By Sally Friedman
I can remember the moment it happened. I was in sixth grade and had proudly used the word
, which my father had just taught me. Harvey, the class bully, started the snickering.
Slowly, all the boys in the class joined him. I felt myself blushing and wishing the floor would swallow me up.
It was also the last time I used an interesting word in school during that stage of my life. I was, after all, a girl, and girls weren't supposed to be noticed or to seem smart.
I would go on to love and respect words privately. But it wasn't until I was in college that I finally armed myself against the Harveys of the world - a long and painful process.
I thought that what had happened to many girls of my generation couldn't possibly happen to girls in these enlightened times.
I was wrong.
History is repeating itself, at least according to a landmark study, "Girls Share Their Voice," released last month by the Alice Paul Institute, a Mount Laurel organization named for a feisty feminist who devoted her life to the struggle for women's suffrage. The news was not wonderful.
The study revealed that girls, particularly those entering their teens, still find their voices being muffled, or even silenced, and that national issues affecting girls, such as body image and personal safety, are not being adequately addressed.
Poor self-esteem remains a problem for teen and even preteen girls, the study suggested. It said there was a need for more cooperation among agencies that focus on girls, and for a greater emphasis on women's history.
Adolescence, particularly eighth grade, seems to be the critical time when girls leave the conversation, the study says. It's when they desperately need mentors and models to remind them that they are equal to their male counterparts.
I'm not surprised. As a newly minted eighth-grade English teacher way back in the early 1960s, I saw girls who were privately articulate and who wrote beautiful essays sit silently during class discussions - dominated by confident, swaggering boys.
I was horrified. I wish I could say that I rescued these girls, but I was too young and naive to make a dent.
Then I raised three daughters. Their experiences were slightly more positive; Betty Friedan had already come along and told all of us that we had voices, too. But my daughters weren't about to break certain adolescent taboos: Girls still deferred to boys if they wanted to be popular.
Now there are three granddaughters, all taught that they can do anything that boys can do. But even they may be stopped in their confident little tracks. "Girls Share Their Voice" revealed that some fundamental issues remain virtually unchanged. So the cycle grinds on. There is still much work to be done.
While I gratefully celebrate the leaps women have made, I also lament the echoes of the past. There are still those gender gaps: Girls still struggle to assume leadership roles, and those middle school years are still the battleground for the survival of self-esteem.
My generation has learned, through the fray, that sisterhood is powerful. And it seems that in my granddaughters' generation, it still needs to be.
To see the "Girls Share Their Voice" study, go to