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Image: Sadie, www.littleblueschool.com

By Leola Dublin

Growing up, I used to love those Virginia Slims magazine ads that featured pictures of women from the 19th and early 20th centuries juxtaposed with saucy looking modern women smoking cigarettes. I grew up in a smoke-free home, and somehow the ads never convinced me that I should be a smoker when I grew up.

What I liked about them was the window into the past that they offered. I wondered what those women’s girlhood was like. Did they like school? Was it in a one-room schoolhouse? Did they have to do homework by candlelight? Did they secretly wish they could wear pants while riding those funny looking bicycles with the really big wheels? Looking back, I can see that part of the magic of those ads was that they made me think about how girls’ understanding of what is possible is completely context-dependent. This notion is at the heart of my research.

As a doctoral student, among other things, I examine the impact of marketing and media on adolescent girls’ identity development. What has been most surprising to me on this journey to my PhD is the resistance that I encounter from unlikely sources.

My favorite example involves a program I designed during my first year as a graduate student. The inspiration for the program was a halftime show at a home football game. All during the first half, I kept seeing really young looking girls flitting about in (to my old-lady eyes) the daringly short skirts and tight sweaters associated with cheerleading. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and assumed that there was some promotion where middle and high school cheerleaders got reduced admission to the game if they came in uniform. The stands were filled with young men who had clearly gotten an early start on their drinking. You could tell because they weren’t using their inside voices as they checked out the cheerleaders.

For their part, the girls seemed filled with the heady sense of their burgeoning sexuality: they danced suggestively to the music, squealed when they saw each other, fixed hair and makeup, and in general performed gender as only young girls can. The mystery of their presence went unsolved until halftime.

The announcer invited the stand to give a big welcome to a delegation of cheerleaders from across the state. As several hundred young girls took over the field and performed their routine, I was overwhelmed by sadness. It seemed clear to me that for many of those cheerleaders, this moment might be the pinnacle of their youth. I looked on the field and saw a bleak future of young women battling disordered eating, struggling to form an identity that wasn’t centered on their sexuality, growing up in an environment that encouraged them to be pleasers – of others – rather than themselves. I couldn’t stop crying.

I wondered why we weren’t celebrating all the girls who had made it to the state science fair, or who had gotten an A in math class, or were on the honor roll. The analytical part of my brain took over, and after a week, I had sketched out my program.

WINGS (Women in Graduate Studies) would be a one-week residential program that allowed girls between the ages of 9 and 15 to be paired with a woman in a graduate program. Participants could attend some classes, tour the campus, and get a sense of life both in and beyond graduate school. Girls could be matched up based on academic interests, hobbies, hometown, or other similarities. The point would be to reach out to girls who would otherwise never think about going to graduate school and broaden their realm of possibilities. WINGS could be like those Virginia Slims ads from my childhood, by sparking imagination.

I took the idea to the chair of my department (Women’s Studies) and asked what she thought of the program. Expecting her response to be similar to the one I got back from the Dove Corporation (this sounds great, please keep us posted), I was stunned to hear her shoot it down. What bothered her the most was that my project seemed “a little elitist.” My shock was visible, and she explained that the project seemed to be founded on the underlying assumption that every girl should go to graduate school. In her opinion, my project didn’t account for the fact that some girls simply might not be interested in going to graduate school. Despite my assurance that I just wanted girls to know that there were options beyond cheerleader, many of them with benefits that could significantly impact their lives, my chair was unconvinced.

It was at that point that I wondered how far we really have come in terms of advances for women and girls. The point of my project was never to tell girls what to do. It was simply to provide a window into a world that many girls will never know.

We know that educational attainment is directly related to earning potential. At a time when women still make 77 cents to every dollar men make, why wouldn’t we offer girls an opportunity to increase the amount of money they can make? Greater educational attainment has also been demonstrated to result in increased life expectancy and improved health (both physical and mental).

Why is it elitist to want more girls to live longer, healthier, better-paid lives? What does it mean when a woman who has dedicated her career to fighting sexism and patriarchy thinks that exposing young girls to something they might like constitutes some social coercion?

I’d like to hear from other folks, particularly mothers of young girls. If a local college or university offered a program (like mine, or differently structured) where your daughter could have age-appropriate exposure to the world of graduate education, and be partnered with a woman who is committed to being a positive role model and a force for change, would you consider letting her attend? Or would you dismiss it for being too elitist?

Leola Dublin is a third year doctoral student in the Program in American Studies at Washington State University. Leola’s interdisciplinary research examines the effects of mass media on identity development in adolescent girls, investigating the ways that gender, sexuality, race, and beauty are constructed and marketed. She is especially interested in the representations of African-American women’s bodies and the ways that young African-American girls negotiate these images as they attempt to define themselves. A native of North Carolina, Leola grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. She is currently preparing to take her preliminary exams this spring, and hopes to successfully defend her dissertation by May 2010.

208 replies
  1. Anna says:

    I think it’s a brilliant idea, and it’s a shame that it was denied. My daughter is just about to turn three, and I’m already trying to get her ‘well-rounded’. My dad talks to her about math and science (way above her, but hey it’s a start), my brothers and partner have her interested in computers and electronics, and I have her help me with artistic things.
    When she’s old enough I would definitely be interested in a program like you described; I’m open to other options and suggestions in the meantime.

