I’m on the mailing list for a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit called the Boys Initiative, for whom I edit a blog: Boys and Young Men: Attention Must Be Paid. On Sunday, February 3, my e-mails included a press alert from the CEO, Dennis Barbour, informing us that that day’s New York Times Sunday Review had a major article on “why boys are falling behind.” And yes, when I opened my copy of the Times, there it was. You really couldn’t miss it. On the front page of that important section, with a graphic taking up more than half a page, was “The Boys at the Back,” by Christina Hoff Sommers.
The 1800-word piece started out discussing an important new study I had already heard about -- re boys’ grades in elementary school being negatively affected by their behavior -- and went on to mention data, very familiar to anyone concerned about this issue, showing the large gender gap in colleges, one which is particularly acute for minorities. “Black women are nearly twice as likely to earn a college degree as black men,” Sommers wrote. “At some historically black colleges, the gap is astounding: Fisk is now 64 female; Howard, 67 percent; Clark Atlanta, 75 percent. The economist Andrew M. Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University examined the Boston Public Schools and found that for the graduating class of 2007, there were 191 black girls for every 100 boys going on to attend a four-year college or university. Among Hispanics, the ratio was 175 girls for every 100 boys; among whites, 153 for every 100.”
I sent the link to this piece to friends, including one with whom I had lunch a couple of days later. He was shocked at those numbers, which shows, once again, that the problems of boys and young men are still, amazingly, barely on the national radar. But, as feminists told us back in the late 1960s, often the personal is political. My friend has two daughters and one granddaughter; I have three sons and three grandsons.
In 2000, Sommers wrote one of the first major books on the problems boys were having, but her relative conservatism about feminism got in the way of a widespread readership among liberals – just those people who might make a real difference for boys. The book was titled The War Against Boys, and though her issues with feminism were evident in it, her data showing boys clearly falling behind girls in school and beyond was strong and should certainly have been convincing. Many feminists might not have cared for the messenger, but there was no question that the message was an important one.
Since then, as she points out in the Times piece, many more books have been written on this subject (and, she could have added, countless articles). But still no tipping point has been reached (we-forgot-about-the-boys). Having been concerned about this issue for years before Sommers’ book came out (nytimes.com/girls-school-in-harlem-is-unlike-virginia), I continue to be immensely frustrated by this. And I find it hard to believe that a problem so salient still has not been addressed at the national level. I myself have written about this many times and am always startled to find that so many people still don’t know, for example, that girls and young women are significantly outpacing boys and young men at every level of school, right into graduate school.
When it was the reverse, when men clearly outnumbered women in colleges, the women’s movement looked at this and countless other areas in which women and girls were on the short end of things, and worked hard to change it. Why has the same thing not happened for our boys and young men?
In a workshop I gave some six years ago on “Helping Our Sons Do Better in School,” a father said that the movement to help boys should model itself on the women’s movement. A good thought, perhaps, but there is a fundamental difference in a movement to help boys and the one that’s been going on for years that encourages girls.
The “girls’ movement” -- special science programs for girls, the Sadkers’ work (Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls,1994), “Take Our Daughters to Work” day, which started in 1993 -- didn’t start on its own but rather came out of the modern women’s movement. In fact, if we take the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 as the birth of this passionate struggle, then it really was more than two decades before strong attention began to be paid to girls. What is crucial to understand is that the impetus for encouraging girls came from women who had genuinely felt restricted, if not outright oppressed.
I also believe that fathers of daughters, excited by the new opportunities for their children, joined in this support of girls.
A similar situation has not existed for boys. Men, as a group, have not felt especially restricted or oppressed, and so a men’s movement anywhere near the level of a women’s movement has never begun. The kind of filtering down that occurred with women and girls has never had a chance to occur for men and boys. And children themselves do not start political or social movements. We could hardly expect boys, on their own, to start a movement to, say, pull themselves them away from videogames and into libraries. (Perhaps it’s time for a Take Our Sons to the Library Day!)
Knowing mothers who only have sons and who, in spite of the data, continue to be supportive of girls and not boys, indicates to me that many adult women continue to feel a sense of unfairness re gender, even if girls do not. (I remember a female friend who had one child – a son – proudly wearing her “Take Our Daughters to Work” day button in 1994.) And I suspect most fathers of girls continue to delight in the unprecedented achievements of their daughters.
I truly believe that the focus strictly on girls that began in the 1990s and has only begrudgingly made room for boys is one of the principal reasons that boys are struggling the way they are today. The “girls’ movement” didn’t care if a child was rich or poor, white or minority. If the child was a male, he was excluded. We are paying a high price for this.
Though I don’t have answers, I desperately hope that parents of sons can be supportive not only of their own children, but of all boys and young men -- the way so many adults were supportive of girls and young women when they needed encouragement and support. This will mean, as educators like Michael Gurian tell us, not only supporting your own sons (and grandsons), but other boys and young men in your community; and I would add that it means beginning to lobby our elected officials too, to join in.
Soon after President Obama took office in 2009, he established a White House Council on Women and Girls. Soon afterward, major supporters of boys’ interests, led by Warren Farrell, pushed hard for a parallel council for boys and men. A suggested name for the organization was the Council for Boys and Men, and the proposal to establish it ended with these words:
“A White House Council on Boys and Men can…provide leadership toward helping parents and our culture teach our sons that the facade of strength is a weakness. It can provide leadership to help us help our sons row on both sides of the family boat—so our daughters may have equal partners. It can co-ordinate the nation’s best efforts to parent, mentor, and teach each of our sons to discover who he is. It can end the era of boys and men as a national afterthought. It can provide leadership to raise young men our daughters are proud to love.” (whitehouseboysmen.org)
Unfortunately, as Tom Golden, a member of the group that submitted this proposal, wrote on the site’s blog – on September 12, 2012, “Our report met with interest at the White House—but three years of effort have resulted in nothing.”
I am grateful to those with only daughters who wholeheartedly support the aspirations of boys, and I applaud them -- people like Warren Farrell, and Michael Gurian (whose books include The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, 2006). But I think the Farrells and Gurians are rare in this world. Parents of boys will need people like them as allies, but the key is for these parents to wholeheartedly support a movement for their sons with the same passion that mothers (and fathers) of daughters supported one that has helped to thrust their children into the forefront of achievement in today’s world. We have left half our children behind, and this cannot be good for America’s future.