For one night, as I sat in an art gallery on an unseasonably warm day in mid-February, I was transported back in time to my teenage years. Professors Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby spoke to a full crowd of all ages to celebrate the launch of their book, Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-feminism. The authors documented and analyzed interviews from fifty-seven “self-described smart girls” between the ages of twelve and eighteen, over the course of five years. As Dr. Raby read an excerpt from Chapter 3 about Virginia, and her conflict between the desire to succeed academically and the need to be socially accepted, memories of self-doubt and insecurity of those tumultuous years came washing over me. Apparently, high school hasn’t changed much: “there is still tension between being smart and being a girl.”
One major difference for today’s smart girl described by Pomerantz and Raby is the culture of neoliberalism, and the idea that academic success is no longer enough. She must also excel in athletics, arts, and community service; keep up on social media; maintain strong friendships; stay on top of fashion trends to fit in with peers; and most of all, make good decisions. She must be prepared in every way possible to succeed in an uncertain world. She must do all of this while going through the physical and emotional challenges of puberty. And, she must do this in a post-feminist environment that claims there is no longer a need for feminism. One troubling dominant narrative in the media and popular psychological accounts of high-achieving girls is that they experience an uncomplicated academic success at the expense of boys; female academic success is higher than male, so sexism isn’t a problem any more in education, goes the post-feminist thinking. There is also a troubling narrative that race and class can be overcome with enough hard work. It’s Lean In, the teenage edition.
The book itself walks the line between a trade paperback and an academic publication – Pomerantz described it as “trackademic” – and weaves the girls’ deeply personal experiences into their analytic web. Some of the books findings are chilling, chief among them the fact that the post-feminist narrative in popular culture minimizes the reality of sexism in school, even in the girls’ own minds. Many girls feel that they have to use their social skills to offset the negative side effects of being smart. They dumb themselves down in order to be attractive to boys. There is an increasingly high “supergirl” standard that makes it harder to please parents and teachers.
But there is a lot of hope in the book as well. Many girls in the study are grounded and self-assured enough to flout convention and resist popular notions of femininity, making space for themselves and others to find new ways of being smart girls. The authors also describe the culture at three schools that create a space where girls can both challenge popular femininity and enjoy their academic success.
What can we do to support smart girls? One of the most important steps the authors suggest is to give them the language they need by teaching feminism and gender studies in school:
The young people we talked with did not have easy access to a language of analysis and change. Powerful terms like “sexism” and “racism” seemed difficult for many of them to accept or use, and they would frequently default to attributing any failures to problems they experienced to their own and others’ individual choices and responsibilities rather than considering structural inequalities that shaped their lives. Talking about these issues in schools and beyond opens up greater opportunities for girls to recognize such disparities, embrace a critical voice, and engage with allies who might support that voice in becoming louder. (175)
In looking back at my own youth, I wonder how well I would do in today’s high schools. And I look to my daughter, and fear for the challenges that lie ahead of her. But most of all, this book gives me hope that the upcoming generation of women is smart, and strong, and is going to have a big impact on Canadian society and the world at large.
Buy Smart Girls online at Indigo here or at your local bookseller.