    Anna’s last blog post..Oreo Cakesters

  2. Tracee says:

    I would put Ainsley in such a program.

    I think your instructor is ridiculous. First, it’s not required so who is going to be offended?

    Second, there’s a reason the Boy Scouts do things like climb mountains and do sleep overs at NASA. Brownies and Girl Scouts should take notes.

    It’s to expose them to the possibility of
    AIMING HIGH, shooting for the stars.

    Third, any girl probably has access to women who have graduate levels of education but she doesn’t realize it – pediatricians, lawyers, principals, educators, etc. – and it actually does take someone pointing it out and saying “you can too” to get there.

  3. Emily says:

    I don’t see why you’re so deeply upset by the fact that girls want to be cheerleaders. If anything, it feels like you’re stereotyping them by automatically assuming their future is going to be “battling disordered eating, struggling to form an identity that wasn’t centered on their sexuality,” and “growing up in an environment that encouraged them to be pleasers.”

    That’s a terrible assumption on your part. I speak on behalf of cheerleaders everywhere when I say that it’s a fun activity for girls. Not only that, it can provide scholarship opportunities AND look very good on a college application.

    Many cheerleaders are very intelligent young women. I know that almost every cheerleader on my squad including myself are in honors and advanced courses.

    Alot of us are going to go far in life, and none of us appreciate being used as an example of girls in forced gender roles with bleak futures.

  4. Alexis Saint says:

    The WINGS program is a wonderful opportunity for girls. I hold fast to the “each one reach one” paradigm, and the personal “one to one” aspect is just the ticket to getting a young girls mind to open up to the possibility of college and beyond. One woman showing one girl how it can work and giving her a “day in the life” vantage piont is so much more powerful and meaningful than a career counselor addressing a group of students in a school auditorium.

    My husband is in graduate school currently and we have taken the opportunity to share with our children all the opportunities available to them according to their interests. In addition they see us fitting our regularly scheduled life together with educational goals.

  5. 1001 petals says:

    The WINGS program sounds wonderful and I would definitely enroll my daughter into it.

    I can understand why you see a problem with young women gaining a sense of accomplishment by expressing their sexuality. It irks me as well.

  6. nickyt says:

    You should be careful about your stereotypes of cheerleaders. There are wonderful lessons learned from participation on a cheerleading squad that carry over into adult life.

    I can stand up in front of a crowd of 2 or 502 with no fear or hesitation. And I am confident in my public speaking abilities because of my 4 years as a cheerleader.

    I learned to work with others and learned to respect others’ opinions. Trying to get 12 teenage girls to come to an agreement on something isn’t easy, the same can be said for 12 Board members. My experience as a high school cheerleader has benefitted my professional life on numerous occasions.

    I learned to put my trust in others and I learned how to put others before me. As the “base” in all of our stunts, my job was not to let the “flyer” hit the ground before me in the event the stunt went wrong. I still use this mantra today with my family, friends, and collegues.

    I learned the lessons of dedication and commitment. I had to be there at every game and practice to fulfill my part in the stunts and routines. My not being in my place to do my job directly affected the 11 other girls on my squad. I am sure both my superiors and my subordinates appreciate this lesson I learned.

    I learned to love my body despite my being a little thicker. I had to wear that short skirt and sweater more than my jeans and t-shirts and I learned to accept what my body looked like in it. To this day, almost 20 years after I hung up my cheerleading uniform, I still accept my body despite what two pregnancies and age have done to it.

    I also developed a love for physical activity. Cheerleading is not easy. It takes strength, endurance, agility, and flexibility. And in most areas, a cheerleader’s season lasts the entire school year, not just a couple of months like other sports. I also learned to be accepting and inclusive. We were not allowed to cheer for just the “popular” sports, but we supported all sports, male and female, popular and lesser known. We also supported the band and theater teams when they went off to state competitions. This has directly affected the way I interact with all people in my professional life.

    Hmm… while I might be new to your site, I have to think that the lessons learned from my 4 years on a cheerleading squad coincide with many of the lessons you are promoting we teach our young girls.

  7. Omie says:

    My daughter is 5 and I would definitely sign her up for such a program. I think it’s a great idea and a much needed one. I don’t have anything against cheerleaders but the image is too pervasive – we need many many many more girl images to provide balance. When my daughter was younger and her dad got her a sweatpants that had “basketball” on it, she explained to me that “girls don’t play basketball, they wear short skirts and hold things in their hands” and she proceeded to give me a demonstration shaking imaginary pompoms. It was hilarious, but also saddening. I got a lecture in on how girls can do anything they want to, including play basketball.

    Omie’s last blog post..I want to learn too

  8. Anna K says:

    I would love for your program to be available to my daughter and all her friends. Heck, I would love to have attended it myself. Please continue with or without the approval of your supervisor. For the record, I was a ‘dumb blonde’ cheerleader and if she had known me in high school she probably would have assumed that I ‘wouldn’t be interested’ in a program like that. Guess what? I wasn’t dumb. Cheerleading was as fun as school got, but it also made me sad because no one cheered for us. I would have taken a graduate student mentor aaaaannnyyyy day. ‘Wouldn’t be interested’ is usually just code for ‘she’s probably not smart enough.’ –and it doesn’t get more elitist than that. Please go through with your idea, I think it’s great.

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