June 15, 2012

Failing Girls. ~ Trista Hendren

Women’s Studies Must Start Earlier.

Imagine for a moment a picture of your greatest hero. Who is it? Why is this person your hero? How does their life relate to yours? How has she influenced you?

Our heroes are important: they guide us to where we can go (if we dare) and save us from our own limiting beliefs about ourselves. How do we guide our children to find role models who will empower them?

Every woman I know who took Women’s Studies in college talks about how their whole world sort of opened up with their first class. Why do we deprive our girls of this experience throughout most of their education? Is it possible more children would love going to school if it related back to them directly?

How can they have heroes that don’t reflect who they are?

The highlight of my son’s second grade class was a “Hero Speech”. The kids researched various heroes, picked one that they identified with most strongly, continued to research that person more thoroughly, and finally wrote and presented a speech (in costume) to the entire second grade community, including parents and grandparents.

It was a wonderful project, and I was thrilled to see my son so engaged with his research on Benjamin Franklin. When he finally took the stage, he was Ben Franklin.

However, when I went into his classroom a few months before to celebrate his birthday, I was dismayed. The kids were allowed to ask anything of me about my son’s very early years. The questions they came up with were both creative and fun to answer. I decided to ask a few questions of my own.

I was only hearing about research on male heroes.

I asked if the kids could name some female heroes.

No one could name even one.

The teacher explained that they were somewhat limited because the project required that they research books dedicated to heroes at their appropriate reading level. Apparently there just are not enough books written for second graders about women in history.

The day of the speeches was a proud one. It was heartwarming to see all the kids dressed up in their costumes, filled with pride after months of mastering their presentations. As the children’s speeches were delivered, I couldn’t help notice the numbers of girls who were dressed as male heroes, giving brilliant speeches in men’s words.

There was not a single boy, of course, who dressed as his female hero or spoke in her words. My heart ached for all the second grade girls. In fact, I felt very sad for every woman in that room.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this is still happening.

“Because men have a history, it is difficult for them to imagine what it is like to grow up without one, or the sense of personal expansion that comes from discovering that we women have a worthy heritage. Along with pride often comes rage – rage that one has been deprived of such a significant knowledge.” ~Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party

And here is where it gets extremely personal for me: I have felt that rage, full-force.

I know what it is like to find out you have been lied to, to make less money, to be marginalized as a single mother, and to feel less-than in all the ways we do at times as women.

While my feminism seemed to lie comatose in the throes of raising 2 young children, I couldn’t ignore what was happening to my daughter and how my own passivity had contributed to it. By the time she turned 5, I already saw the way the world was beginning to taint her image of herself. We had disconnected the cable several years before, but the message was still seeping in from other places: you are not enough.

It pained me to hear my little daughter say she would be prettier if I would let her dye her hair blonde.

It pained me to see her already worshiping a body-type that is completely unattainable for any woman.

As a feminist, I had worked very hard to raise my daughter as a strong girl. I did not buy Barbie dolls or allow princesses as role models, but she seemed to be getting excessive amounts of both from all directions.

It also became obvious to me that my daughter’s strength was not valued. The same behavior from my older son was acceptable, even praised. But my daughter and her girl-friends were rewarded for being passive and criticized when they had “too much” energy or were assertive.

It became clear to me that if I wanted a comprehensive education and a spiritual grounding for my daughter, I’d have to provide it myself.

The lessons we inadvertently teach girls are apparently staying with them throughout their lives. In a recent article by Leslie Bennetts in Newsweek Magazine, she states:

“Research shows that even women with stellar credentials often lack the confidence to put themselves forward, while men with far inferior qualifications show no such hesitation.”

I did not know about Women’s Studies until my sophomore year of college. Now, at 37, I am still trying to heal the damage that a male-centered education and spirituality has caused me. I hoped we would begin teaching our daughters earlier, but this has not happened.

The textbooks that our children read are still almost entirely male-dominated filled with male-accomplishments. Our spiritual communities are still mostly male-led and refer to God as “He.”

Religious thought seeps in early and is very damaging to girls. If God is a man, and “He” is everything that is good and superior, it is easy to conclude that we as women are, in fact, beneath men. Whether you practice a religion or not, this still has a profound effect on our collective thinking.

“There were no religious images in the churches or synagogues of our childhood that celebrated the birthing powers of women. According to religion’s myths, the world was brought into being by a male God, and woman was created from man. This reversal of biological process went unchallenged. Most of us didn’t even notice the absence of the mother. Although we may not have been consciously aware of her absence in bible stories and sermons, her absence was absorbed into our being. And it’s painful influence was intensified as we observed the design of our parents’ relationship and the treatment of our mothers by our fathers and brothers. Our families mirrored the hierarchical reality of the heavens. In a society that worships a male God, the father’s life is more valuable than the mother’s. The activities of a man’s life are more vital and necessary than the mother’s intimate connections with the origins of life. The father is God.” ~Patricia Lynn Reilly, Be Full of Yourself

I think as young girls, we begin to talk ourselves into a male image of God, when in reality it is completely unnatural to us. As Judy Chicago reminds us,

“In the beginning, the feminine principle was seen as the fundamental cosmic force. All ancient peoples believed that the world was created by a female Deity.”

The United Nations has declared October 11, 2012 the first “official” International Day of the Girl and we have 101 years of International Women’s Days under our belt. However, highlighting the accomplishments of women a few days a year is not enough.

I don’t understand why we wait to teach Women’s Studies to our girls until they are in college.

This is too late.

The damage has already been done.

My hope is that when we start teaching our children a broader history at home, they will begin to ask questions of their teachers that will eventually force change. In researching curriculum reform, it seems like we have a very long way to go.

The assumption seems to be that curriculum reform isn’t needed anymore. Some people even go as far as to say that boys are not doing as well in school now and that they need more attention.

My fear is that we are missing the bigger picture. Leslie Bennetts stated,

“The truth is that men continue to run most major institutions and make most of the important political, executive, policy and other decisions in the United States. And as demonstrated by the current battle over contraceptive coverage in health insurance, the dearth of women decision-makers often results in policies that fail to serve women’s needs, let alone the larger goal of equality.”

Our girls deserve better.

Women have a history that has been systematically suppressed.

Our collective spirituality has largely been tainted to fit the needs of men and those in power. This has a profound effect on the self-esteem of girls and the women they become. This influence can be seen in their life choices, partners and financial security for the rest of their lives.

It also has an effect on the way their future partners will view them – and ultimately treat them. The time to introduce feminism and woman-centered spirituality to all children is now.


Trista Hendren is a Certified Coach with Imagine a Woman International and author of The Girl God. She is fond of Kundalini Yoga, multiple orgasms and Velomobiles. Trista prefers to be sitting in the sun surrounded by several books, a picnic basket and her children. She lives between Portland, Oregon with her kids and Bergen, Norway with her soon-husband. You can read more about her project with Elisabeth Slettnes at www.thegirgod.com.



Editor: Carolyn Gilligan

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