a Laurel student first interviewed as a second grader, is a case in point. At 8, she had no qualms about confronting a friend who left her out of a game and hurt her feelings. But at 11, Jesse was reluctant to engage in conflict. She said that if a girl didn’t like another girl, she “should pretend that [she] likes her.” She believed the “perfect girl” should be calm, controlled, and quiet-never bossy, noisy, or aggressive.

During three weekend retreat—sone in 1988, another in 1989, and the last in 1990—the Harvard research team and their Laurel teacher associates thought about “the perfect girl.” The retreat curriculum consisted of exercises in introspection and discussion of what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated culture. Says Suzie McGee, associate director of the primary school and a learning specialist: “We began to uncover things that we didn’t realize were affecting our teaching.”

Gilligan believes educational intervention can help girls resist the pressures to mute their voices. But the key is for women teachers to engage in authentic relationships with girls that comprise the whole range of human emotions-including the ability to disagree.

McGee, for one, began to analyze her attitude toward conflict. Recently, when she came upon two girls fighting in the hall, she worked hard to resolve the dispute rather than simply squelch it.

“I think in the past I would have gone the institutional route of saying, ‘This is very bad; I’m going to call your mothers; I’m disappointed in you; girls don’t do that,’ and so on,” McGee says. “Instead, I said, ‘It’s not OK to bite or scratch, but it’s OK to express your anger if you do it in a way that’s not physical.’ I think I’ve always known that it’s OK to be angry, but now I’ve let that knowing come out.”

Terri Garfinkel, a 2nd grade teacher, no longer tries to pretend she is perfect in front of her classes. If she is tired or upset, she openly tells her students about her mood and asks them for special help. She doesn’t want to plant the seedlings that will teach the girls to repress their anger as they grow older.

Says Garfinkel: “The biggest, most important thing we got out of the retreats is the realization that, as women teaching girls, we can make an effort to stop what has been perpetuated by trying to deal with people honestly. We need to educate the students and the parents in order to allow these girls to be who they need to be, so they can speak in their real voices.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Sowing The Seeds of Self-Doubt