The Magazine

Girl Power! and Other Idiocy

Government propaganda for boys and girls.

Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men," was stopped from completing her remarks at a government conference on drug-abuse prevention for boys, held in Baltimore on November 1. Partway through her talk, Sommers, an invited speaker, was cut off by the moderator, insulted by a fellow participant, and jeered by many in attendance. According to Stanley Kurtz, who reviewed a tape and transcript for National Review Online, "Sommers was silenced the moment she began to raise questions about 'Girl Power!'--the female counterpart of the 'Boy Talk' drug prevention program that was the subject of the conference." We asked Sommers to describe these two taxpayer-financed educational campaigns.

GEORGE W. BUSH'S Department of Health and Human Services is planning to extend to boys a favorite initiative of the Clinton administration, a program sporting the perky name "Girl Power!" Oddly enough, plans for "Boy Talk" are going forward despite the absence of any evidence that the six-year-old Girl Power! campaign has succeeded at its stated mission--discouraging substance abuse among girls by boosting their self-esteem and academic achievement. But then indifference to scientific soundness has been a hallmark of this enterprise from the beginning. Girl Power! was launched in 1996, at a time when federal officials were deluged with statistics showing that an educational gender gap was indeed growing, and those on the wrong side of it were boys.

In 1995, the Department of Education, for example, released "The Educational Progress of Women," a report comparing male and female achievement. Among its findings: "Females are more likely than males to come to school prepared to learn and to participate in school activities." Girls were more likely than boys to assume school leadership positions, to qualify for honors programs, and to enter college. One of the most disquieting findings was that "the gap in reading proficiency between males and females [favoring females] is roughly equivalent to about one and a half years of schooling."

But during the years when such findings were becoming better known, Donna Shalala was in charge at Health and Human Services, and underachieving, at-risk boys were not a priority. Rather, Shalala subscribed to the principle that girls are shortchanged victims in need of special attention. To shore up this notion, her department disseminated misleading or flat-out erroneous claims.

Thus, HHS "fact sheets" inform us that "teachers often defer to male leadership and social dominance" and that "girls (more so than boys) may develop low self-esteem . . . and perform less well in school." But girls perform better in school than boys. And if teachers are deferring to male leadership, the students themselves appear to be unaware of it. In a 1993 Department of Education study of several thousand tenth graders, 72 percent of girls but only 68 percent of boys "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with the statement "Teachers listen to what I have to say."

HHS "fact sheets" and "talking points" similarly claim that "adolescent girls are twice as likely to attempt suicide than boys." They leave unmentioned the fact that boys actually kill themselves at five or six times the rate of girls. According to Centers for Disease Control reports, in a typical year (1997), there were 4,483 suicides of people between the ages of 5 and 24. Of these, 701 were females, 3,782 males.

The HHS researchers and officials who developed Girl Power! kept a discreet distance from the data reported by the Department of Education and the CDC. Instead, they relied heavily on advocacy research of girl-partisan groups such as the American Association of University Women and on the "findings" of gender scholars like David Sadker of American University and Carol Gilligan, Harvard's first professor of gender studies. These scholars, when asked, notoriously fail to produce the data that allegedly support their claim that girls are "shortchanged," "silenced" victims of gender bias in the schools and in society at large.

THE NUMEROUS Girl Power! brochures and booklets contain some innocuous messages, including health tips from which all children could benefit, boys no less than girls. Otherwise their content is pure feminist propaganda. One Girl Power! "activity guide" opens with a story about Princess Petaluma who "began to despise her Princesshood on her 11th birthday." She prefers hunting unicorns and entering archery contests with the knights to sewing and dancing. Her archery skills are not merely equal to the knights'--they are far better. "Is it her fault that she had won the contest nine out of ten times?" Her father the king (a clueless, irascible, and benighted patriarch) punishes her by offering her hand in marriage to a "selfish and bad-tempered" prince. The princess rebels. "I can be a better King than any son," she shouts at her father. She demands a chance to prove it. Readers are then invited to create their own "Girl-Powered ending" for the story. The moral is always the same: Traditional femininity is dreary and oppressive, and spirited, empowered girls should resist it.

"Girl quotes" expressing anger and resentment of males are featured in many Girl Power! booklets. A girl named Nina says, "We need to show those boys we are the BOMB!" Another girl, Lily, says, "At dinner, I am the one who gets yelled at for interrupting, not my brothers." Twelve-year-old Gabriela boasts, "I do things that boys are afraid to do. I ride a horse everyday. I get up at 6:30 A.M. just to swim in a freezing pool." Gabriela adds, "I don't know who came up with the idea 'boys are better than girls' but I do know that we are all the same"--except she's just said she was braver. Most girls do not normally think of boys as a hostile rival tribe with whom they are competing; but this is the outlook Girl Power! inculcates.

A Girl Power! assignment book is full of "Fun Facts" for girls to enjoy. Thus, "In 1970, 42 percent of all college undergraduates were women; in 1996, 56 percent were women." If the fact that girls increasingly outnumber boys in college is "fun," Girl Power! advocates should get a real kick out of two recent pieces of data (from "Trends in Educational Equity," by the National Center for Educational Statistics, and "The State of Blacks in America," by the National Urban League, respectively): (1) The writing scores of male eleventh graders are comparable to those of female eighth graders; and (2) of African Americans now in college, approximately 63 percent are female, 37 percent male.

