Patricia Ireland

(WOMENSENEWS)–Specialized summer camps for girls that emphasize academics, leadership and self-esteem are thriving in the United States.

More likely to operate on college campuses than the traditional rural settings of summer camps, the programs tend to stress computers and engineering over outdoor activities. Corporate sponsors and nonprofit agencies often joinforces to host ambitious urban seminars that are run by girls and serve to demonstrate their leadership skills.

The camps are an outgrowth of “difference feminism,” which began about 20 years ago when Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan published her influential book, “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.” She asserted that–contrary to prevailing feminist thinking about the similarities between the sexes–males and females had different psychological and moral tendencies. While controversial at the time, women’s leaders seem to be smiling on the theory now, at least in the form of these single-sex summer camps.

“These young women are light years ahead of where I was at that age,” said Patricia Ireland, the new chief executive officer of the YWCA, and former president of the National Organization for Women. “So I’m totally taken with the effort, and I think it’s how we tie these women and young girls to the (women’s) movement.”

Ireland participated earlier this month in a three-day girls’ summit in Orange Grove, Calif., the cap-off event of a three-year national YWCA program to foster leadership skills in girls. The summit brought together girls ages 9 to 17 from Hartford, Conn., Dallas and Los Angeles to discuss community involvement, economic empowerment, health and racial justice.

Schools Offer Specialized Summer Programs

Women’s colleges and girls’ schools have also taken a leading role in developing specialized summer camps. Many of these are about 10 years old and were launched in response to groundbreaking research into the inequities of girls’ education, such as the American Association of University Women’s 1992 study, “How Schools Shortchange Girls: The AAUW Report A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education.”

Among schools offering academic summer girls’ camps is the all-female Smith College in Northampton, Mass., which started a summer science and engineering program in 1990 for girls entering grades 9 through 12. Participants take courses ranging from polymer chemistry to robotics, taught by Smith faculty, with Smith students acting as teaching assistants and role models.

Even with this encouragement the “likelihood of them going on to major in those fields in college, compared to boys at a similar level, is quite low,” said Gail Scordilis, director of educational outreach at Smith.

The all-girl environment is an especial benefit for getting them interested in science at this age–participating girls are 13 to 17–because they might feel self-conscious doing some of the experiments in a mixed-gender setting, Scordilis added. For example, one of the chemistry experiments requires the girls to exercise and then check for chemical changes in their bodies by testing their blood gas and other indicators. It is her belief that the girls feel more comfortable doing experiments like these without boys present, she said.

“It’s not the ‘real world,’ and that’s what makes it so good,” Scordilis said. “Because if the girls are exposed to the ‘real world,’ the problem is most of them will never go on into engineering or sciences.”

However, some girls are equally comfortable with same-gender or mixed-gender settings, such as Leila Glass, 15, of Mercer Island, Wash. She attended the Smith program this summer, and while she considered it “so cool to be with only girls and not have to worry about other things,” she also said that in her areas of interest–biochemistry and genetics–she expects to compete academically with boys.

The Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., a college-preparatory school for girls founded in 1814 with a reputation as a rigorous academic proving ground, added a residential academic camp this summer. The program is clearly aimed at college-bound girls, offering segments in college preparation, computers, science and technology, foreign languages and writing.

Scholarships were not available this first year to help families pay the $2,295 in tuition and fees, but the school does plan to institute a scholarship program in future years, said Doug Murphy, president of Branded Camp Services, Inc., the private company that helped Emma Willard develop the academic camp.

Murphy, who has worked extensively with summer academic camps focusing on science and computer technology for both mixed- and single-gender groups, said he strongly supports an all-girls program. Based on his observations of a mixed-gender summer computer camp that he previously worked with, Murphy said “the boys made it a lot harder, through physical intimidation. A 12-year-old boy says to a 10-year-old girl, ‘Get up,’ and she gets up (from the computer).”

Camps May Not Have Long-Term Effect

The long-range effects of such girls’ summer camps are still unknown.

“We don’t have any sort of tracking system. It is very difficult to do,” said Misty Taylor, who coordinates academic enrichment programs at Girls Inc. of Central Alabama in Birmingham.

One of them, known as Eureka!, has both a summer-camp component and a weekend component during the school year, with intensive exposure to science, math and technology for girls entering the eighth and ninth grades. However, Taylor does know through word of mouth that many of the girls who have graduated from the Eureka! program in its 11 years there have gone on to earn engineering scholarships.

“But,” she added, “we have discovered in the last few years that even though the girls are graduating from science and math programs, they aren’t staying in those careers. And that’s something we’re really going to have to address.”

With specialized girls’ camps likely here to say, sponsoring organizations are starting to ponder the best way to stay true to their original mission of helping girls, no strings attached, as programs become more elaborate and the need for grants, donations and corporate financing grows.

The Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, a nonpartisan political-campaign training school for women in New Haven, Conn., used a $500 grant last summer to sponsor a simple half-day program for local high-school girls interested in politics. The organization’s annual weeklong summer session on running and managing a political campaign–aimed at aspiring or first-time female politicians of all ages–has admitted a few teenagers in recent years, and the school sees a new age group there to tap.

Now, the school is planning to increase its outreach to teenagers, and board members are mulling over the best way to do that, said board president Carolanne Curry, 63. A longtime Democratic campaign consultant in Connecticut and a feminist who identifies strongly with the women’s movement of the 1970s, Curry wants any such outreach to encourage girls thinking of entering the unforgiving world of politics, without making them feel sorry for themselves at the obstacles they will face.

“I look at all these summer-empowerment camps and hope that good is being done for these young women,” Curry said. “I think it’s a very conflicted feeling that I have about it. On the one hand, I could see this working well under some circumstances. On the other, I don’t want young women to go into group whining. They could be made to feel victims.”

Darryl McGrath is an Albany, New York, reporter who writes often on politics and child-welfare issues.

For more information:

Girls Inc.:

The Emma Willard School:

Women’s Campaign School at Yale University: