Not quite a year has passed since I began blogging on the subject of women, work, and academe. Last year as I took part in activities designed to acknowledge the achievements of women and to support women on the Southern Polytechnic State University campus, I became quite interested in what it means for girls and women to succeed. How do we define success for girls and women? How do we help girls and women achieve it? Is success for girls and women different from success for boys and men?
We Americans tend to define success in relationship to the American Dream. While no one has said the American Dream must be a material one involving prosperity gained through education and hard work, my students and other Americans often equate it with such a definition. Signs of success are often wealth, a house, land, marriage, children, and the opportunity to have a “career” versus a “job.” Many Americans believe an education and hard work create social mobility and mean richer, fuller lives.
Traditionally succeeding like a girl meant finding and marrying a man who would work hard to provide for his loved ones. When I was growing up in rural Indiana in the 1960’s and 70’s, several of my girlfriends prepared for such a marriage by creating a hope chest. They placed embroidered items such as pillowcases and tablecloths, hand-sewn quilts, knitted and crocheted blankets, recipes, and so on in their hope chests in preparation for living their version of the American Dream. My friend Theresa and I often joked about my ‘hopeless’ chest. Considering that she gave me the only recipe box that I still own and that I never managed to create the other items, my preparation for the good life was deemed quite poor at the time.
Obviously a sound marriage is still often seen as an ingredient in determining success for women and girls, but it seems as though girls and women want to add more ingredients to their recipe. Furthering their education, joining clubs and organizations, and playing sports have become important additions. Girls and women may now find entering and working in the public sphere as important as taking care of family and home in the private sphere. In other words, access to opportunities that were once relegated to men have also become important for girls and women. At least the legislators who worked to pass Title IX’s Education Amendments of 1972 over forty years ago believed this to be true.
Title IX was passed with the intention of prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex by “any education programs or activities receiving Federal financial assistance.” While exemptions were made for same sex schools and some other types of schools, the intent was for the law to apply to public or private preschools, elementary and secondary schools and vocational and professional institutions as well as higher education.
When Title IX was passed in 1972, I was a twelve-year-old tomboy/nerd. My father and his older brother had played college level sports and their love of games had been handed down to their children. Up until the summer of 1973, my sisters and I played sports only at home or at recess. We watched as our brothers played organized sports at school or for summer league baseball.
In the summer of 1973, my opportunity to expand which sports I played and where I played them blossomed.
The city of Rensselaer hosted its first girls’ softball league. The following fall a girls’ volleyball team and a girls’ basketball team became options at my middle school for the first time. In high school I played softball and basketball and l ran the mile in track for one year. While title IX sent the message that girls and women belonged on the sports fields, in clubs, and in higher education, at that age I only cared that I could play team sports. It wasn’t until much later that I realized more fully Title IX’s importance to my education and my life choices.
Since the passing of Title IX, girls who have participated in organized sports have seen an increased success rate in college and later in life, but it’s not only high school female athletes who have boosted the numbers of women in colleges. Young women in general have benefitted from Title IX. The number of girls who have graduated from high school and who have immediately enrolled in college has gone from 42% in 1972 to 68.4% in 2013. The 2013 enrollment rate for young women actually surpassed that of the rate for young men, which was 63.5%.
Succeeding Like a Girl Today
For women like me Title IX changed what succeeding like a girl meant by creating new opportunities for us. I think the tendency for many women of my generation, however, was to stick pretty close to the status quo. I decided to interview several young girls to see what supports them in their vision to succeed and to see what succeeding like a girl means to them. All of the young girls I interviewed are fortunate to have highly educated parents who support them in their endeavors. Thus, the lens through which we’re viewing what it means to succeed like a girl is one that focuses on what are essentially best case scenarios for girls.
Four girls filled out a survey for me concerning their views on being girls today. I now have had the chance to interview all four girls and to learn more about them and their views.
Eden Rorabaugh, 14, is now making her way through high school at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School in Fayetteville, Georgia. She enjoys being on teams and has played soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, ultimate Frisbee, and softball just for fun. She has also participated in individual sports such as karate and tennis as well.
One thing she really enjoyed this past summer was going to Camp Meriwether, the Girls Scout camp in Luthersville, Georgia, where she took part in a rope course, rock climbing, and jumping as she and the other girls built leadership and teamwork skills. While at the camp Eden thought she was on the best team she has ever been on in her life. She said the team was good at huddling up and determining how to handle the games. She learned through games such as the dot game, that success is built on a lot of trial and error. Eden told me that she usually takes failure hard, but in these cases it was key to learn from failures to create success.
One thing Eden really likes about herself is her ability to make friends and to work with others. She builds confidence in herself by working on her artwork and by playing and listening to music. She can play the French horn, the piano, and the guitar. She listens to alternative rock and folk music. She loves the instrumental sounds of jazz.
Eden loves to read fiction. She has read the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games series, the Divergent Trilogy, and other teen fiction—anything that she can relate to herself.
I asked all the girls I interviewed what they are willing to work hard at to achieve success. Eden told me that she works hard to earn good grades and will study really hard to earn them. For a math project that was important to her, she gave up playing outside in the evening so she could put more time into her project. She said that she is willing to work on examples from practice exams, to use flash cards to help her memorize facts, to go over notes and highlight what she sees as important, and to review past tests and quizzes in order to understand what teachers emphasize.
Eden currently has two loves that she is considering for her future. First, she loves English and writing. She would love to be a novelist. Second, she also likes science and studying about ecosystems.
When I was first chatting with Eden and Maggie Korn, they both indicated that the quality of the teacher is very important to them. Eden told me that the quality of a teacher is important, especially for mathematics. She likes to see how what she is learning applies to the world around her and would love it if her math teachers would help to make these connections for their students. She also told me what she dislikes from teachers, namely when she feels that they purposefully add trick questions to see if students will catch the trick. Eden feels that teaching should be about helping students to do as well as possible and not about tricking them so they will fail.
I asked all the girls what it means to succeed like a girl. Eden thinks that succeeding like a girl may in part be working against some of the stereotypes that exist about girls. The example she gave me concerned mathematics. She finds that a lot of people think boys are good at math, but girls are not. She thinks it’s great to challenge the status quo.
Maggie Korn, 13, is studying at Simpson Middle School in Marietta, Georgia. Although she tries to exercise regularly, sports are not important to her. What is important to her is the learning and support she receives from two organizations: The Girl Scouts and Girl Talk. Maggie told me that she has gained a lot of confidence from these groups. The Girls Scouts has helped her to gain independence. Maggie is understandably disappointed that her current troop is disbanding. She hopes that she and other members from it can join another troop. The second group is Girl Talk and it has provided Maggie with a high school mentor who has helped her negotiate the difficult times in middle school. This group helps her to build leadership skills as well.
Maggie told me she is not a gloater so she was pretty circumspect when talking about what she has achieved for herself. However, one of things she likes about herself is her ability to figure something out in her head before others figure the same thing out. She especially likes to observe and understand people.
Like Eden, Maggie is a reader. She reads most anything, but she loves fiction, especially fantasy, science fiction, and mysteries. Maggie loves Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. She has read all 22 books. This series concerns anthropomorphic animals—Maggie especially enjoys Martin the Warrior, who happens to be a mouse, and she likes when historical figures are introduced to the story line.
Working hard to improve her handwriting and typing skills is important to Maggie. Because she deals with dysgraphia, she has trouble with both of these skills. Thus, she puts time and effort into improving them. When she wants to do well on a project for school, she plans ahead so that she can do the best work possible.
The quality of teachers is quite important to Maggie. She said that a good teacher equals a good year. She says she can like and enjoy bad teachers on a personal level, but if they won’t or can’t answer her questions, they still equal a bad year.
Maggie gained her chief interest for her future during a school day called the “Day of Coding.” She realized that it was fun to write three lines of code and to see an object on her computer screen dance or flap its wings because of the code she wrote. She has continued to work on coding outside of school and finds she is good at it. She is considering computer game design or graphic design for her career. While Maggie does not like failure at all, she doesn’t see having to go back to edit code as a failure. Instead she sees it and other work like it as simply part of the process.
Finally I asked Maggie what she thinks it means to succeed like a girl. Maggie believes that success is a personal thing and it doesn’t have to mean the same thing for each person. She says that it can be as simple as a mental win that you enjoy for yourself even if others don’t know about it.
Kya Stutzmann, 11, was the youngest girl I interviewed. She currently attends Newnan Lee Middle School in Newnan, Georgia. Kya is a go-getter. She has already created a resume of activities that is more thorough than what I created after I completed my undergraduate education at the University of Dayton in Ohio. On her resume she has included items such as citizenship awards, a math award, a student of the month award, and the fact that she received first place in volunteer hours for the National Honors Society. Kya has taken part in the Talent Identification Program (TIP) at Duke University; she was part of the Pathfinder Excursion Squadron for the US Navy Sea Cadets, a non-profit youth program for Americans ages 11 through 17; and she has acted in several plays at the Newnan Community Theatre.
Kya has a black belt in karate. She told me that karate builds her confidence since self defense is important. She said that she knows what to do and how to protect herself.
This summer Kya worked on an internship with a veterinarian in New England who works with unusual pets such as snakes, parrots, hedgehogs, and Chinese water dragons. Kya got to meet the animals and ask questions about them. She helped to clean syringes and fill bottles. She also had the opportunity to observe three surgeries, one of which was for a parrot with a tumor.
Kya thinks her greatest strength is her ability to be courageous and to try new things.
She told me that she learned to be open to new things when she first rode a horse. It was a bit scary for her at first, but being on a horse was exciting and made her feel tall. She now volunteers at the Fruition Horse Farm in Palmetto, Georgia.
