I wrote the following for my writing group in October 1999. It’s about a women’s studies conference at the college at which I had taught for more than 25 years. The subject of the conference was girls, women, and education. As I read it recently, I realized, sadly, that it is something I could easily have written today – except I don’t think that a women’s studies conference in 2014 would focus on girls and education. About the developing world, yes, because that remains a huge problem. But in the developed world, girls and young women are far surpassing boys and young men in school.
Actually, this gap was obvious in 1999, but almost no one was listening then. Sadly, few people are listening even now — nearly 15 years later — when the data is overwhelming. (An exception is in STEM fields, but there are signs of young women catching up there.
Here, with some editing, but no substantive change in content, is what I wrote in 1999:
"You're not going to like this," my feminist friend said, as she sat at her desk, looking over a brochure. I had a feeling I knew what the brochure was, and I was right.
"It's for the Women's Studies conference, isn't it?" I said.
"Yes," she said.
That itself wasn't the reason I wasn't going to like it, and she knew that. The reason is this year's theme: "Girls and Women Claiming an Education: Agendas, Barriers, Changes." My friend knows how I feel about this, about the fact that girls and women keep getting support in their educational aspirations from women's groups while the data is clearly showing that it is the boys who are more likely to do poorly in school.
In fact, the only time the New York Times ever published anything I wrote was when I sent in a letter — in July 1996 — protesting the New York City Board of Education starting an all-girls high school when it was boys who were having more trouble in school. Obviously, the Times felt I was making a good point. And by 1999 even Susan Faludi, who said some pretty nasty things about men in her 1991 best-seller Backlash, had come to the conclusion, in her book, Stiffed, that a lot of men were very unhappy. I haven't read Faludi's recent book, but I have read a lengthy excerpt and have seen her interviewed on television. Surely her message is that men need some attention now. By extension that would certainly seem to mean that boys deserve it as well.
And yet, here is my college, through its Women's Studies department, sponsoring a one-day conference addressing the needs of girls and women in education. I guess Women's Studies felt this would be a lot less controversial than their conference of two years ago on sexuality, which received national attention. But to me this one is much more controversial. I'm not sure what real harm was done by the sexuality conference, other than some very difficult days for the organizers and the college president. But to hold a conference in 1999 on the educational needs of girls and women, when girls are doing better in school than boys and more than 55 percent of college students are women, strikes me as harmful.
My friend acknowledges that I have a good point here. She brooks no argument about issues such as the man's responsibility in domestic violence, or the "glass ceiling" in the workplace. But she does recognize that in schools boys need attention as much as girls do. So, being a teacher of women's studies, she is in a bit of a bind.
"Well, keep in mind," she said, "this is being put on by Women's Studies. So obviously the focus is going to be on girls and women."
Obviously, there are many areas where there is much progress still to be made, but it is hard to imagine anyone arguing that the situation for a young woman today looking for schooling and employment is anything like it was as recently as the mid-1970s. In fact, it is in education in particular that some of the most dramatic and positive changes have occurred. Here it is clearly boys who have been left behind.
I really would love to go to the conference. I would love to raise my hand during questions and answers at the keynote panel and speak up at workshops. But, unfortunately, my wife's cousin is getting married on that night, so I don't think I'll be able to attend. Social change has to take a backseat to domestic tranquility.
But some of the workshop titles do grate on me: "Self-Esteem and Elementary School Girls," "Girlz II Women at Hunter College: An After-School Program for 7th and 8th Grade Girls," "College Women Mentoring Middle School Girls in Albion, Michigan." It's the gender specificity that angers me. I would have no trouble with workshops titled, "Self-Esteem and Elementary School Children," "Children II Adults at Hunter College: An After-School Program for 7th and 8th Graders," "College Students Mentoring Middle School Boys and Girls in Albion, Michigan."
What should parents of sons do? Is it time for fathers to fight back, and start programs where male college students mentor middle school boys? Is this what we want? Separatism? Isn't the so-called "old boys network" part of the reason that feminism got started in the first place?
I can well understand when some under-privileged or under-achieving group helps itself. While it saddened me when many African-Americans essentially told whites they didn't need their help in the 1970s, I could at least understand it. And it didn't seem like a threat to me. What African-Americans wanted was equality, and they were so far from it that any book, workshop, conference or the like where African-Americans helped each other made a lot of sense.
But for a college, through its women studies program, to endorse only the encouragement of girls while boys often languish in school angers me. I think I can understand it. Men do act badly. Women and girls have suffered and continue to suffer. And there is a tremendous excitement in freedom, a freedom that sometimes only education can bring.
But it's not boys who treat women badly. Boys are children. They are our children just as much as girls are. The boy who, instead of reading and doing his homework, plays basketball incessantly because he's going to be the next Michael Jordan, or just hangs out, or sits in front of a computer screen playing games filled with violence, deserves our attention, and encouragement to do well in school, every bit as much as his sister does.
Remember that I wrote this almost 15 years ago. But I truly could have written much of it today, in 2014, except that women no longer make up 55 percent of college enrollments; now it’s 57 percent. And boys aren’t thinking they might be the next Michael Jordan; today it’s Lebron James. But the fact is that it is still girls and young women who are being encouraged in ways that boys and young men are not, even when the former continue to outperform the latter in every aspect of education (except possibly in STEM subjects, where the gap is narrowing, probably at least somewhat due to continued efforts by educators and others). Perhaps it was events like that 1999 Women’s Studies conference, and some years earlier the national “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” that helped seal the deal for America’s girls going ever upward while boys stagnated and continue to do so.
Incidentally, I was able to briefly attend the conference, where I raised my hand in a room filled with hundreds, and made my point about boys struggling more than girls in school. As I recall, it was met with the sound of silence.