Carol Gilligan, who was then head of Harvard’s Project on the Psychology of Women and the Development of Girls, had found that one of the ways teenage girls exhibit their wavering confidence is by becoming more tentative in offering opinionsa trait that she said often persists into adulthood. A Gilligan example at the time: When she interviewed one girl at age 12, the girl answered “I don’t know” only 21 times; at the age of 14, the same girl’s “I don’t know” number shot up to 135.
I realized that those studies mirrored my own experience 20-something years earlier. I had been something of a childhood starthe whiz kid who skipped grades in elementary school, edited the school paper, was always voted the class president or team captain. But something happened to me along about the time I turned 14. Although I can’t remember any specific incidents that triggered it (although it was probably largely due to my rapidly changing body), I completely lost my self-confidence and basically skulked my way through high school and then college, too. I did not really get my old self-confidence back till I was past 30. The original was Why It’s Great To Be A Girl was my part in helping to ensure that that didn’t happen to later generations of girls.
I would say overall that in the years since the original version was published, self-esteem among white and African-American girls has improved (recent studies, in fact, have shown that African-American girls have higher self-esteem than any other race). But it’s still not as high as it should be, especially among minorities other than African-Americans. Over the years, Madeline attended well-integrated public schools in Southern California and made friends with a variety of girls who weren’t white. When they all became teens, my daughter began to tell me, dismayed, that many of her friends were encountering bias from their families because their cultures historically value males more than females.