Every first day of the year in middle school and high school, I would make myself a promise.
I promised to be quiet, to be nice, to stop talking so much.
I desperately wanted to be the calm, shy girl in the back of the class. I wanted to keep my head down, do my classwork and not cause any commotion.
But inevitably, after the first few days, I would be back to my usual loud, rambunctious behavior.
I couldn’t help myself. The second someone started talking about something I cared about, I had to share my opinion. And if someone misstated a fact, I had to correct them.
For as long as I can remember, I have been loud and opinionated, but it wasn’t until middle school that I began to perceive this as a negative thing.
According to a New York Times article about a 1991 study commissioned by the American Association of University Women, “girls emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, relatively low expectations from life and much less confidence in themselves and their abilities than boys.” The survey found that while at age 9 most girls were confident and assertive, by the time they reached high school, fewer than one third still felt that way.
I remember agonizing over my words after speaking in class, angry at myself for sharing too strong of an opinion, scared that people wouldn’t like me if I talked too much.
I told myself as I got older, I would be better at being quiet. I am still waiting for this to happen.
Eventually, in college, something changed. I began taking classes where strong opinions were not only acceptable, but expected. Debate was encouraged and ideological arguments were commonplace. I stopped worrying people wouldn’t like me if I spoke out and finally accepted I would probably always have an opinion on everything.
My majors, journalism and political science, allowed me to consistently engage in passionate rhetoric, and provided me with female professors and professional role models who did the same.
However, not every student is so lucky.
A 2012 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found “the strong relationship among self-beliefs, gender and performance in mathematics and science hints that countries may be unable to develop a sufficient number of individuals with strong mathematics and science skills partly because of girls’ lack of confidence in their abilities.”
As girls lose confidence in their competence in math and science, they choose not to pursue degrees in the STEM fields. Women are then underrepresented in engineering and technology, resulting in fewer role models for girls in those studies. It becomes harder to speak out and more difficult to show passion in a field where it’s difficult to envision success.
But, after four years of finding my voice, I still silence myself.
Recently, a friend visited me at Lehigh with a few of his classmates. A few years ago, I had gotten into a heated argument with one of them over a number of political issues, so this time, I promised myself I would keep calm.
Throughout the evening, I just laughed and smiled. But finally, there was a statement I couldn’t ignore. I started to challenge the student and proceeded to argue until, angry and uncomfortable, he walked away.
The next morning, I woke up with an overwhelming sense of dread — nervous that once again, my inability to stay quiet had ruined a night with my friend.
A few weeks later, that friend confronted me. He said he felt like he can’t hang out with me anymore because I always argue with his college friends and it makes them uncomfortable.
That was devastating to hear. I don’t think I spoke the rest of the night.
As I finish my undergraduate degree at Lehigh, I am making new promises to myself.
I promise to be thoughtful and rational in disagreements and to learn from such discussions. I promise to speak with fiery intensity about things I care about. I promise to not become jaded and to continue to believe it is always worth fighting for important causes.
I promise to speak out to show young girls it is acceptable to do so. I promise to stop silencing myself.
Cate Peterson, ’18, is the managing editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected].