Girls’ Schools, Girls’ Studies, and the Power to Create the World We Want

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Keynote speaker Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown, Professor of Education at Colby College, delivered an insightful presentation at the Girls' School Advantage event on April 30, 2017. Organized by the National Association of Girls' Schools (NCGS), the event also featured a student panel discussion which included Linden student Isobel Bain, Grade 10. 


By Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown.

The Linden School thanks Dr. Brown for adapting her keynote speech into the following article for the benefit of our community.

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In celebration of 25 years, the National Coalition of Girls Schools website affirms the power of a history “grounded in research and inspired by collaboration.” Reading this impressive history it occurred to me that there is, as yet, an untold story of research collaboration.

In 1980, a highly regarded psychologist, Joseph Adelson, asked a leading researcher to write a chapter on female adolescence for his Handbook of Adolescent Psychology. After consideration, she reported back to Adelson that there was not enough research at the time to warrant a single chapter.

Carol Gilligan used to tell this story to those who asked why she and a group of doctoral students, myself included, began The Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development in the mid-1980’s. As a research collective, we asked the impertinent question: Did we miss anything important about human nature and development by not listening to girls, by not studying over half the population?

We believed girls were experts on their own experience and so we set out to learn about girls by listening to girls. Right out of the gate we hit a significant barrier. Research requires funding, and few foundations at the time thought research about girls was a project worth funding.

This is where our worlds collided in the most wonderful way. Independent girls’ schools stepped up. They offered their schools as sites of research and they sought out private donors to support our work. For years, we flew groups of researchers from Harvard to Emma Willard in upstate New York and then to Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio to talk with girls about growing up girl.

The answer to our question was, yes, of course, we missed an enormous amount about human nature by not listening to girls.

We missed:

  • the reality that gender is mediated by culture, environment, and socialization;
  • the power of care, compassion, and collaboration, not only in girls’ lives, but the value of these relational strengths for all of us and for the planet;
  • the integrity young girls’ outspokenness, the clarity of their observations, and the power of what my colleague at the Harvard Project, Annie Rogers, calls “ordinary courage”—the capacity to “speak one’s mind with all one’s heart.”
  • girls’ open resistance and struggle to stay connected to what they feel and think, to know what they know, as they move into a culture that so often underestimates, undervalues, and disrespects them.

In the process of doing this work, we created a voice-sensitive method, a Guide to Listening—and we listened to voices of care, relationship, and desire; to voices of resistance and struggle. We wrote about race and class, about education and culture. And because we published articles and books from our findings, this work garnered attention. We were suddenly interesting to funders, and so we expanded our work to public schools, after-school programs, and community organizations.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this collaboration and research changed how we see girls and how we understand the conditions that support girls’ healthy development. Everything we learned has been folded back into girls’ schools, who make it their business to believe in research and science and to translate such findings to supportive and empowering progams and practices. That there is now a burgeoning field called Girls’ Studies in Canada and the U.S. that has its roots in this history, in your history.

The Harvard Project work was always about raising girls’ voices and fully engaging them in public and political life. I extend that project in my current work as I focus on understanding how best to support girls’ resistance and dissent in the face of injustice and oppression. Living in the U.S., I feel the urgency of this work every day. How do we create the conditions for girls’ voices to be heard? How do we hear their genuine questions and curiosity as something that can lead them, as educator Maxine Greene says, to imagine the world as if it could be otherwise and to bring a new, more compassionate and just world into being?

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Since 2010, I have been working with girl activists from around the U.S. and Canada at SPARK Movement. When they tell me about the kind of support they need from adults to do their work, I’m transported back to interviews I did 25 years ago in girls’ schools. The girl activists I listen to now describe a struggle for conditions that are in rich supply in schools like Linden. They need what you already have in abundance:

  • a feminist history that positions them in time and place, that broadens and deepens and contextualizes the issues they struggle with in this present moment;
  • relationships with adults that are honest and transparent; the opportunity to ask hard conversations about issues that matter;
  • respect for their knowledge and experience;
  • the opportunity to develop critical consciousness as a way of being, a way of relating, as well as a way of thinking, and the encouragement to challenge the status quo;
  • people who will stay with them, remain loyal to them, when they question the way things usually go;
  • supportive coalitions and the opportunity to work across difference and resist a lapse into niceness and sameness;
  • adults who treat them as trustworthy partners, who share knowledge and remain open to their questions and struggle;
  • resources that include access to information, materials, connections, financial support, and insider knowledge about negotiating the culture of power.

I have seen what girls can do when these conditions are met—the kinds of things that are possible when we bring girls together and scaffold their brilliant, creative work. So I am heartened to know, along with greater academic involvement, higher confidence in math ability, and stronger interest in STEM fields, that girls’ schools foster higher rates of political engagement and social activism.

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In the world right now, we are facing “wicked problems"—an environmental crisis, global poverty, racial injustice in all its intersectional forms. Widespread, complex and interconnected, wicked problems have no single solution, they tear at the fabric of everyday life and touch each one of us where we live.

To solve wicked problems we need the kind of design thinking and creative on-the-ground problem-solving offered by girl-fueled activism. That means less adult-developed civic engagement-for-future-leaders opportunities and more girl-generated, girl-fueled present-day activist experiences. Tackling wicked problems requires what girls learn when they build something from the ground up: openness, flexibility, creativity, the capacity to play around, get a little messy, take risks and fail beautifully.

Girls schools are these rare and wonderful places where the necessary conditions for intergenerational activist work exists—spaces where girls have the resources and the luxury to fail and not have the world fall apart. They are sites rich with support and possibility.

I urge you to envision new ways to cultivate intergenerational activism in your school—to use all the incredible resources you have at your fingertips to imagine and build a more just world. If we want girls to experience, in novelist Jeannette Winterson’s words, “an imagination that will detonate life, not decorate it,” we’ll step with them into this difficult and profoundly important work. It’s vitally necessary if we are to create the world we want and if we are to sustain that world over time.


Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D. is Professor of Education at Colby College. Her most recent book is Powered By Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists. Learn more about her work: