From Edith B. Phelps, National Executive Director, 1974 – 1982
When I was first asked to become head of Girls Incorporated, I was dubious. I told [then Board President] Mrs. Marjorie Duckrey, “I'm not a social worker; I'm an educator.” Her response delighted me: “That's exactly my point,” she said. “We need someone who knows about educating girls.”
As head of a girls' boarding school for ten years, I had been thinking through the educational issues pertaining to adolescent girls. The possibility of reaching more girls — especially such a diverse group of girls — was a very exciting challenge. I reported for work the next month.
In 1974, the first task for Girls Incorporated was to reexamine its original mission in terms of the realities of a new era. While there were a lot of wonderful things going on for girls throughout the organization, it was still largely following its original mission of preparing girls for adult roles as mothers and wives. That made sense; nothing really changed in terms of behavior until the sixties. But now, we needed to respond to the powerful challenges of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the flood of women entering the workforce, and the adolescent turbulence of the time. Women were changing their adult roles pretty fast. This generation of girls needed to prepare for very different adulthoods, so the way we educated them needed to change.
I saw it as our job to convince people that equity for women and equity for girls was the same struggle; one could not be achieved without the other. Having come from the world of schools and universities, I also knew that we had to have a voice that was heard in the university world, in the government world, in the foundation world. They needed to factor in the issue of young women as an important piece of social policy.
Donny DonDero had given the national organization financial power to grow in numbers; now we had to tilt the organization into a role of activism to continue its progress. So the national board adopted in its first long-range plan this primary goal: “To take a leadership role as an advocate for the rights and needs of girls of all backgrounds and abilities.” We addressed the institutions and public policies that denied equality to girls and young women, testifying in Washington several times. Girls and girls' organizations had never before been taken so seriously.
Concerned by the lack of knowledge about girls' issues and the inequity in funding, Girls Incorporated decided to take on the responsibility of increasing knowledge about girls. To educate others and ourselves in the field, we organized a series of conferences convening national experts, practitioners and policymakers to identify major issues and recommend a joint agenda for action.
The first of these conferences, “Today's Girls, Tomorrow's Women,” resulted in recommendations for the critical program areas of health and sexuality, education and employment, and delinquency prevention. Besides publishing a book and creating a film from the proceedings, “Today's Girls, Tomorrow's Women” led to similar conferences convened in different cities around the country, with the local affiliate taking the lead in each city. Other national conferences followed.
These various conferences punctuated the need for targeted programs for girls. In order to develop those programs, we needed the credibility of sound collaborative research, reliable documentation and evaluation of pilot programs, and the capability to act as a national center for information, research, and publications about girls. Thanks to the Fleischman Foundation and the substantial support from Lilly Endowment, the Girls Incorporated National Resource Center in Indianapolis became such a place.
A personal memory tells much. During my first year with the organization, I went to the Memphis affiliate and met a girl who was maybe 12 at the time. We chatted; I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Well, five years later I went back to Memphis and this same girl came running up to me. “I've got to tell you,” she gushed. “I“m going to be something I'd never even heard of: I'm going to be a radiologist!”
This young woman's newfound aspiration is what Girls Incorporated is all about. In fact, it inspired the words we inscribed on the National Resource Center: To become someone you never expected, but somebody else did.