Review: The Difference

by Beth Corbin

Inspired by her daughter Katherine, right, Washington Post columnist Judy Mann spent two years researching The Difference: Growing Up Female in Amwerica.

If you have children, teach children and/or care about women's equality, Judy Mann's latest book The Difference: Growing Up Female in America is a must read.

 Mann, a columnist for The Washington Post, has been writing about the women's movement, politics and the relations between the sexes for more than a decade. She has written extensively about gender bias in schools that favors boys and sex discrimination in the culture. Yet when her daughter turned 11, Mann realized she did not know how to protect her from the crippling blows that adolescence delivers to girls.

 Mann spent the next two years researching The Difference, and she has compiled what NOW founder Betty Friedan describes as, "A stunning revelation of what we've all suspected . . . "

The Difference looks at how we interact with girls from the moment they are born, the danger years for girls and a look back at where it all went wrong for girls and women.

 Something as seemingly innocent as how we hold babies -- boys facing away from us so they can see the possibilities before them, while we turn baby girls toward our bodies to protect them from the world -- can set patterns for how girls are treated differently from boys later on.

 And why are girls in the most "danger" between the ages of 10 to 13? Mann talks about adolescence and the fact that girls mature in public, while a boys maturation is much more private. It is no coincidence that a girls self-esteem begins to drop at about the same time that she get her first bra.

 Mann writes, "It may happen when a girl is 10 or it may happen when she is 13, but it happens to almost every girl: Her space is invaded, her body is threatened, and she is exposed and shamed and made to feel vulnerable and dirty . . . the unwelcome touching of girls by boys that we see in the seventh grade, the snapping of the bra straps, the sexually explicit comments that boys make to girls -- and that teachers and administrators routinely ignore . . . None of this behavior is benign. While we have traditionally dismissed it as 'boys will be boys' behavior, it is, in fact, one of the most damaging experiences inflicted on girls in order to teach them a lesson about their place in society."

The Difference touches on a variety of issues from the need to encourage girls to study math and science, to a look at two thousand years of religions that have been dominated by men and used by men to dominate women. There is also much written about violence.

 In making the connection about violence against women, Mann says, "We must learn to see the blindingly clear link between the rough-neck 4-year-old male who is cheered on for intimidating his playmates and the abusing husband who punches out his wife. We must understand that there is a direct connection between the behavior of a 6-year- old boy who pulls up a girl's skirt on the playground, and the laughter of his pals, and the fraternity boy who bonds with his brothers by offering up his date for gang rape. When adults fail to correct nasty behavior by male children they set the stage for them to be abusive to girls and women as they grow older."

 Mann offers a new way of raising girls and boys so that they have strategies for dealing with each other that are grounded in mutual respect, not fear of humiliation. A point she makes that has been shared by NOW leaders over the years is that we will never change the outcome for girls unless (or until) we change the way we raise boys.

 Mann's book demonstrated, constructively and compassionately, what we can do as women, as parents and as a culture to value The Difference and to raise daughters who are as cherished -- and empowered -- as our sons.

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