Expanding Narratives: How Amplifying Girls is Good History

This article was first presented at the 2022 Southern Association of Women’s Historians twelfth triennial conference. It has been published here to give all historians access to a look at how incorporating girls into their history courses and projects is “good history.”

In late 2012, I sought an internship to complete a Master of Arts in Public History. Having attended a rural university, I Google-searched for virtual internships to avoid the costs of commuting. This was pre-pandemic, when virtual internships were few and far between. I stumbled upon Girl Museum — an entirely virtual museum — founded three years prior by art historian Ashley E. Remer. The internship changed my life.

Screen capture of Girl Museum’s home page.

Girl Museum was the first museum I encountered that presented itself as a workshop — not a shrine — and embraced what Gaby Porter called the “active and creative production, the presentation and exchange of diverse viewpoints, and the dynamic (re)interpretation of collections and histories” that has since become a major part of museum methods.[1] At Girl Museum, I became an active participant in researching, interpreting, and creating for the museum. I also encountered a new field: girl studies.

Girl Studies emerged in the 1980s, as scholars combined women’s history and the history of childhood to focus exclusively on girls and girlhood. It is an interdisciplinary field, combining history with social issues, psychology, and public policy to see the work of scholars as more than just research and interpretation. By studying girlhood, the field’s pioneers sought to both understand girls’ experiences while positively impacting girls today. Its scholars embrace intersectionality, recognizing that girlhood is not a fixed or defined point but rather has multiple meanings based upon the sociopolitical definitions existing within a particular time and place, “including how race, ethnicity, class, location and sexual, political, and other identifications vary the available and acceptable practices of girlhood and its experience.”[2]

Defining Girlhood

As a guideline, my work defines girls as “self-identifying females under the age of 21,” and it is this guideline that reveals how critical girlhood is to our understanding of the past and our creation of the future. This definition means that first, a girl must self-identify as female — embracing historical and modern definitions, as well as those whose biological sex may not be naturally female. Yet within this spectrum, identification as female has almost universally been perceived as being less valuable than being male. Despite girl power discourse of the past forty years, being female continues to be an experience of social inequality.

This discrimination starts in the womb. As Mariachiara Di Cesare explained, “The biological sex ratio at birth averages 106 boys for every 100 girls. In Eastern, South, and Central Asia, the sex-ratio has reached values up to 130. Such levels can happen only under specific circumstances such as selective abortion or infanticide.”[3] These practices almost always target girls. This discrimination continues into early and middle childhood, where food allocation, healthcare, education, and household expenditures are prioritized for males in much of the world. These are the first steps to lifelong discrimination, producing intergenerational effects that trap girls and women in a cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement, and vulnerability that prevent them and their societies from reaching their full potential.

Such discrimination is not a third-world phenomenon — as the World Economic Forum detailed in their 2014 Global Gender Gap report, “there is no country in the world in which the gender gap has been closed.”[4]

Complicating this gendered experience is our second factor: age, the chronological category that marks and indexes cultural lifespan norms, preferences, and activities. The use of chronological age is a modern phenomenon, emerging in seventeenth century Europe to define who bore political rights and who did not.[5] As a politically motivated category, chronological age is a power structure that helps to organize society and define group identity. It becomes part of the intersectional lens through which we must view people, since age — like gender — can dictate a person’s ability to fully participate in society.

Yet like gender, age is a construct whose definitions are fluid. Prior to the imposition of chronological age, the category was measured in milestones defined by cultural — not political — tradition. For example, the onset of menses has come earlier in modern times thanks to better nutrition; thus, the traditional age at which a girl is ready for marriage and/or motherhood — menses — has decreased from adolescence (15 to 18 calendar years since birth) to as young as 11 or 12 calendar years since birth.[6] Yet other means of defining age also exist. In precolonial Africa, relative age defined people based on seniority or juniority to others, while generational age defined people by their experience of one specific event.[7] Further still, the Confucian system recognizes individuals as one year old at birth and they gain age based on the lunar New Year.

The imposition of Western age norms has disrupted these cultural systems, imposing a chronological age system that imposes power imbalances by dictating that some people (women, people of color, colonized peoples) never mature. These are complicated by the continuing need to prove chronological age, especially among people affected by war, mass migration, or natural disaster in which the fragility of a documentation-based system for knowing age is revealed.[8] In these many ways, age is akin to gender — another sociopolitical determinant that enables discrimination.

For girls, their gender and youth combine into double discrimination (termed gendered ageism) that is then compounded by other demographic categories into an intersectional system of oppression.

So what can historians learn from girlhood?

