Related: Celebration, Civil & Human Rights, DC Public Schools, Education, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Students

The Lives of Girls

 
 

For quite some time there’s been murmuring about girls getting too many advantages.  Echoing mostly from the caves of misogyny, though sometimes threaded with claims of learned research (ah, “data!”), the party line says that out-of-control feminism duped schools into believing that girls suffered unequal opportunity.  “Look!” say the sociological revisionists, “We’ve got Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Meg Whitman; 3 women Supremes and Oprah calls the shots.  The Revolution is OVER!”

Not so fast.  For some girls and women in the United States today, the women’s revolution has been, indeed, a great success story.  But for millions more, real equality of opportunity remains a distant concept belied by the grim facts of their daily lives.   The most obvious fault line of the women’s revolution falls along lines of race and social class.

As is my usual August habit, I’ve spent a good deal of time in recent weeks reading the application essays of the students who have recently enrolled in Trinity’s women’s college, the College of Arts and Sciences.   These students are mostly teenage girls, 17 or 18 or 19 years old, on the cusp of adulthood but living adult lives already in so many ways.   Most live in the city or nearby suburbs, attended the DC or PG public schools, and have experienced the plagues of poverty and violence in those tragic parts of our region that languish outside of the view of motorcades and tour buses.  For most of these students, single parents — usually mothers — are normal, and grandparents also play a large role in their lives.   Many are mothers, themselves.  The majority are African American and Latina, with many immigrant stories from African and Central American nations.

Words and phrases from the applications of teenage girls dreaming of college in America 2010:

I am homeless…

I was born addicted to drugs…

My father was incarcerated…

At my school, I witness violence every day…

My mother was shot in front of my face…

I was shot…

I have friends who were murdered by their peers…

My baby has hydrocephalus…

My mom was a teen parent…

No one expected much from me…

These are not “coeds” from some “Gidget Goes to College” fantasy.  These are real American girls, the young women who might not have figured prominently in anyone’s success story about the women’s revolution — but for their ability to enroll at Trinity and colleges like Trinity that have sustained one of the most challenging missions in all of higher education, the mission to educate women who have been excluded from equal opportunity — particularly, the educational opportunity that results in economic advantage.  These young women are now on the road to success, but what a journey it’s been!

Denial of equal educational opportunity comes in many guises in this age when coeducation is normal and single-gender education is unusual.   Take this example:  “Back in the day” the advocates for gender equity in education targeted actual gender-based barriers to the participation of women and girls, and won an important legal victory.

Title IX, the law that forced equal opportunities for females in education, is only 38 years old.   But Title IX enforcement languishes in many urban school systems where ensuring that girls have as much opportunity to play soccer as boys have to play football falls by the wayside for superintendents more concerned with budget cuts and union disputes and compliance with other federal mandates.   But unequal opportunity to play field sports — just one of many examples of the failure of Title IX in public schools — has a devastating impact on diminished opportunities for girls in too many public school systems to earn athletic scholarships for college.

The unequal enforcement of Title IX allows economic as well as gender discrimination to continue to repress opportunities for girls from low income families.  I have many powerful women friends who boast to me of their daughters going to prestigious Ivy League universities on soccer or lacrosse scholarships — these are families who could well afford the tuition.   Meanwhile, the girls in the DC Public Schools, for example, have few if any opportunities to play soccer or lacrosse, hence, no opportunities to earn those same scholarships.

But denial of equal educational opportunity — and equal economic opportunity — for young women goes well beyond Title IX examples.   Too many girls in our urban neighborhoods wind up stopping out of high school for pregnancy; too many have family responsibilities that might include caring for siblings because of absent parents.  Too many work full-time in low-wage jobs to support themselves at ages 16 and 17 and 18, with the result that they do poorly in school and are discouraged from high school completion, let alone college access.  Too many suffer protracted neglect of serious mental and physical health issues.

But all is not tragedy.  For these young women who are so old already, their presence here at Trinity is already a triumph of hope over despair, of motivation over discouragement.

There are other words and phrases in their essays, the kind of thoughts that make the faculty and staff here so energized and determined to see these students through to graduation:

I have a dream to succeed…

I will be the first in my family to go to college…

I have to give my son the life I didn’t have…

I will not be another negative statistic…

I hope to change the ideas people have about young Latinas…

I want to show my siblings that there is more to life than the streets…

I want to be that person who inspires young ones…

I have a dream to succeed…

I am my daughter’s role model…

It is up to me to be the leader of my own life…

I will be the first in my family to go to college…

Our entire purpose at Trinity is to make sure that our students have the knowledge and skills, competencies and values they must have to make these dreams a reality.   At Trinity, we know that the women’s revolution is far from over, but we celebrate the courage and vision of our students who have taken up the cause of success not only for themselves but for their children and families.

See my Convocation Remarks with new student essay excerpts

See Orientation news

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2 Responses to The Lives of Girls

  1. Benito says:

    The Republicans are so funny, when the economy is good you say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. When most Americans (with Latin America roots) go to the polls this November we will remember that the GOP has gone on a nationwide rant in proposing and passing several anti-immigration legislation (that our US Courts continue to strike down) and have continue to blame the immigrant for the flat economy or worse. We will remember who stands with us and who stands against us, so trying to stop it now is somewhat funny, but go ahead, you will not change our minds. Plus the more radical of the GOP are now attacking our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, in a misguided attempt to garner some much needed votes, they really are fools, and leading the GOP towards obscurity because they are no longer a party of ideas, just of empty suits. Your hate made you do it, in November; you will reap what you have sown. I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would say about todays GOP, he unlike the current GOP was a man of ideas.

  2. Gretchen says:

    Wow – I stumbled across this site while researching topics on feminism and this post is incredibly inspirational. The determination expressed by these young ladies in their essays just speaks volumes about the human spirit.

    It would be wonderful if someday these essays could be published alongside the success stories of these women and how they achieved their dream. These ladies are the real role models for feminism.

    Thanks for sharing this. :)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu