It's not just about gender, sociologist says of adolescent girls

In her new book, Women Without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity, Julie Bettie calls for an overt discussion of social class--along with race and gender--as the key to ending educational inequality.

"Young women are negotiating the multiple axes of race, ethnicity, class, and gender as they come of age, but that complexity often gets overlooked as their practices are misread and their lives misinterpreted as being primarily about gender and sexuality," said Bettie, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

A detailed portrait of senior high school girls at a Central Valley high school, Bettie's book lays bare the ways in which young women's lives are too often oversimplified by one-dimensional, gender-focused popular analyses like Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. Girls are, in fact, engaged in a far more complex process of identity formation that guides their choices and shapes their futures, said Bettie, who points to historical and structural forces that shape the lives of contemporary girls, including the growth of low-wage, service-sector jobs, changes in family structure, and changing laws on affirmative action and bilingual education.

But Bettie is equally critical of scholarly studies that focus on race or class to the exclusion of gender. Women Without Class (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003) has been called "a challenge to feminists who can see only gender and theorists of class and race who cannot see gender at all."

In researching the book, Bettie spent a year interviewing and hanging out with more than 60 white and Mexican American girls from working- and middle-class families during their senior year at a school she calls "Waretown High" to protect the identities of her research subjects. Bettie talked with girls about school, family, work, fashion, dating, friendships, popular culture, college, and their futures. Her book reveals that class differences are part of our everyday interactions but are rarely talked about overtly. Class differences are key to middle-class practices of exclusion that make school success difficult for working-class students across race and ethnicity, she asserts.

Bettie's research shows that school cliques (including "cholas," "hicks," "preps," and "skaters") and the styles they display at times reflected race and class differences among students. Bettie documents the categories of subculture and style that high school students use to express class and racial/ethnic differences among themselves, and she focuses on how girls form their identities in opposition to one another as different kinds of girls. Bettie argues that differences in clothing, makeup, and hairstyle have meaning beyond gender.

"Young people have a sense of inequality, but they rarely express it in political terms," she said. "Instead, class struggle is waged over modes of identity expression where style can be used to express group membership."

Contemporary girls' "performances of identity" are complex, she added.

"Adults often fail to see that the practices that disturb them, like sexual display, piercings, and tattoos, often mark class and race relations among girls and are not solely expressions of gender inequality," said Bettie. These "emblems of race and class membership" too often are misunderstood and interpreted as moral differences in sexual practices between supposed "good girls" and "bad girls," she added.

In particular, Bettie recognizes that girls, not just boys, are "class actors" who will hold jobs and have an economic impact. "The fact that girls are future workers gets overlooked when school officials interpret girls' choices about clothing and makeup as solely about an interest in boys and sex, when it can be as much about their identity as members of the working class or of a racial/ethnic group," she said.

Bettie's research reveals the consequence of schools' treatment of "girls without class." For instance, schools too often envision low-income boys as on route to becoming "workers" but tend to see girls--especially working-class and/or Mexican American girls--as on route to various kinds of "family" lives.

On the contrary, even during high school, working-class girls, like boys, were working and bringing home money to assist their family, Bettie found. "Girls, too, are class actors with identities and futures in relation to work and income," said Bettie.

Social policy, too, reduces poor women to a family-based identity, asserted Bettie. "You see it when low-income women--especially welfare mothers--are not understood as poor due to low wages but because they are considered to be in between men," said Bettie. "That view makes their economic dependence on men seem natural or inevitable and sidelines the real causes of women's poverty."

Girls today want and expect to be economically independent from men, which is often possible for middle-class girls and women, noted Bettie. "But the fact is that living-wage working-class jobs are still not available for working-class women and are, in fact, increasingly scarce for young working-class men."

"The problems that working-class girls face are not unique to their age or part of a crisis among youth," said Bettie. "Their problems are the same problems that plague adult working-class women--occupational segregation, low wages, lack of affordable child care, higher education, housing, and health care."

Bettie's research also underscores the salience of race and ethnicity on academic achievement. She found that middle-class students of color were more likely to be represented in working-class and "downwardly mobile" peer groups than were middle-class white students. "At a moment when policy makers are debating affirmative action and the relative importance of race and income on educational achievement, my research shows that class is a key variable for understanding academic achievement but that race and ethnicity remain equally salient," said Bettie.


Note to journalists: Julie Bettie may be reached at (831) 459-3717 or via e-mail at