Proud to Be She
In March, Women’s History Month, we’re paying special attention to the challenges that young girls face growing into adult womanhood.
Since 1987 our nation has celebrated “Women’s History Month.” That decision (a Congressional resolution) came on the heels of a 1970s feminist revolution aimed at opening for women any career path they chose and any future they deemed worthy. Let’s not stereotype women, was the message: women’s contributions need not be limited to home and family nurture; they have been and can be valuable contributors to economic and social wellbeing. The women’s movement of that era sought educational and professional opportunities equal to those offered men.
Young women who came of age in the 1970s largely lived out those dreams and forged paths that would open doors for the next generation of women. In 1970, men outnumbered women at the university by 58 percent to 42%, but by 1980 the enrollment by sex was 50-50. Now women surpass men as a percentage. And career paths were unlimited: women became architects, astronomers, bankers, engineers, entrepreneurs, fighter pilots, etc. The Core Virtues Women’s History Month tab recommends numerous wonderful children’s biographies of the many trailblazers in those fields. And most of the women profiled, from Abigail Adams to Eleanor Roosevelt, were also proud to be wives, mothers, and homemakers. It would seem that with all this progress, there has never been a better time to be a woman.
But evidence from many sources suggests the opposite. Last month the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released data showing that teen girls “were engulfed in [a wave of] violence and trauma.” And we see that reflected in news stories. Online bullying incidents among girls have become toxic and tragic. Last month fourteen-year-old Adriana Kuch was savagely attacked by other teen girls in a New Jersey high school hallway. Bystander girls filmed the beating, then posted it on Tik Tok, with ongoing taunts about how she “deserved it.” Mortified and humiliated, ninety-eight-pound, five foot two Adriana, who loved animals and worked with special needs kids, committed suicide two days later.
This is an extreme case with devastating consequences – but it is not isolated. Teen girls “beating up” on other teen girls via social media is now a national epidemic. For decades girls have been infamous for cliques that exclude those who are “not cool,” (satirized in the 2004 movie Mean Girls) but since 2007 “mean girls” have been armed with a new weapon: the smartphone. Amid screen-addicted friends, they spread shame, mockery, and self-doubt. No wonder the CDC finds that 57% of teen girls report themselves “persistently sad or hopeless,” and that 30% have considered suicide.
Here's another alarming stat for the future of womanhood. One in five thirteen to seventeen-year-olds are identifying as “transgender,” and the vast majority are pre-teen and teen girls who showed no sign of gender dysphoria (discomfort in the sex of their birth) in early childhood. What was once a rare psychiatric condition (until 2013 known as “gender identity disorder”) that manifested itself almost exclusively among pre-school boys who identified as girls--has become a social trend.
Girls as young as fifth grade are opting out of growing into adult womanhood. They cut their hair, change their name and pronouns, adopt male clothing, bind their breasts, and contemplate puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, perhaps the eventual top surgery and phalloplasty. More than any other writer Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Abigail Shrier documented and analyzed this phenomenon of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” in her jaw-dropping 2020 book, Irreversible Damage: How the Transgender Craze is Seducing Our Daughters. She too found social media peer groups pushing this evolution and documents many of its long-term effects.
These new developments bode ill for the future of womanhood. Girl-on-girl physical, emotional, and verbal abuse of the scale we are now seeing is new and frightening. It mirrors the behavior of fictional pre-teen boys in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, in which cruelty, tribalism, and savagery come to characterize British boys stranded on a desert island. Typically, we did not associate this behavior with girls. And now young girls imagine themselves born into the wrong body and seek a new identity as males.
Why are these behaviors developing among American girls? There are three answers: one psychological, one technological and the other cultural.
Psychology first. Teens are a peer-driven group. This is the age at which young people seek to establish independence from parents, and strengthen their own identity and self-worth, often in tightly knit and trusted peer groups. Psychologists see this increased peer-group reliance as a not-necessarily-unhealthy step in emotional maturity. It is a way of both asserting young adult independence and acquiring emotional support by acceptance into a chosen group. Teen girls are particularly insatiable in their desire for peer group connection.
When those peer groups are healthy (kids who are excited about learning, the arts, outdoor activities, sports, faith, or supportive of helping others) the experience is positive and a step in emotional maturity. When peer groups are power- and exclusion-driven (kids who see coolness in wealth, appearance, clothing, manner of speech, etc.) the experience can quickly become toxic. Such peer groups thrive on ostracism and the rising incidence of bullying in American middle and high schools attests to that.
Throw into this mix our new twenty-first century companion: the smartphone, born as the “iPhone” in 2007. America’s parents have been reeling ever since. According to the Pew Research Center 88% of American teens own a smartphone (the average age of the adolescent user is 12-13), and as of 2019, 95% had access to one at home. 78% of teens check their phones at least every hour. 72% feel the urge to respond to their texts of phone notifications. 59% of parents think their teens have a smartphone addiction.
On the surface, this tool of technology is morally neutral; it has the potential to connect, inform, and entertain us all. But the advent of social media has enabled online peer groups. We are seeing on an unprecedented scale teen cyber-bullying, and in-group out-group exclusions. Tik-tok, Snapchat, and many other apps have come vehicles for sharing mortifying photos, publishing cruel comments, and encouraging self-doubt and self-hatred particularly among young girls. Many teen girls live in fear of what will be said about them online--a forum they do not control.
Other girls use social media to seek out a peer group that gives them both a unique identity and a support group. Count most of the newly trans teens among the latter. Vulnerable or just plain curious young girls they find plenty of support online for ditching society’s and their parents’ expectations of them at the most basic level – their sex. Puberty for girls has always been challenging, involving physical pain and discomfort, emotional rollercoasters of mood swings, and a large dose of insecurity. And since the 1970s, we’ve been broadcasting loud and clear that on the other side of the puberty divide, men have the upper hand. Women have to be twice as good to compete. And women have the added “burden” of childbearing and home making.
So, what could be more appealing than opting out of all that? Abigail Shrier’s book documents the near-universal phenomenon of these young girls’ deep involvement on social media forums that offer new and exciting peer groups. Trans peer groups advertise themselves as a new family, and even encourage teen distancing from their biological families, as they establish their new gender non-conforming identity. Again, often with tragic results. A recent case in Virginia led one fifteen-year-old girl to leave her family home and meet up with her “online family,” only to discover that she fled to the arms of human traffickers. Why are girls doing this?
Because in the realm of culture we have an unfinished feminist revolution. The Core Virtues program highlights compassion, faithfulness, and mercy as March virtues. These are virtues for both sexes, but they have historically been most closely associated with women. The nineteenth century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously held up the “eternal feminine” (ewig-weibliche) as the highest human ideal. “The eternal feminine draws us on high” were the words with which he closed his masterpiece Faust. That feminine ideal embodied such traits as beauty, truth, love, compassion, mercy and grace. It was embraced by American feminists Margaret Fuller and Edna Cheney. It’s no accident that our March Core Virtues “heroes” have been mostly “heroines” – Clara Barton, Anne Sullivan, Mother Teresa.
Compassion, mercy, and grace are the qualities that have characterized not just significant social reformers, but also the familial pillars of our society -- good mothers. Even as I write that last line, I am backing away from it. The 1970s feminist revolution (of which I was a part) broadcast the message: motherhood and homemaking is not the whole story. But often the subtext was: motherhood and homemaking are for those who can’t cut it in the “real” world of commerce, enterprise, or academia. Motherhood is a biological accident of nature, not a worthy aspiration. And please don’t tell me to be meek and mild.
The message we have not sent our daughters in the last fifty years is:
I am taking a suggestion from Abigail Shrier’s closing chapter and asking that our March message to young women be: it’s great to be a girl. I’m proud to be she.
-Mary Beth Klee
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Love of Country Matters
I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off.
I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early because he knows she might someday cure a disease.
I see it the American who served his time, and made mistakes as a child but is now dreaming of starting over – and I see it in the business owner who gives him that second chance.
I see it in the protester determined to prove that justice matters – and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave quiet work of keeping us safe …
That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted….Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America.”
Mary Beth Klee
Dr. Klee holds a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Brandeis University.
“Courage is moving beyond fear; it is having the strength to venture and persevere.”
Sometimes intellectual and moral courage makes you an object of scorn and derision. Galileo experienced that. So did Martin Luther King Jr. But scholars and thinkers who pursue the truth know they will sometimes face headwinds. The Core Virtues nominee for intellectual and moral courage this month is Stephen B. Levine, M.D. of Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Levine, an American psychiatrist, is renowned for his five decades of work in human sexuality and gender dysphoria (discomfort in the sex of one’s birth). His expertise is of great relevance currently.
In the past fifteen years, we have seen a huge uptick in pre-pubescent and teen girls who are experiencing what has been termed “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” Two decades ago, gender dysphoria was extremely rare – afflicting approximately one in ten thousand children. Those afflicted were generally little boys who identified as girls, eighty percent of whom outgrew the disorder by age eighteen. But since 2010, the incidence of gender dysphoria claims has sky-rocketed, and the fastest growing segment is pre-teen and teen girls. One in five 13–17-year-olds are identifying themselves as transgender, and the vast majority are girls who showed no sign of gender confusion in their early childhood. One Core Virtues school reported that four of their fifth-grade girls had recently declared themselves “trans” in class. These are eleven-year-olds who believe their identity and future does not lie in adult womanhood. They are changing their hairstyles, names, and pronouns, and thinking about binding their budding breasts. Do they know the next step in this journey is puberty blockers, then eventually cross-sex hormone treatments, which will lead to sterility?
Many schools are struggling with how to respond to what appears to be a phenomenon driven by social media and peer groups. Dr. Levine’s work in the field of transgender care is extensive and exemplary. His presentation to the Pennsylvania State Legislature, which was considering funding for youth transgender care, is a clear-eyed and courageous presentation of what we know and what we don’t know about transgenderism and best treatment. He is taking a lot of heat for it. At a time when many physicians are accepting patient self-diagnosis and providing (lucrative) “gender-affirming” treatment even for minors, Dr. Levine takes a hard look at the evidence. He urges respect and compassion, but cautions against social affirmation as the best response for those under 18, and believes this may trap vulnerable young people in a life of diminished prospects. Bravo to him for the courage to speak truthfully about a profoundly troubling national phenomenon.
Mary Beth Klee
NB: Dr. Levine's presentation constitutes the first 52 minutes of this 1:27 minute hearing and constitutes the key material.
Look up! We’re DART-ing into Dimorphos
My husband was the inadvertent poster child for perseverance that night. He piloted us through three hours safely. Throughout the drive I could hear my granddaughter shouting at me, “Perseverance is not my best virtue!” During the summer I’d urged her to summon that excellence and keep swimming towards me across what to her seemed an impossibly long stretch of bay. She made it. A short swim. Like our short drive.
But now the real work of perseverance begins for so many. Starting from scratch. Rebuilding. Summoning reserves of resolve, diligence, and hope. Staying focused for the long haul as we work to restore homes, businesses, and lives. It’s hard to persevere when life has become a mucky slog, rather than a terrifying adventure.
For many, it’s about waiting an hour in their overheated cars in ninety degree weather as they queue up for food. Yesterday, in one part of Naples, Our Daily Bread, Al’s Pals, and the Salvation Army gave out more than 300 free meals, bags of food, and grocery store gift certificates for families ranging from two to ten people. Families who’d lost their homes, their livelihoods. Many of them had English as their second language. The lines stretched out the high school parking lot and moved at a snail’s pace. But people waited and received with gratitude and good grace.
I have had stellar examples of perseverance in my life. My mother was a prisoner of war during World War II, and for three years endured captivity, disease, cruelty, and starvation in a Japanese internment camp in Manila. She was full of stories about enduring and outwitting hunger (she kept a recipe book) and boredom (though study and shows), surviving diphtheria and beriberi, and occasionally outwitting their captors. She weighed ninety pounds when liberated and stood 5’4.
In 2015 I attended a seventieth anniversary event for the liberation of the camp, and a high school student asked one of the surviving internees (then in her late 80s) whether she or others had been tempted to suicide in the face of such a struggle. The girl admitted that she herself sometimes had suicidal thoughts and had endured no such tragedy. Mrs. Bennett looked surprised at the question. “No, no, we didn’t,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who thought of suicide. We had each other and we never lost hope. We knew, we just knew our boys would come and liberate us.” And they did.
Perseverance is not a flashy virtue. It's about putting one foot in front of the other again and again -- hour after hour, day after day, and sometimes year after year. But, as Joan Bennett reminded us, perseverance is closely related to hope. And friends along the way. Barry had the hope of finding his family and the companionship of Cruz. Internees had the hope of freedom and the unfailing support of each other. The Hispanic and Haitian-born Naples needy have the perennial hope of the American dream, a better life in this new country they’ve adopted, and they’ve got the help of each other, along with volunteers and organizations who roll up their sleeves and say “we’re all in this together.” So, to quote a sage, “let us persevere in running the race that lies before us.”
Mary Beth Klee
To contribute to Florida disaster relief, your help is needed at https://www.volunteerflorida.org/donatefdf/
September: From Leisure to Labor
At this point teachers and children are fully immersed in their academic labors, but it’s hard, isn’t it? The golden light of summer still surrounds us. Weekends permit last, longed-for visits to the beach. Sunsets come earlier and evenings are cooler, but our hearts still leap as those orange, purple, and amber rays tint the water’s edge.
Every September I marvel at the wisdom of our “Labor Day” holiday as the first Monday of September. In Europe and most other parts of the world, the holiday is celebrated on May 1, a time when the world’s working population is getting ready to frolic. Spring is in the air; summer will soon arrive and vacation allow them respite. In the U.S. alone, we place that holiday with its cookouts and picnics just before we start to labor in earnest: September.
Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor who lobbied for the establishment of the federal holiday reminded us that “it differs essentially from some of the other holidays of the year in that it glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man,” but instead, celebrates hard work and human dignity, promotes “a nobler manhood, womanhood, and childhood, which may look forward to the day of deliverance from absurd economic conditions and cruel burdens.”
In the century since the holiday’s inception, Americans have broadened the significance of Labor Day to include not simply organized labor but the dignity of all labor. September itself, as any teacher can tell you, is hard work. It is the daily demand of the alarm clock, the lesson plans prepared, the notebooks and schoolbooks ready to go, the lunch packed before you walk out the door. It is eight hours of leading a charge, confronting the expected and unexpected. It is busy and buzzing concentration in class, exuberant shouts, strides, and races on the playground. It is meeting fretful parents in the parking lot. It is exhausting… It is exhilarating. It is labor.
Established in 1894 by Grover Cleveland’s administration, Labor Day came at a time when working conditions in steel factories, coal mines, and railyards were abysmal. Yet Gompers declared “our labor movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate humanity.” (NY Times, Sep 4, 1910) He envisioned that progress through the work of unions, which advocated for an eight hour day, restrictions on child labor, wage security, safer working conditions and much more.
How does it build us up – develop and rejuvenate our humanity? In this post-pandemic September, I suspect that most teachers have their answer right in front of them. The children are thrilled to be back to in person learning, so excited to be together, with their new and old friends, with their teachers, with real people and real purpose all around them. There is still anxiety: are we past this Covid thing? But there is no question that our labors are contributing to student wellbeing, growth and recently rediscovered social humanity. We are back to rejuvenating humanity.
And as for the children, it is worth letting them know that their labors are honored and important—that their efforts contribute to building a better world. Because they certainly do labor: September is remembering to do homework, having mom wake them up way too early, packing the homework as well as schoolbooks, recalling the lunch, getting to the bus stop on time, and then re-immersing themselves in all those class demands and rules – among them respect for their classmates and responsibility for the shared experience of school community life. Respect, responsibility, friendship – the great labors of September.
We’re standing on a new shore. Hopefully, rested from our leisure and fortified by one last trip to the beach, we’re ready to dive right in.
Mary Beth Klee
NB: Our Core Virtues website features many books on the Labor Day tab that speak to the dignity of labor – and especially how children have helped to build our country.
Leisure: It's Not Just Wasting Time
Commencement for Core Virtues
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.