Given her love of horses it’s not surprising that Kya wants to study veterinary sciences or equine sciences in her future. Because she does well in mathematics and science in school, she should be able to create the necessary academic background for studying in these fields. She told me that what she loves about mathematics is how it “goes on and on” since there are always new things to learn.
When I asked Kya what it meant to succeed like a girl, she told me that she didn’t see the difference between how boys and girls succeed: boys and girls succeed alike.
Emma McMorran, 15, is a student at Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. She likes being independent, and she likes to pursue what makes her happy, “regardless of what others think.” Some of the things that currently make Emma happy are bonding with her rowing teammates. She has rowed for one season now and is looking forward to another. English and writing come naturally to her and she enjoys both of them. Like Maggie and Eden, Emma loves to read. She would rather read the novel than watch the movie since when she reads the novel she gets to imagine what the characters look like and how they act. Hanging out with friends is another activity Emma really likes.
Because plans and goals are important to Emma, she keeps an organized calendar so she can maintain control of her interests. Emma likes to have a plan for each school year. She likes to map out her activities and the clubs she will join. When she maps out her interests, she likes to consider which clubs and activities will look good on a college application as well as well as which ones will be fun. While she is still keeping her college options open, Emma is interested in medicine as well as English and writing.
What Emma likes best about herself is her determination. Once she sets her mind on a specific goal, she works hard to achieve it. Failure scares her so she uses her determination to succeed and improve. She definitely has goals for academic success and she likes to figure out what she needs to do to get the grade she wants in a class and then she works toward that goal.
Emma also feels that teachers play important roles in her life. She said in some cases poor teachers don’t matter quite as much to her if the field comes naturally to her, such as in English. However, she thinks excellent teachers are more important in science classes such as chemistry or in mathematics since students must understand ideas at one level to understand ideas at the next level.
While Emma believes that the standards for succeeding like a girl are set individually by each girl—one may want to be a homemaker, but another may want to go to work—she also has been happy to see more girls and women going into careers such as those in business.
I can understand why Emma feels this way. I looked up to my sister Mary Ann when I was growing up. When she succeeded at something, I then knew I had a chance to succeed at it as well. I was happy for her, but I also learned about my own opportunities.
What I Learned
I learned that all of the girls plan to go to college. Eden believes that it’s important for all people—no matter their gender—to go to college since it expands their knowledge and confidence. She thinks an education opens opportunities for people, too. All of the girls indicated that they like to please their parents and friends. All of them also like to follow their own interests whether others are interested or not.
As I thought about the four girls, I realized how rich their lives are in experiences and knowledge gained outside of the classroom. The only organization I participated in other than sports was 4-H, which was quite popular in rural Indiana where I grew up. I know that two of these girls have benefited greatly from the Girl Scouts, even though Eden is not currently a member. At least three of them have been given opportunities to learn about leadership—Kya and Emma agree that they are role models for their friends. All four have also taken the opportunity to work hard at things—to be disciplined in their pursuits to better themselves.
As I look back at the girl I once was, I realize that I didn’t understand how my participation in athletics would help me since, like Eden, I just played sports for fun. However, all of the sports I have played, have taught me the importance of challenging myself, the benefits of practice in order to improve my skills, the realization that error is part of the game and helps one to improve, the need for teamwork, and that it’s okay to be competitive and a girl. Most importantly I learned discipline by running the mile, 5Ks, and 10Ks. I learned that one can keep an eye on the current lap and keep in mind the final goal. This discipline played a role in writing my dissertation and in helping me me to balance a work schedule after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999.
The current, rich experience of the four girls will help them in their adulthood as well.
So what does it mean to succeed like a girl? I think the girls have some good insights into answers for this question. Kya and Eden think that succeeding like a girl isn’t all that different from succeeding like a boy. Emma believes that it is important to succeed at what makes you happy. Maggie agrees that success is personal: our own interests determine what we want to achieve for ourselves. It is nice to think that success is as varied as each of us, whether male or female.
The American Dream often seems to be defined narrowly, but America more than most countries values the importance of individualism. The right to pursue happiness is written in the Declaration of Independence. After communicating with Emma, Eden, Maggie, and Kya, I realized that none of their dreams for their future ended with the statement, “I could make a lot of money doing this.” I also realized how much Title IX has supported and added opportunities for girls to succeed in a variety of ways. I wish all four girls well as they find ways to put their talents and interests to good use in fulfilling ways.
For my readers, consider commenting on success and the American Dream. What do these terms mean to you?
 For more information on how sports participation has affected girls and women see Maha Atal’s article: “Happy 40th Anniversary Title IX: From Girls Sports to Women Wages.”
 Data for the 1972 numbers can be found in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Census Report concerning school enrollment in the United States. Data for the 2013 numbers can be found in the Bureau of Labor’s Economic News Release concerning college enrollment and work activity for 2013 high school graduates.