As someone who has studied girlhood for over ten years, I can firmly say: so, so much — and there is still much more left to discover. My history courses and books almost never mentioned childhood — and when they did, it was a shallow history that saw them as little more than future actors. What Girl Museum introduced me to reaffirmed later readings of Steven Mintz, who asserts that childhood is a vibrant, dynamic experience whose histories are intimately connected to themes now at the forefront of history: social justice, intergenerational trauma, and intersectionality. As historians embrace these themes, we can draw guidance from girlhood studies and embrace our subjects “not as objects or symbols but as independent beings”.[9]

Studying girlhood is also “good history.” According to the American Association of State and Local History’s Statement on Good History, girls cover all the philosophies that historians hope to achieve: (1) embrace difficult history through current scholarship and primary source research, (2) build diversity and inclusiveness by considering social categories and presenting multiple perspectives, (3) be experimental in how we approach our research methods, creative in how we use history to solve problems, and provides inspiration for girls, (4) show that history is relevant — it has shaped who we are but, more importantly, how we see the world and girlhood is a lens for understanding this relevance, and (5) be accessible to a wide audience because — at any given time — half the planet has experienced it and the other half knows someone who has.

This is where my work lies — taking statistics on girls’ marginalization, and finding the stories that illustrate it throughout time and space. As many historians know, movements to diversify our histories do not fully represent the voices of women, let alone children.

“When females are included, the focus is on their achievements in adulthood, not girlhood experiences. Such inclusion also heavily relies on biography, rather than tangible objects and places where girls can experience their unique history. For example, in 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington completed a 40-mile midnight ride to muster troops to fight against the encroaching British army. Her efforts enabled the militia to win the Battle of Ridgefield. Despite riding twice the distance of Paul Revere and being successful whereas Revere was not, Sybil’s story only recently returned to American memory. Like Sybil, girls’ stories are excluded from most history books. This is inexcusable, as one of the keys to achieving gender equality is ensuring representation. By seeing themselves in history, historical sites, and artifacts, girls are empowered to become history-makers themselves and society is shown that girls are as important as the rest of history’s participants.”[10]

Southern Girls’ Stories

Within the volume written by Ashley Remer and I — Exploring American Girlhood — are the stories of Southern girls — from before the region was called “The South” and up to the present day. Their stories are opportunities for American history to become more inclusive, diverse, nuanced, and — at times — challenging. Privileging girls’ perspectives by focusing on the period of their youth rather than achievements in later life, these Southern girls’ stories are highly accessible, key historic moments — while also showcasing the unique patchwork that is American — and Southern — culture. They are both progressive and destructive, difficult to research yet necessary to understand.

Our first Southern girl is unnamed. She appears in the illustration, “The Display with Which a Queen Elect is Brought to the King,” dated 1564. She is carried by her tribesmen on a decorated sedan chair, accompanied by musicians and handmaidens, to wed a king. It was a scene familiar in Europe, yet took place thousands of miles away. “Sketched by Jacques Le Moyne de Morges and published in Theodore de Bry’s Grand Voyages (1591), she introduced Europeans to America. But did this engraving foster positive relations or contribute to the destruction of entire cultures?”

In answering this question, we came upon issues integral to understanding why this scene was drawn. First, Le Moyne’s original sketches were lost in 1565 when the Spanish attacked Fort Caroline. Rescued from the invasion, Le Moyne sketched the scenes again from memory. After his death in 1588, the sketches were published by Theodore de Bry, a Flemish publisher whose book tried to tout Native Americans as “a people poore” and not to be feared, but rather, colonized. Many scholars believe de Bry altered the images before publication. These images had profound effects on European and Native American relations, especially for women and girls.

Though other contemporary accounts depict the Timucua as matrilineal, with female chiefs and councils of women, the most widely read narratives maintained that Native American were inferior because men enjoyed the more leisurely pursuits of hunting, fishing, feasting, and fighting. This view perpetuated the “lazy” Native American stereotype — a projection of European cultural norms on a vastly different, and highly complex, Indigenous society. Within one hundred years of this drawing, the Timucua were enslaved and relocated; by 1706, they had disappeared entirely. Whether this Queen Elect was ever truly carried with such pomp and circumstance is unknown — because her story has been silenced by death and assimilation. She is just one example of how American history has portrayed Indigenous women and girls through solely European eyes, leading to the destruction of entire cultures and erasure of different ways of viewing the value of women and girls.

Nearly 250 years after the Queen Elect, another Southern girl comes into view: Harriet Jacobs, whose published autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, shined a light on enslaved girlhoods and the ways in which Black girls in nienteetnh century America were never viewed as children. In addition to the narrative, other primary sources exist to help us understand how Harriet was viewed by whites, including an advertisement posted by her owner, Dr. James Norcom, after Harriet ran away at age 21.

