LOOK OUT, patriarchy, here comes Sally Kerans.
The state representative from Danvers, Massachusetts, unnerved by the widespread oppression of girls in society, is going after the male hegemony that conspires to keep females down. She kicked off her crusade last week with legislation to create a government commission on the status of girls, testifying before a legislative committee on the "critical situation" and the "alarming facts" that make such a commission essential.
"There is a gap in the treatment of girls and boys in Massachusetts today," Kerans told the committee. There is "unequal treatment of girls by schools and all sectors of society."
Apparently the poor dears are getting clobbered in the gender war. They "receive significantly less attention from classroom teachers," says Kerans. They are "less likely . . . to pursue the study of math and science." They face an "increase in the number of sexual harassment incidents by boys." They suffer "a documented loss of self-esteem . . . that is twice that of boys." So brutally are girls repressed in our phallocentric commonwealth that many of them simply give up the fight. "The most dramatic fact" of all, Kerans intoned last week, is that "girls have twice the suicide and school dropout rates as boys."
That is dramatic. Fortunately for the girls of America, it is also wrong. Wildly wrong. Virtually every syllable of Kerans' testimony, it turns out, is demonstrably false. Casey Stengel used to say, "You could look it up." Sally Kerans clearly didn't.
Start with dropout rates. It is boys, not girls, who drop out more frequently. Between 1988 and 1990, according to the government's annual compilation of education statistics, 7.2 percent of boys -- but just 6.5 percent of girls -- dropped out of school before reaching 10th grade.
Not only are girls more likely to graduate, they tend to start school earlier and to fall behind less often. (In 1992, 14 percent of male students had been held back one or more grades. Females: 9 percent.) Girls are far less likely to be in special education or to need remedial math when they get to college. And they do get to college -- not only in greater numbers than boys (55 percent of college students are female, and most academic degrees go to women), but more quickly (64 percent of girls matriculate right after high school vs. 59 percent of boys).
Girls get less attention from their teachers? That's a modern myth peddled by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, a hothouse of feminist zealotry. In its 1992 report "How Schools Shortchange Girls," the center declared that "boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told to 'raise your hand. . . . '"
But the Wellesley report was a fraud. In her acclaimed 1994 book "Who Stole Feminism?" Christina Hoff Sommers proved it was based on bogus research, imaginary data, or falsified studies. The business about boys getting called on more often in class, for instance, was a bald distortion. Consider what the original source actually said:
"Boys, particularly low-achieving boys, receive eight to 10 times as many reprimands as do their female classmates. . . . When both girls and boys are misbehaving equally, boys still receive more frequent discipline."
Equally phony is the alarum about massive sexual harassment of schoolgirls. This, too, stems from a report by the Wellesley Center -- one based on a tear-out questionnaire published in Seventeen, a girl's magazine. Seventeen has 1.9 million subscribers, of whom 4,200 -- 0.2 percent -- sent in the questionnaire. On the strength of that response, the Wellesley Center warned that for "thousands of adolescent girls, school may be teaching more about oppression than freedom." As Sommers notes, this was exactly the polling methodology Literary Digest used in 1936 to forecast Alf Landon's landslide victory over FDR.
Not one of Kerans' "facts" stands up to scrutiny.
Girls avoid math and science? In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more girls than boys study geometry, algebra II, biology, and chemistry.
The self-esteem gap? Nonexistent, according to most scholars of adolescent psychology. The only evidence for it is a discredited study by an advocacy group, the American Association of University Women. So spurious are its findings that no other experts have replicated them.
Suicide? The disparity between boys and girls in this tragic category is indeed, as Kerans says, "dramatic." But it isn't girls who are dying by their own hands. In 1992, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 5,007 young people killed themselves. More than 85 percent -- 4,276 -- were boys.
More boys dropping out, more boys flunking, more boys in special ed, more boys needing remedial math, more boys not entering college, more boys facing discipline, more boys dying. A legislator concerned more with children than with feminist ax-grinding would be investigating the question of why boys are in such trouble. Sally Kerans -- career rating from the National Organization for Women: 100 percent -- is not such a legislator.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)