Most Girl Power! materials were developed in a little-known division of Health and Human Services called the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP). According to its website, CSAP "provides national leadership in the development of policies, programs, and services to prevent the onset of illegal drug use, to prevent underage alcohol and tobacco use, and to reduce the negative consequences of using substances." Why the Girl Power! self-esteem initiative belongs in a drug-use prevention research division is not explained. No one has shown that single-sex drug prevention programs are any more effective than gender-neutral programs. Nor has CSAP ever seen the need to spend any part of its large budget on outcome studies to determine whether the benefits promised by Girl Power! guides and activity books are actually achieved. (Annual funding for all of CSAP approaches half a billion dollars; expenditures for Girl Power!, while just a small part of that, are difficult to ascertain.) The goal is exemplary: to "help girls make the most of their lives." But pieties are no substitute for proof of effectiveness.

It's perhaps not surprising that CSAP has become something of a joke among researchers seriously interested in the issue of drug abuse. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist who combines policy research at the American Enterprise Institute with clinical work among substance abusers, expresses the dismay of some scientific observers when she says, "With so much of its money spent developing techniques to prevent drug use, one would think CSAP would place a strong emphasis on research design, data collection, and interpretation. Think again."

Operating outside the protocols of social science and blessed with political backers in high places--not just Secretary Shalala, but also first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--Girl Power! proliferated and by now is totally out of control. Here is a partial list of the handsomely and expensively produced booklets, manuals, and guides that are sent on request to anyone who asks for them: "Welcome to Girl Power!," "Girl Power! Across the Country," "How to Access and Activate Girl Power! in your Community," "Five Steps to Getting the Media to Cover Girl Power!," "Girl Power! Speaker's Guide," "For Adults who Care about Girls--A Resource Guide," "Girl Power! Campaign Information Packet," "Girl Power! How to Get It: Activity Guide for 9- to 11-year-old girls," "Girl Power! Keep it Going--Activity Guide for 12- to 14-year-old girls," and "Girl Power! School Year Assignment Book." By the end of the Clinton presidency, the Girl Power! program offered posters, postcards, bookmarks, book covers, stickers, water bottles, certificates, T-shirts, pins, and caps to "anyone who cares about girls"--"free of charge."

MEANWHILE, what about the boys? Finally, six years after the inception of Girl Power! and under a new administration, CSAP is beginning to respond to criticism of its total neglect of half of American youths. But the same people who created Girl Power! are still running the agency, and there are signs of a disaster in the making. The new program is based on the same questionable gender theory that inspired Girl Power! Its designers take a dim view of the ways masculinity and femininity are "constructed" in our society, and they seek to make boys and girls as much alike as possible. Girls need to be encouraged to take power, as the Princess Petaluma did; boys need to learn to sit quietly and chat freely about their feelings. The titles of the respective CSAP programs--"Boy Talk" and "Girl Power!"--reflect this dubious philosophy.

Boys, according to materials compiled by Boy Talk planners, "are generally socialized to be self-reliant and independent, not to show emotion." This is supposedly a bad thing. If Boy Talk gets off the ground, we will soon see a spate of U.S. government-sponsored manuals, activity guides, diaries, T-shirts, coasters, and caps intended to rescue boys from their masculinity.

It is always possible, of course, that HHS secretary Tommy Thompson will make it his business to restore elementary standards of common sense to his department. He has just appointed Charles Curie to direct the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, of which CSAP is a division. Curie, who was previously deputy secretary for mental health and substance abuse services in Pennsylvania, has a solid record of implementing effective and empirically tested programs. That augurs well for changes that are badly needed.

One may hope that Thompson and Curie will recognize the worthlessness of the Boy Talk project and eliminate it before it eats up any more money and confuses more boys. Recent events make plain that the nation needs self-reliant, independent, stoical young men to protect us all. Girl Power!, too, should be terminated, even though this will call down the wrath of feminists and a frenzy of lobbying from girl-partisans everywhere.

Girl Power!--as Thompson and Curie must appreciate, should they decide to grasp this nettle--is a potent symbol for its proponents. At a press conference on women's health in 1993, Secretary Shalala remarked that "for too long, health research has been addressed from one point of view, the white male point of view." Girl Power! seems to have provided Shalala and like-minded "theorists" with a golden opportunity to redress the historic imbalance by launching a program free of what feminist epistemologists call "male ways of knowing"--ways of knowing consistent with the norms of logic, respect for facts, and rules of evidence.

Someone somewhere in the Clinton administration must have been skeptical about the Girl Power! campaign, with its anti-male subtext, its propensity to psychobabble, its spiteful "girl quotes," and its baseless belief that girls are being shortchanged and need to be empowered. But Democrats tend to run for cover whenever the "female ways of knowing" crowd shows up. It remains to be seen whether Republicans have the steel to take on this embarrassing government propaganda and stand their ground.