These runaway advertisements expand our understanding of enslaved Black girls. We learn girls’ age, height, hair, dress, and personalities. We also learn how whites attempted to portray slavery as a good condition. In Harriet’s case, Norcom uses the term “servant” to make her bondage seem more acceptable and release him of fault. In Harriet’s autobiography, she reveals this disparity further: recounting that Norcom sexually harassed her and that her skin color — not biological sex — was the defining feature of her life. By age 15, Harriet states she entered “prematurely knowing girlhood,” a stage which enslaved Black females defined as the transition into adult sexual roles. Though Norcom’s advertisement emphasizes that 21-year-old Harriet is valued for her English-speaking and seamstress skills, Harriet’s biography confirms her actual value was in her production of children. Juxtaposing the two sources, we gain a more complete picture of enslaved girlhood.

Finally, fast-forwarding another hundred years, we encounter this: a transportation token. Used at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it is from Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks is likely the female who comes to mind; but did you know that a 16-year-old girl was actually the first to refuse to give up her seat?

Her name was Claudette Colvin, and her story — and use of a token like this — has only recently reemerged in American memory. Born in Birmingham, racism was a theme of Claudette’s life. By 1952, she was living in Montgomery and enrolled at the high school where fellow Black student, 16-year-old Jeremiah Reeves, was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting several white women. Despite his youth, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Claudette was a sophomore spurred to action, reading all she could about human rights and democracy. In March 1955, then 15-year-old Claudette boarded a Montgomery bus with three friends and sat in the middle section, considered the neutral zone.

“When a white woman wanted Claudette’s seat because the white section was full, her friends moved, opening up three empty seats, but Claudette refused to give hers up. The white woman refused to sit by Claudette, demanding that she move. The bus driver steered to the Court Square, a busy transfer station, where a transit officer boarded the bus and demanded that Claudette move. She again refused. The driver drove to an intersection where two policemen boarded and demanded Claudette vacate the bus. She refused, stating, “No, I do not have to get up. I paid my fare…. It’s my constitutional right!” […] She was then forcibly removed from the bus, handcuffed, and arrested for violating the city’s segregation laws. During her journey in the squad car and at the station, officers made lewd comments at her and tried to guess her bra size. She was placed in the city jail, which refused to allow her a phone call. Luckily, classmates who witnessed the altercation called her family, so Claudette’s mother and church pastor came to the jail and bailed her out. As Claudette’s case proceeded to court, she gained the attention of Civil Rights activists in Montgomery. Martin Luther King, Jr. became involved, helping form a citizens’ committee to meet with bus executives to discuss the altercation. On March 18, Claudette was convicted of violating segregation laws and assaulting a police officer; she was placed on indefinite probation. Despite appeals, her sentence was not lifted. Claudette received many letters of support, but was shunned by others, including classmates and neighbors. Within a few months, Claudette became pregnant, so Civil Rights leaders deemed her too controversial to be a figurehead for the movement.”[11]

Claudette was silenced, and Rosa Parks was chosen as the face of Montgomery just nine months later. Claudette bore her son, moved to New York, and watched many other Black girls engage in similar altercations — and remain silenced. Their stories are just now being integrated into Civil Rights history.

The Work to be Done

Despite publishing fifty stories, Ashley Remer and I have barely scratched the surface. Our research uncovered enough stories for at least a second volume — and possibly a third. Growing from this, we created Sites of Girlhood — a digital mapping project at Girl Museum to showcase the myriad historical sites, monuments, and museums that physically exist to mark girls’ history and culture.

To date, our map includes over 400 sites around the world — and grows each semester as our internship program invites budding historians to continue the research in their own communities and countries. One story found in Sites that I wish we could have included is that of the youngest person ever executed in the United States: Hannah Occuish. An orphan of African and Pequot heritage, 12-year-old Hannah was hanged in Connecticut on December 20, 1786, for beating and strangling a six-year-old white girl to death. Neither her gender nor her age protected her from being tried and punished as an adult. Hannah’s story is compounded by many factors: orphan, mixed heritage, possible mental disability, and indentured servitude. The judge saw value in punishing Hannah, convicting her of first-degree murder, asserting that she had “premeditated malice” and a “mischievous and guileful discretion” and sentenced her to execution as “sparing you on account of your age would…be of dangerous consequence to the public”.[12]

Similar stories exist through modern times. In 1963, over a dozen Black girls aged 12 to 15 were held in a small, Civil War-era stockade near Leesburg, Georgia, for two months. Known as the Leesburg Stockade Girls, they were never charged with a crime — having been arrested while participating in nonviolent demonstrations challenging desegregation in neighboring Americus, Georgia. For two months, they went without a working toilet or shower and little food while being kept hidden from their families. Their release was granted because a branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee learned of their captivity and sent photographer Danny Lyons to document it in secret — and the published photographs created public outcry. Their stories were largely kept out of the mainstream until 2015, when the girls — now women — gathered to discuss their time in prison and its effects. As Emmarene Kaigler-Streeter stated in an interview with National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, the men who imprisoned them “were not looking at us as children. They were not looking in their hearts. All they were looking at was the fact that we were black.”[13]

This lack of viewing Black girls as children has persisted, with Black girls seen as “bossy” or “dangerous” even when such performances are similar — if not identical to — that of white girls. Recently, the murder of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant while trying to defend herself demonstrates this white supremacist notion that Black girls are inherently rebellious, quick to anger, and a threat to social order.

Such notions are also proved by studies, such as Girlhood Interrupted by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty, which demonstrated that adults perceive Black girls as less nurturing, less deserving of protection and support, and more able to deal with adult topics and forced independence than white girls of the same age. Black girls are but one example of how race compounds the gendered ageism of girlhood.

Similar stories exist among girls of color throughout American history. Where do we find them? How can we better include them? What new ways of seeing our collective history will their individual stories tell? And perhaps most importantly, how do their experiences influence girlhood today — and allow us to foster a better world for girls?

As we asserted in Exploring American Girlhood, “All these histories contributed to the formation of identity for American girls, up to the present moment. And much work needs to be done at the primary source level, to locate and recover more American girl stories.”[14] Our willingness to embrace this opportunity is crucial to providing an intersectional lens through which to view those we study and represent, both in written narratives and in our public spaces. Even when our methods defy tradition or embrace a more public-facing interpretation, we can reconfigure our collective histories as the inclusive, diverse experiences that were actually lived and take readers on a journey with us. It is a journey of discovery and mystery — offering insights into the historical process in a more accessible, and often more engaging, manner than traditional academic monographs. It is also crucial to recognize that many of us — in fact, over half the world’s population — have lived the marginalization of girlhood for centuries. Our voices — and the voices of our girl ancestors — are as valid, meaningful, and complex as any other history that has been told.

I found myself within Girl Museum and Exploring American Girlhood. I came to finally understand the barriers that I — a white girl of the American middle class — experienced. And I came to see, understand, and wish to advocate for all girls who faced not only my barriers, but also those barriers made more fraught by race, class, ethnicity, location, sexual, political, and cultural identities different from my own. In doing so, I work directly from primary sources and with descendant communities to tell their stories, because my job is not to be an authoritative voice for all girls. It is to be the soapbox, the platform, the microphone for their own voices. In an age of misinformation, this microphone is more important than ever — both in validating girls’ own voices and in fulfilling what Freeman Tilden, founder of interpretation, described as our primary goal: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”[15]

Studying girlhood is good history, and it is an opportunity that we should not disregard lightly.

Endnotes

[1] Gaby Porter, “Seeing through Solidarity: a feminist perspective on museums,” The Sociological Review (1996): 114.

[2] Catherine Driscoll, “Girls Today: Girls, Girl Culture and Girl Studies” in Girlhood Studies 1 (1), Summer 2008: 21.

[3] Mariachiara Di Cesare, “Women, marginalization, and vulnerability: introduction” Genus 70: 2–3 (May-December 2014), 1

[4] Mariachiara Di Cesare, “Women, marginalization, and vulnerability: introduction” Genus 70 2–3 (May-December 2014), 1.

[5] Corinne T. Field and Nicholas L. Syrett, “Chronological Age: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” American Historical Review (2020), 371.

[6] Leslie Paris, “Through the Looking Glass: Age, Stages, and Historical Analysis” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, 1 (2008), 107.

[7] Field & Syrett, 373.

[8] Field & Syrett, 373.

[9] Steven Mintz, “Children’s History Matters” American Historical Review (October 2020), 1287–1292.

[10] Ashley E. Remer and Tiffany R. Isselhardt, Exploring American Girlhood through 50 Historic Treasures, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), xiii.

[11] Ashley E. Remer and Tiffany R. Isselhardt, Exploring American Girlhood through 50 Historic Treasures, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), 172–173.

[12] Karen Halttunen, “Divine Providence and Dr. Parkman’s Jawbone: The Cultural Construction of Murder as Mystery,” National Humanities Center (1996), https://web.archive.org/web/20120722061943/http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ideasv41/halttun4.htm

[13] Jud Esty-Kendall and Emma Bowman, “‘I Gave Up Hope’: As Girls, They Were Jailed in Squalor for Protesting Segregation,” NPR Morning Edition, January 18, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/18/685844413/i-gave-up-hope-as-girls-they-were-jailed-in-squalor-for-protesting-segregation

[14] Ashley E. Remer and Tiffany R. Isselhardt, Exploring American Girlhood through 50 Historic Treasures, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), 2.

[15] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage: Principles and practices for visitor services in parks, museums, and historic places (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 38.

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Tiffany holds a Master of Arts in Public History, specializing in interpreting girls’ and women’s history for museum, historic sites, and heritage venues.

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Tiffany holds a Master of Arts in Public History, specializing in interpreting girls’ and women’s history for museum, historic sites, and heritage venues.