From the Margins to the Mainstream: Girls’ History and the U.S. History Curriculum

Miriam Forman-Brunell

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?[1]

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.[2]


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.”[3] 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.[4]


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.[5] 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.


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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]


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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]


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).[13] 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?[14]

watercolor of the wife of Chief Pomeiooc and her preadolescent daughter listed as fig 1 above
Fig. 1

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.[15] 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.[16]

A young Arbella Stuart clutches a small doll, mentioned as figure 2, above.
Fig. 2

An embellished and stylized engraving by Theodore de Bry (fig. 3 ) published in Harriot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), appears to have drawn upon emergent notions of girlhood vulnerability and constructions of childhood innocence.[17] The Caucasian cherub de Bry engraved had little in common with the Native American girl upon which it was based. Did de Bry’s figure better illustrate Harriot’s claim that the unthreatening native indigenous population could be subdued and manipulated for British economic gain? In what ways had the girl made to play been forced to perform cultural work for the British empire? It would appear that de Bry’s playful girl might have been reimagined with potential investors in the colonial project in mind. As for her masculinized white body, was that a harbinger of the future erasure of Native Americans from the picture of the past?[18] In the final illustration (fig. 4), from The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (1705) published a century later, a white-looking “Boy” holding an “Indian Rattle” replaced the girl with the doll.[19]

A white girl attempting to play with a Native girl, mentioned as fig 3 above 

Fig 3

Described as figure 4 above,
Fig 4

Girlhood Captivity Narratives: Crossings Borders and Historical Agency

When examining cross-cultural encounters between the English, French, and Native American peoples in colonial America, foregrounding the girlhood experiences of multicultural, lingual, and racial girls who crossed geographical, racial, and cultural borders—including girls’ cultures—reveal evidence of historical agency, girl-style. While the story of Eunice Williams is likely to be familiar to historians of women, Eunice was just seven years old when she was adopted into a Catholic Mohawk family following a raid in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704. John Demos’ Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994) traces the unsuccessful efforts to retrieve Eunice who forever turned her back on her Puritan girlhood and the patriarchal family she left behind.[20]

Nor was Eunice all that unusual among girls. Mary was a young adolescent when she was captured by the Shawnee along the Pennsylvania frontier during the Seven Years’ War. Though an adult when she wrote her captivity narrative, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison provides a first-hand (albeit mediated) account of the everyday experiences of the Iroquoian girlhood she preferred.[21] Crossing even more cultural borders was Esther Wheelwright who was seven years old when she was captured during a raid on her family home in 1702. Adopted by the Wabanaki Indians, she “became a Catholic and lived like any other young girl in the tribe,” according to Ann M. Little in her recent study, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).[22] Rather than return to her family, at twelve Esther joined other French-Canadian and Native school girls enrolled at an Ursuline convent where she became a nun.

Songs and Stories about Girls’ Work

Central to the story of early America are the varieties of peoples and the labor they performed for the purposes of survival and the prosperity of families, communities, civilizations, colonies, and empires. Often missing are the many apprenticed, indentured, enslaved, and orphaned girls whose girled forms of labor were more critical than tangential to settlement, colonization, and migration, along with economies, cultures, societies, and even politics. A variety of texts illuminate the difference that age, class, race, and condition of servitude made to girls’ expectations, experiences, and responses to work.[23] Insight into the expectations of girls and their work experiences can be gleaned from a variety of primary sources that are easily accessible to students. “The Trappan’D Maiden,” likely familiar to historians of women, is a ballad written from the perspective of an adolescent English girl warning other girls not to follow in her footsteps. The ballad describes the arduous tasks required of young unmarried indentured servants who suffered abuses at the hands of their masters and mistresses in seventeenth-century Virginia. I have found that using the lyrics alongside the sound recording of the ballad (available on YouTube) resonates well with students steeped in contemporary youth culture.[24] Important texts that more fully and accurately illuminate how black indentured and enslaved girls actually experienced, accommodated, and resisted employer abuse are Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel, Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) and Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave (1861).[25]

