Speaking in Her Own Voice

Written by: Heather Corbally Bryant, PhD and Lecturer at Wellesley College

Girls who once dominated classrooms in middle school often become quiet in high school; girls who led their classes in math or science courses in their younger years all too often shrink into their seats as they mature.  Girls who know the right answer become all too ready to let the boy next to them answer the question.  In learning that boys can overtake the conversation, and win praise from teachers, girls all too often go silent.

It is never too early for girls to learn how to speak in their own voices. Research has shown over and over again that small classrooms lead to all students, and girls especially, being able to speak up for themselves.  Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach has noted that, smaller classrooms allow for a blending of many qualities that lead to success: “a mixture of higher levels of student engagement, increased time on task”; they also provide the opportunity for “high-quality teachers to better tailor their instruction to the students in the class.”

The Wellesley Pre-College Summer Program combines the best of both worlds.  It allows girls to come learn in the exciting and engaging environment of Wellesley College – a place dedicated to educating women.  At Wellesley, girls have the opportunity to discover themselves away from their traditionally larger, coeducational schools.  They can finally both speak and write in their own voices, and be encouraged in that enterprise, thus breaking the vicious cycle of silence. Teaching at Wellesley has made me even more aware of how important it is to keep women’s voices strong and distinct, even when they are most threatened.  In an all-female environment, we can hear how powerful women’s voices can be.

Ever since the educational theorist Carol Gilligan wrote her groundbreaking work, In a Different Voice, we have known that girls speak in a different voice from boys, particularly during the pivotal years of middle and high school.  In these fragile years of later middle school, and then high school, girls’ confidence often slips.  When their confidence slides, girls literally start speaking more quietly, or not at all.  In the space of just a few years, girls learn to keep silent rather than to speak up about what matters most to them.

Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  As our stories change and become told through different means such as Snap Chat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, they become ever more important.  Women need the chance to tell their stories and, most of all, to be listened to when they are telling them.  When Virginia Woolf gave her now famous talk, “A Room of One’s Own,” at Cambridge University, she wondered what would have happened if Shakespeare had a sister, if she would have been allowed to become famous.  Almost one hundred years ago, Woolf noted what women needed to write: a door they could close, leisure time, and independence.  That statement from 1928 continues to be essential today.

As girls learn to speak in their own voices, they will become women who stand up for what they believe, what they want, and what they hope.  Education provides the path for them to set out on their own.  In her beautiful book, Beloved, Toni Morrison writes,  “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”  The Wellesley Pre-College Summer Program offers young women the opportunity to appreciate the sound of their own voices.  Once they have listened to their own voices, they never will allow them to be silenced again.  They return to their former worlds ready to take on whatever challenges facing them with resilience, confidence, and power.

Heather Corbally Bryant is a Lecturer in the Wellesley College Writing Program.  Her relevant and timely work with high schools students is one of the outstanding elements of Wellesley’s Pre-College Summer Programs.

For more information, please visit wellesley.edu/summer today!