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Who is going to convince little girls that they can fly? asks Peggy Orenstein, managing editor of Mother Jones magazine, as she ruminates on the possible demise of Ms. magazine.

Ms. Orenstein, who reviews the fluctuating fortunes of the feminist journal in the current issue of her magazine, remembers her introduction to Ms. at age 11 when she and a playmate put on towel capes and tried to fly like the comic strip heroine Wonder Woman, resurrected in the newly created magazine.

"We donned those towel capes because we saw, for the first time, that little girls could become not just women, but wonder women, women who could participate in the full scope of public and private life," she recalls.

Ms. Orenstein fears that the new Ms., no longer dependent on advertising and destined for limited subscription, cannot reach out to all ages, races and classes the way the mass-market magazine did -- even if it survives.

So who is speaking to the little girls today?

Ms. emerged in 1972, the same year that Congress passed Title IX of the Educational Amendments, which sent a message to grade schools, high schools and colleges across the land: Stop discriminating against girls.

A couple of years later, a new message went out from Title IX: Start some affirmative action to make sure more girls are introduced to math, science and computers; that more girls are offered vocational education courses; that more girls get a chance to participate in sports.

Ms. magazine's message wasn't the only one going out to 11-year-olds.

Little boys always knew they could fly. Girls were not encouraged in such flights of fancy. Most airline pilots were men; most doctors and lawyers were men. But that could change, the reformers said.

And it did.

It wouldn't be easy, the Ford Foundation cautioned in a detailed study of what Title IX did and could mean. Most people did not even recognize the educational attitudes and practices that "put a damper" on girls' aspirations and aptitudes, the 1976 report noted. In addition, the foundation said, sex discrimination was perceived in American society as less onerous or less insidious than discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

Ten years later, when affirmative action was a dirty word and many decided that a handful of women in glamorous jobs meant women had achieved enough of their goals, the National Organization for Women looked at educational equity laws state by state and concluded that gains made in the '70s were being lost in the '80s.

In 1980, eight years after Title IX, women's enrollment in medical school rose from 11 percent to 26 percent; in law school, from 10 percent to 34 percent. The number of girls playing high school sports jumped from 18 percent to 35 percent, and more than 10,000 women attended college on athletic scholarships. By 1983 girls made up 13 percent of students in vocational programs previously designated for boys only.

NOW said those figures showed the potential of Title IX, a potential that was being eroded by unfavorable judicial decisions and indifferent enforcement.

According to NOW's report, issued in 1987, schools still were directing girls into low-paying, dead-end jobs; discouraging them from taking science and math; shortchanging them on athletic programs, and continuing to use textbooks that perpetuated gender stereotypes.

Girls continued to score lower than boys on college entrance and Regents examinations, displaying a weakness in math and science. Research showed girls did well in math and science classes until age 13. Another study discovered that boys were dominating computer time in those grade schools fortunate enough to have computers.

Boys seem to have a "natural" aptitude for all those functions that lead to good colleges and good jobs, while girls just gravitate to clerical or service industry jobs.

The American Association of University Women, which has made gender-equal education a priority, is financing another study on what's happening to girls. The AAUW Educational Foundation has given $100,000 to Wellesley College Center for Research on Women to prepare a report on the status of girls in the country's public schools.

Research will focus on what happens in schools -- including academic achievement, school organization, instructional strategies, classroom learning, extracurricular and club activities, sports and leadership opportunities, according to Alice McKee, foundation president.

Along with the report, due next fall, the foundation will publish an action guide for communities.

Thus, the struggle to convince girls they can fly goes on, and Ms. magazine, whether it survives or not, can take a lot of credit for that.

Beverly Sottile-Malona, coordinator of natural family planning programs for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, will address a World Health Organization conference on natural family planning being held this week at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

The Institute for International Studies in Natural Family Planning is co-sponsoring the session for researchers and providers from around the world. Ms. Sottile-Malona will show a video that she produced, "Living in Harmony With Your Fertility," during her presentation today.

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