Sewing and the Political Meanings of Girls’ Cultural Work

Teaching girls how to ply the needle enabled families to survive. The feminine art of embroidery served other functions from demonstrating girls’ usefulness to potential suitors to defining American values and identities. To demonstrate the political meanings and cultural purposes of needlework in the New Nation, I utilize an image of an artifact embroidered in 1804 by sixteen-year-old Mary Green of Worcester, Massachusetts. Mary based her piece on the 1796 engraving, “Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth Giving Support to the Bald Eagle,” by artist-entrepreneur, Edward Savage.[26] In the enormously popular allegory that celebrated nationhood in the years after the American Revolution, Liberty is portrayed as a female adolescent. The allegorical representation of girlhood agency and autonomy probably resonated with Mary Green and other girls whose coming of age coincided with the politicization of girlhood. To ensure the future of the Republic and quell anxieties about untried democracy, newly established seminary schools taught adolescent girls the skills they would need to inculcate their own children with civic virtue as “Republican Mothers” in the future. To that end, girls studied academics and practiced fancy needlework skills by embroidering popular pictorials, commemoratives, morning art, and maps.

Demonstrating the significance of girls’ history to constructions of race in the nineteenth century are two recent studies that draw upon very different bodies of evidence. In Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), Robin Bernstein shows how integral books, dolls, handkerchiefs, knickknacks, and other artifacts of childhood and child’s play were to “the making of whiteness, blackness and citizenship.” The formation of the dominant white middle-class girlhood ideal that gained ascendance by mid-century infused white girls, such as Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with girlhood innocence but excluded black girls from it.[27] Unlike Topsy who shaped the white cultural imagination, different figures of black girlhood who appeared in nineteenth-century African American print culture “gave voice to the black struggle for racial progress and citizenship.[28] In Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century, Nazera Sadiq Wright demonstrates that “Though seemingly dependent and insignificant, black girls—as agents and cultural sites—projected courage and resiliency.”


Getting girls into the mainstream of the U.S. curriculum can be accomplished with small steps. As this brief introduction to girls’ history suggests, making use of richly embedded, embodied, imprinted, and inscripted historical texts can open up new understandings about the importance of girlhoods in American history. Employing girl-focused methods of analysis and utilizing ground-breaking scholarship have the potential to help students—especially girls and young women—make sense of diverse and contested girlhoods in the past and their present historical moment.


Miriam Forman-Brunell, Emerita Professor of History, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is the co-editor of the Girls’ History & Culture Readers (2011), the editor of Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia (2001), the co-director of Children & Youth in History, the author of Babysitting: An American History (2009), Made to Play House: The Commercialization of Girlhood (1994), and is writing a narrative history, Girls in America: A History of Girlhoods.


[1]Literary scholars include Lynn Vallone, Disciplines of Virtue: Girls’ Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1995); Lynne Vallone and Claudia Nelson, eds., The Girl’s Own: Cultural Histories of the Anglo-American Girl, 1830-1915 (1994); Sherrie A. Inness, ed., Delinquents & Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls’ Cultures (1998). On field’s canon-defining scholarship, see Miriam Forman-Brunell and Leslie Paris, eds., The Girls’ History & Culture Reader: The Nineteenth Century (2011) and The Girls’ History & Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century (2011).

[2]Not only do older girls and young women make up the majority (56 percent) of American college students, but among the 22 percent of college students who are also parents, 70 percent are female and 62 percent are single mothers. See Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, M.A., Tessa Holtzman, Barbara Gault, Ph.D., David Croom, Portia Polk, “Parents in College By the Numbers,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, April 11, 2019.

[3]Textile workers and union activists are most likely to be identified as young “women” rather than girls. In descriptions of child labor, girls are usually subsumed under the age-based category of “children” despite the gender differences in the jobs they performed.

[4]Forman-Brunell and Paris, eds., The Girls’ History & Culture Readers.

[5]See Jane Hunter, How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood (2003), a ground-breaking study that demonstrates how the education, entertainments, and independence of middle-class schoolgirls in the northeast influenced the activities and endeavors of pioneering progressive reformers. See also Anya Jabour, “‘Grown Girls, Highly Cultivated’; Female Education in an Antebellum Southern Family,” The Journal of Southern History, 64 (Feb. 1998), pp. 23-64. This study demonstrates how well-to-do southern daughters whose education focused on benevolence and community matters, organized societies and engaged in reform unprecedented among southern women when they came of age.

[6]On Amazon, a search for “girls’ history” is dominated by books about women with “girls” in the title and children’s books meant to empower little girls with stories of heroines, imagined and historical. A search for “girls’ studies” will lead to faith-based stories and bible study guides. A Google Scholar search for “girls’ history” will include a wide range of scholarly sources including scientific studies. While books with “girl” in the title might focus on women, others with women in the title might include girls. Information about girls is also embedded in scholarship on social and cultural history, the history of children/childhood, youth, slavery, African-American, labor, family history. A WorldCat search for “girls’ history” is the way to go.

[7]See Project Gutenberg full-searchable free eBooks. The Internet Archive offers free universal access to books, movies and music, as well as 362 billion archived web pages. History Digital Library, digitized collections of classic media periodicals with outstanding search abilities, provides access to books in Canadian, European, American, libraries, the Library of Congress, the Patent and Trade Marks, as well as the Prelinger Archives (which includes films, historical texts (and audiobook versions); the Television Archive, Old Time Radio. YouTube includes many free audiobooks but of varying quality.

[8]Children & Youth in History.

[9]While a discussion of interpretive theories utilized by girls’ history scholars that inform understandings is beyond the scope of this essay, some examples include discourse theory, performance theory, cultural studies, queer, and feminist theories, 

[10]Saidiya Hartman, “An Unnamed Girl, a Speculative History,” The New Yorker, Feb. 9, 2019. 

[11]The Girls’ History & Culture Network is under the auspices of the Society for the History of Children and Youth. For a particularly useful conversation about black girls’ history methods, sources, and the application of theory, see Corinne T. Field, Tammy-Charelle Owens, Marcia Chatelain, LaKisha Simmons, Abosede George, and Rhian Keyse, “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 9 (Fall 2016), 383-401. History Matters, Making Sense of Evidence.  

[12]Other useful online instructional materials include Library of Congress’ “Thinking about Songs as Historical Artifacts” and the essay, “The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America’ essay on “Children’s Songs.” The National Archives provides online worksheets for the analysis of documentary sources including posters and motion pictures. 

[13]“Native American Children and Toys,” Children & Youth in History.  

[14]Janet Arnold, Arnold’s Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d (1988), pp. 107; 157-158.

[15]“Lady Arbella Stuart,” Wikipedia. 

[16]See Jennifer Higginbotham, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Sisters: Gender, Transgression, Adolescence (2013); Deanne Williams, Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood (2014). Accessible to students is an interview with Williams on Shakespeare Unlimited, Episode 60, “Shakespeare and Girlhood.”  

[17]“Native American Children and Toys.” 

[18]During the Middle Ages “the word “girl” was used for girls and boys. See “Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 60.” 

[19]Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (1705), 8–9. “Native American Children and Toys.” 

[20]John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994)

[21]James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824), An excerpt is included in “A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison,” Children & Youth in History.

[22]Ann M. Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).

[23]For an excellent study of migration and black girlhood see Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (2015).

[24]See Songs and Ballads of the Revolutionary America by the Committee of Correspondence. The University of California, Santa Barbara English Broadside Ballad Archive. There is a seventeenth-century digital copy of the lyrics (with illustration) at the Beineke Library site.

[25]Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), . Harriet Jacob, Incidents in the Life of a Slave (1861).

[26]“Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth,” Children & Youth in History.  

[27]Robin Bernstein, Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011).

[28]Nazera Sadiq Wright, Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (2016).