Sugar and spice and everything nice -- that's what little girls are made of. Or, at least, that's what they used to be made of. If the FBI's most recent Uniform Crime Report is accurate, however, Mother Goose may need to come out with a new cookbook.
According to the report, issued in 2005, the number of violent crimes committed by young girls has risen dramatically in recent decades. Over the past 20 years, the number of girls between the ages of 10 and 17 arrested for aggravated assault has doubled, and today teenage girls account for one out of every three juveniles arrested for a violent crime.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported in February that Chicago public schools have seen a 31 percent increase in fighting by female students this year. Incidents of both assault and battery were also up almost 20 percent each among girls. This jump follows an increase in female students fighting last year.
Poverty and violence
The two most common explanations for those rising numbers have been poverty and domestic violence.
"If you want to understand the rate of violence look at the poverty rate," said St. Joseph Sister Elaine Roulet, who spent 35 years working with women in New York's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. "When people have no money and no job, they move toward violence. And that's the background many of these young women are coming from."
"Many of those arrested for violent crimes are also victims of violence themselves," she continued. "But rather than trying to get out of abusive situations and going places that are safe they remain and become like the abuser."
But according to Father Val Peter, executive director emeritus of Boys and Girls Town in Omaha, Neb., poverty and domestic violence alone can't account for the rising rates of violence among young women. Instead, he places much of the blame on the cultural changes that have taken place in America in recent decades.
"The basic fabric of civilization is unraveling," he said. "Those agencies which have had a civilizing effect, a Christianizing effect, on society have deteriorated. Families, churches, schools -- they're all going south."
Father Peter described the young women who come through the doors of Girls and Boys Town as "angry, lonely and frustrated," and attributed those common characteristics mainly to changes in the way parents and the culture socialize the young.
"These girls come from families where brothers and sisters are not raised to be friends. Everyone has their own room, their own television, their own cell phone. The common experiences that lay the groundwork for friendship -- meals, games, playing together -- simply aren't a part of their life.
"They also spend their time being passive -- watching television and listening to music -- so they never develop conversation skills," he noted. "Conversation skills are the root of friendship. When young girls can't form friendships and can't communicate, they find other ways to express themselves or get attention. And some of those ways involve violence."
Father Peter sees one more key contributor to the increasing number of violent acts committed by young girls: abortion.
"Anything that coarsens or denigrates life contributes to violence," he said. "And abortion particularly undermines the value of life, their life and others, in the minds of these girls."
The growth of the abortion culture and the dramatic shifts in parenting and family life, however, are not entirely unrelated. Both, at least in part, stem from radical feminists' efforts to do away with conventional gender roles.
"Hard-line feminism sought, and to an extent has achieved, a breakdown of the notion of social roles -- the idea of boys being gentleman and girls being ladies, of men being fathers and women being mothers," said Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women" (Simon and Schuster, $15).
"Now many girls think it's appropriate to mimic the extreme behavior of males, that it's OK to be violent or crude," she said.
Hollywood hasn't helped matters. Through films such as "Million Dollar Baby" or "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," which glamorize female violence, and through plays like "The Vagina Monologues," which encourage women to "mimic the worst excesses of Howard Stern," Sommers sees the entertainment industry furthering the radical feminist agenda and promoting the "worst aspects of under-socialized males."
"They believe their ideas are liberating, but really they're denigrating," said Sommers.
She also noted that feminists have failed to recognize the importance of strong families in combating violence.
"Girls who have been the victims of family violence are more susceptible to these pathologies," Sommers pointed out. "But most family violence we see is in unstable homes where the mother has a live-in boyfriend.
"If feminists were really concerned with protecting girls, they would be protective of families. High levels of divorce rates create hazards for kids and lead to the kinds of problems we're seeing among young girls."
Reversing the tide
Father Peter, who still works on a daily basis with the troubled young women who come to Girls and Boys Town, knows that reversing the rising tide of violence among teenage girls is no small task, requiring almost a sea change in the culture. But, when it comes to the individual girls who cross his path each day, he still has hope.
"To help these girls become healthy and happy young women, you simply have to get them into healthy and happy relationships," he concluded. "Once they start learning friendship skills, once they start learning people care, their appreciation and gratitude is out of all proportion. It takes less than you think to make a difference with them."
Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio.