"There is one cafè serving espresso here".


"SchoolGirls" is a book written by Peggy Orenstein, in association with the American Association of University Women. The book is subtitled "Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap". It was published in 1994, and was written in 1992 and 1993. The book details the author's personal research in two middle schools in California, one in a suburban location, one in the "inner city". As the subtitle says, it is a book about how self-esteem issues damage the development of girls both academically and personally. It deals with many different issues, such as eating disorders and sexual harassment, as well as drugs and violence. The stories and people are real, although with changed names.

This book was one of many similar books written around this time, with the most prominent example being "Reviving Ophelia". The main sub-niche of this book is that it focuses on academics, and is about middle school, as opposed to high school girls. But overall, it is typifies a lot of the the thinking of the time, and many books, as well as many magazine articles, were written with similar thoughts in mind. Although this book is written very professionally, the subject matter is the same as you would find in any issue of seventeen or YM written between, oh, 1990 and 1996.

So I have taken this book as a prototype of its times. And while it is somewhat unfair to judge a book by contemporary standards, it can be very instructive.

One of my best examples of this is in a chapter of the book discussing sexual harassment (then a somewhat new term), a boy at a suburban middle school is called into the principal's office for calling a girl a "prostitute". His defense is that "she started it" by calling him an asshole. And while a 20 year old bout of name-calling between middle-school students might seem to be of little interest, it is odd to me that the author shouldn't examine this viewpoint better. Although it might not be "sexual harassment", its certainly a harassing term, with some sexual and scatological connotations, and it probably is a damaging thing to hear. But in the author's world, men (and boys) are possessed of capital-A Authority, and power and its abuse flows from them in a calculated and deliberate way.

Which brings me to the biggest flaw of the book, that the author found what she was looking for. The narrative was that at suburban middle schools would be full of non-assertive girls obsessed with their body image, while urban middle schools would be full of girl dealing with poverty, drugs and crime. And while there is probably good reason how these narratives (or stereotypes) came to be, the certainty with which the book comes to its conclusion makes me think that the author looked at the obvious story, without looking below the surface.

Which makes me realize that 2002's Queen Bees and Wannabes was in many way a revolutionary book. Although it also takes a look at the ways that girls are disadvantaged by their surroundings, it takes a serious look at how girls are also able to use aggression, in various format. In this book, for all her criticism of the notion of female passivity, Peggy Orenstein seems to always portray the women as passive subjects of the male order.

And while it might not be definitive, there is a lot of evidence that what was happening to that generation of girls was not quite as one-sided and disastrous as this book would suggest. For all of the worries about female self-confidence and participation in math & science, this was the generation of women that would go on to either achieve, or surpass, parity with men in college, including in both Medical and Law School. This is the generation of women that would go on to have a disproportionate amount of political power, since they voted in greater numbers than their male peers.

Which is why I begin this write-up with the seemingly inconsequential quote at the top. Back in 1992, in a typical suburb of California, espresso was still a novelty item. Twenty years later, it is hard to remember a time when there wasn't a stand selling gourmet coffee at every corner. This book belongs to the past. The generation of girls written about here is not the current generation, some of the girls written about here are old enough to have daughters of their own in this age group. This book is now a piece of sociological history as much as it is about contemporary life.

But the reason that I read this book so intently, and have spent so much time writing about it, is that it is about my past. When I was growing up and trying to understand the confusing world of middle school, this was what I had read about many times, that girls my age were oppressed and confused and inflicted with low self-esteem. Even at the time, it was a bit confusing that this portrayal didn't seem to match the actual girls my age that I knew.

So while this book might have flaws in its message as seen today, and even for its time, may have been a somewhat standard pop-psychology/sociology book, I was fascinated when I read it because it made me realize how different the current day was from the time I grew up, and how far we have come.

Author: Peggy Orenstein
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 334
Year Published: 1994
ISBN: 0-385-42576

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