By Margaret Gates, National Executive Director, 1983 –1993
As one of the co-founders of the Center for Women Policy Studies, I spent most of the 1970s on the advocacy front in Washington, working on behalf of legal and economic issues affecting women.
By the time the Girls Incorporated opportunity came up, a great many legal barriers to women had been successfully lowered. I realized that the destiny of the next generation of women would be determined not so much in Washington as in the minds of girls. I was excited by the promise of a national organization that had the potential to affect the way thousands of girls and young women made decisions about their careers, their sex lives and their identities as adult women.
When I came to the organization, most Girls Incorporated centers offered pretty typical after-school youth programs. Much was being made of the separateness from boys, but Girls Incorporated had to stand for something more substantial; it had to find a niche. Edith Phelps had already bolstered the organization with research expertise and a willingness to confront controversial topics. Now we could take advantage of our special after-school opportunity to work with girls around issues that were better addressed in a single-sex environment.
Our program development to date had followed the standard way for national organizations to propagate good programming: finding local organizations that were doing interesting work and replicating those programs. But I saw that if we could raise the resources, we could develop innovative programs on a large, national scale that would be unlike anything anyone else was doing.
The time was right. There were all these folks out there – child development experts, educators, women's colleges – who were talking about girls' needs, but they couldn't do anything without access to girls. When the foundations saw us, they knew they were looking at a good thing. We had the infrastructure for getting programs out to a quarter of a million girls around the country. Not only that, we wanted to do programming that a lot of other organizations wouldn't touch. Like sex education.
We were especially concerned about this issue because the profile of many of the girls we served was the same profile as those most at risk for early pregnancy. At the time, the only effort in this area was called family life planning. The idea was that you talk to young people about the appropriate time to have children, that children needed a home, that a home required marriage and marriage required thought and sex required marriage, and so forth. It wasn't all that effective.
We decided to build a more comprehensive approach to sex education. The program we ultimately called Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy exposed the myths and imparted the truth, showing girls that they had the power to control their sexuality and their reproductive future. In a rigorous evaluation, this program was deemed successful in its dual goals of postponing the age of first sexual activity and reducing the incidence of adolescent pregnancy.
Our next program priority was to help prepare girls for success in the world of work. Everything pointed to the fact that future job growth was going to be in the technological areas. There would be a need for more people with skills in math and science – areas we knew that girls were still being socialized to avoid.
We developed Operation SMART, which emphasized hands-on activities, offering girls a way of learning that was linked to adventure and discovery. While other science educators were talking about this, a lot of the kids we served didn't have those opportunities in their local schools.
Then we decided to move beyond the individual program to build a framework of all the kinds of programming we needed. Our idea was that all local affiliates could share this program framework, so across the country people would know that if they had a local Girls Incorporated in their community, there was a strong likelihood that this high caliber of programs would be available.
Since local Girls Incorporated affiliate staff knew best about what girls in their communities needed, we formed a local and national collaboration to codify our program philosophy, and developed approaches in six program areas — careers and life planning; health and sexuality; leadership and community action; sports and adventure; self-reliance and life skills; and culture and heritage.
During the 1980s, we raised and invested more than $10 million to pioneer a process that involved affiliates in planning, piloting, evaluating and implementing groundbreaking new programs. To ensure that many more girls had access to these valuable programs, we made them available to other community organizations through a new form of membership: program associate, and formed a national collaboration with the YWCA of the U.S.A. to bring our programs to girls at YWCAs.
Our ever-expanding repertoire of programs became our way of getting beyond the rhetoric of gender equity, providing girls with the skills they'd need to achieve that equity.