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Gender Benders : Role models: The Women's History Project, run by the Thousand Oaks branch of the American Assn. of University Women, will bring famous 'visitors' to area schools next week. It encourages girls to make informed career choices.

March 04, 1993|DOUG McCLELLAN | Special to The Times

The scene is a Thousand Oaks classroom:

"My name is Maya Angelou," the woman begins. "I was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Mo. When I was 3 years old my parents got a divorce, and so my brother, Bailey, who was 4, and I were sent to live with our grandmother."

The students at St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School are entranced by the bold colors and African designs of the woman's long skirt and headwrap. She continues:

"We were put on a train by ourselves with a tag attached to each of our wrists that said: 'To Whom It May Concern: This is Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.' "

The woman describes the pain of an infected tooth and the greater humiliation she suffered when told by a white dentist, "My policy is I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth."

She tells how she was the first black woman conductor on the San Francisco streetcars. How she studied dance and drama, worked with Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign for civil rights. How she gained fame from her poetry and books. And how, just weeks ago, she delivered a celebrated poem at President Clinton's inauguration.

And then she is gone.

*

That, at least, is how the script is supposed to go next week when Maya Angelou--her stand-in, actually--and several other surprise "visitors" are scheduled to appear in Thousand Oaks schools.

At a Banyan School classroom, in will stride Margaret Bourke-White, the photojournalist and adventurer whose World War II photographs for Life magazine made her famous. There will be television newswoman Connie Chung, arriving at Westlake Hills elementary. Nancy Lopez, the professional golfer, and Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, the geneticist, will mingle with students at other schools.

It is not a publicity gimmick. Maya Angelou is really Grace Johnson, a Westlake Village retiree who has long been a fan of Angelou's poetry and will try to copy Angelou down to the details of her vibrant dresses. Playing McClintock is medical technologist Margie Chespack, who was chosen for the role because she happens to know the difference between the kind of genes McClintock studied and the ones that Levi Strauss & Co. make.

But no matter. Throughout Women's History Week, which begins Monday, hundreds of students in public and private schools in Thousand Oaks will get glimpses into the lives of these five extraordinary American women as portrayed by Johnson, Chespack and dozens of other volunteers. Perhaps some of the students will be inspired to lead inspired lives of their own.

Known as the Women's History Project, this is one of the oldest and best-known programs of the Thousand Oaks branch of the American Assn. of University Women (AAUW).

But it is only one part of a larger and more serious agenda by the branch, which is taking women's issues into the schools.

This bigger agenda, which the branch took on last year, attempts to deal with the contention that schools discriminate against girls, especially in the areas of mathematics and the sciences. And that this discrimination, or gender bias, has serious ramifications for a woman's later career options and her standard of living.

The efforts of the Thousand Oaks branch echo a national campaign by its parent organization based in Washington.

Last year the national organization issued a manifesto for gender equity, "How Schools Shortchange Girls." Its widely publicized findings of discrimination fueled a sense of outrage that had been inflamed just four months earlier, when the Senate unwittingly transformed Anita Hill into a symbol for women's anger.

"It was a catalyst," said Colleen Briner-Schmidt, president of the Thousand Oaks AAUW branch. "That, along with the anger that many women felt over Anita Hill's treatment, focused us and brought us together. We felt that issues important to women and families were being ignored.

"I think," she added, "we funneled our anger well."

"How Schools Shortchange Girls" said girls were consistently overshadowed by boys because, among other things, teachers give more attention to boys; textbooks are commonly written by men; sexual stereotypes still pervade books and audiovisual materials; and most school administrators are men. Moreover, the researchers who surveyed 3,000 school-aged girls and boys found disturbing differences between the attitudes of younger and older students.

For example, in elementary school:

* 60% of girls and 69% of boys agreed with the statement, "I am happy the way I am."

* 81% of girls and 84% of boys said they like math.

But by high school, the "gender gap" had widened dramatically:

* Only 29% of high school girls and 46% of boys agreed with the statement, "I am happy the way I am." (The "gender gap" on this measure of self-esteem widened from 7 points in elementary school to 17 points in high school.)

* 61% of girls and 72% of boys said they liked math, a drop of 20 percentage points for girls and only 12 points for boys.

What does it mean?

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