It might seem to many as if girls’ history—the focus of this issue of The American Historian—is a relative newcomer to the field. In fact, its scholarly origins date to the late 1980s when historians and scholars in allied disciplines, building on the work of historians of the “new” women’s history, first began to place girls and girlhoods at the center of historical analysis. By bringing critical attention to girls as historical subjects, we charted the course of a pioneering multi and interdisciplinary field of study that has since grown into a flourishing scholarly enterprise. Why then, after decades of groundbreaking scholarship, are girls scarcely more visible in U.S. history textbooks and history courses? How do wide-spread notions of “girlhood” account for the persistent omission of girls in standard history narratives? Why does girls’ history matter? What does girls’ historical agency look like?
How can instructors, unfamiliar with the history of girlhood, move girls from the margins of history into the mainstream of historical study—without departing from the required curriculum? Drawing upon thirty years of researching, writing, and teaching American girls’ history, I provide suggested sources, sites, scholarship, and methods for teaching through a girl-focused lens. Complicating the standard narrative by bringing girls into the curriculum has the potential to enrich historical thinking, enhance student engagement, empower girls and young women, and revise understandings of the significance of girls and girlhoods in America history, culture, and society.
GIRLS AND THE U.S. HISTORY CURRICULUM
From U.S. history textbooks to documentary collections and scholarly anthologies to field-defining historiographies that privilege adult actors, girls are infrequent and insignificant figures. In syntheses and other history texts, girls rarely make appearances other than as “young women,” “daughters,” and “children.” Subsuming girls under the capacious classification of “women,” defining their identities and experiences according to their relational construct of the “family,” and employing the gender undifferentiated category of “children” that has long privileged boys’ experiences, reinforces, rather than reveals, the hierarchies that placed most girls near the bottom of social, economic, political, and cultural systems. Utilizing generalities rather than clarifying identifications have made invisible girls who have often occupied a liminal place and at times a disruptive role in the changing sex/gender system.
What explains professional historians’ unwitting rhetorical practices are deeply rooted and widespread beliefs that girls are naturally passive and compliant, and that girlhood is transhistorical, homogeneous, static, and frivolous. Of course, there are similarities and continuities of girlhoods across race, class, and gender, as well as cultures, place, and period. Yet prevailing assumptions that girlhood is biologically determined, historically inevitable, unchanging and uniform, has little basis in fact. By constituting girlhood broadly to include both cultural constructions and girls’ lived realities, girls’ studies scholarship has established that girlhoods are heterogeneous, inclusive, intersectional, discursive, contested, contingent, and mutable. As Leslie Paris and I explained in the introduction to The Girls’ History & Culture Readers (2011), girlhood has been “defined as much by legal designations, social practices, girls’ degree of biological maturation, and broader ideological and political forces as by age.” Changing material realities, discursive cultural prescriptions, and girls’ innumerable contestations, are factors and forces that have made girlhoods as fluid a category as “girl” itself.
WHY GIRLHOODS MATTER
A girl-centered perspective problematizes assumptions about girls’ historical insignificance by bringing into focus the dynamics between girlhoods and sweeping historical developments—from colonialism to consumerism, immigration to industrialization, settlement to slavery, popular culture to political movements, migration to modernity, and urbanization to globalism, among others. Different from boy children and adult women, girls lived realities were filtered through a prism of expectations, obligations, and requirements placed on them as girls. Girlhood principles and practices—distinct from those of boyhood and womanhood—gave shape to girls’ identities and imaginations, work and play, socialization and education and stirred their negotiations and contestations. Generating important nuances among girls, however, were a multiplicity of ideals that defined girlhood more narrowly by race, class, age, ethnicity, and religion. That explains why, for example, the everyday lives of white, middle-class girls in the nineteenth century differed from the arduous realities of working-class girls and the brutal enslavement of African American girls.
Serving the needs of American adults and the nation were real girls who sewed, cooked, cleaned, and cared along with symbolic representations of girls who performed “cultural work.” Some girl figures in popular culture, vernacular and high art, or political propaganda, were deployed to serve as paragons of American ideals: innocence, liberty, citizenship, manifest destiny, and prohibition. Others were pictured as phantoms of political and economic insecurity, cultural anxiety, and social disorder. Girl figures—those from above as well as others from below—circulated notions of girlhood that influenced grownups’ expectations of girls as well as girls’ understandings of what it meant to be an American girl.
GIRLS’ HISTORY SOURCES
The absence of girl economic, social, cultural, and political actors in history textbooks might lead one to conclude that sources are scarce. In fact, there is an abundance of primary and secondary sources about American girls from precontact to the present. While an online search for “girls’ history” scholarship can often be more frustrating than fruitful, academic libraries and journal databases include the many thousands of ground-breaking scholarly books and articles on the history of girls in America and around the world published over the last half century. Many documentary texts are also available from libraries, and inexpensive used copies can be had from online booksellers. There are also fully searchable digitized editions and audiobook versions of girls’ novels and narratives. Archives and artifacts about, for, and by girls that long evaded researchers’ notice are ever more obtainable at library, museum, and historical society online collections—even YouTube has many instructional films, commercials, cartoons, and exposes on girls. Children & Youth in History, the NEH-funded instructional website I produced with Kelly Schrum for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, provides reviews of digital collections, annotated primary sources, and teaching modules and teaching case studies that usefully model instructional methods and interpretive strategies for teachers.
GIRLS’ HISTORY METHODS
Decentering grownups in historical texts makes it possible to discern the powerful socio-cultural forces that have long given shape to nearly everything girl. Whether using prescriptive, proscriptive, qualitative, descriptive, visual and material culture, or oral history sources, placing girls at the center of analysis elucidates adults’ views and girls’ behaviors and beliefs. To show how bodies can be “read” as historical texts instructors can use model deconstructions such as Saidiya Hartman’s analysis of Thomas Eakins’ photograph of an unnamed black girl published in the New Yorker and available online. When conducting “close readings” pay attention to similarities and differences, changes and continuities between girls and among girlhoods at the intersections of age, race, religion, class, age, ethnicity, gender, ability, and across historical periods and places. To better perceive girls’ activities and make sense of their endeavors, teachers and students can employ more expansive definitions of work, play, politics, and agency as they read against the grain. Until there are girls’ history methodological resources to draw upon—a current initiative of the Girl’s History & Culture Network—instructors can fashion interpretive frameworks by making use of the “Making Sense of Evidence” essays in History Matters. Although none are from a girl-centered perspective, these nevertheless provide useful strategies for analyzing letters and diaries, newspapers, advertisements, cartoons, songs, film, and photography.
TEACHING GIRLS’ HISTORY
For harried instructors pressed for time and unfamiliar with girls’ history, consider expanding students’ understandings of standard historical topics and themes in the U.S. history and social science curriculum by using readily accessible and possibly familiar sources—but in new girl-centered ways. What follows are several examples illustrating how critically and creatively rereading girls’ history sources can bring to light the significance of historically constructed, contested, contingent, fluid, and heterogeneous girlhoods in American history.
Visualizing Girlhoods in Early America: Coexistence, Collision, and Change
Within a broader examination of the impact of cultural collision between 1492 and 1600 in the U.S. history survey, I utilize several representations of girls for the purposes of shedding light on the existence of a diverse population of girls as well as contending girlhood ideals in the early modern period. I begin with John White’s 1585-1586 watercolor of the wife of Chief Pomeiooc and her preadolescent daughter (fig.1). A close reading of the watercolor from a girl-centered perspective raises important questions about whether White rendered the girl in historically realistic ways or as a represention of broader expectations and concerns about English girlhoods. Why, instead of characterizing the girl at work along with her gourd-totting mother, did White paint her holding a doll? Was it to record the largess of the explorers who gifted the doll, then in the process of becoming a European girl’s plaything?
A comparison to a portrait painted just a few years earlier of Arbella Stuart (fig. 2), considered a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth, clutching a similar doll, suggests that White might have been pondering the meanings of girlhood and especially royal girls on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent studies of girlhood in the sixteenth century provide a useful historical context in which to understand that elite males (like Shakespeare and other writers) in the process of redefining the word “girl” and delineating more modern expectations of girlhood, wrestled discursively with contradictory ideas about the dangers of female power and the innocence of children’s play.