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The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Nineteenth Century provides scholars, instructors, and students with the most influential essays that have defined the field of American girls' history and culture. A relatively new and energetic field of inquiry, girl-centered research is critical for a fuller understanding of women and gender, a deeper consideration of childhood and adolescence, and a greater acknowledgment of the significance of generation as a historical ...
The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Nineteenth Century provides scholars, instructors, and students with the most influential essays that have defined the field of American girls' history and culture. A relatively new and energetic field of inquiry, girl-centered research is critical for a fuller understanding of women and gender, a deeper consideration of childhood and adolescence, and a greater acknowledgment of the significance of generation as a historical force in American culture and society.
Bringing together work from top scholars of women and youth, The Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Nineteenth Century addresses topics ranging from diary writing and toys to prostitution and slavery. Covering girlhood and the relationships between girls and women, this pioneering volume tackles pivotal themes such as education, work, play, sexuality, consumption, and the body. The reader also illuminates broader nineteenth-century developments—including urbanization, industrialization, and immigration—through the often-overlooked vantage point of girls. As these essays collectively suggest, nineteenth-century girls wielded relatively little political or social power but carved out other spaces of self-expression.
Contributors are Carol Devens, Miriam Forman-Brunell, Jane H. Hunter, Anya Jabour, Anne Scott MacLeod, Susan McCully, Mary Niall Mitchell, Leslie Paris, Barbara Sicherman, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Christine Stansell, Nancy M. Theriot, and Deborah Gray White.
As a young child in the small coastal town of Beverly, Massachusetts, Lucy Larcom attended public school, was a prolific reader, and had free time to play. Her father was a retired merchant and sea captain; her mother took charge of raising ten children, of whom Lucy was next to youngest. But when Lucy's father died, her life took a dramatic turn. Her widowed mother, unable adequately to support the remaining children at home, moved the family to the new mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to run a boardinghouse. At the age of eleven, to help support her family, Lucy left school to become a factory worker at a textile mill.
In the nineteenth century, girlhood took many forms, reflecting the nation's diversity, its divisions, and the particular circumstances of individual girls' lives. The experiences of native-born rural white girls, of African American girls living as slaves in the South prior to the Civil War, of immigrant girls in the growing cities, and of Native American girls living on the (shifting) western frontier were appreciably different. Girls' varied lives and expectations reflected their particular racial, class, ethnic, and regional backgrounds; their divergent legal statuses; generational cohorts; and individual family circumstances. Had Lucy's father survived her childhood, or had her mother been more successful in her business venture, Lucy would undoubtedly have enjoyed some of the new opportunities available to middle-class daughters. Middle-class girls had increasing leisure time and extended formal educations, sometimes through high school and even college; these signs of refinement enhanced their families' class status. However, the great majority of nineteenth-century American girls made far more direct contributions to their families' well-being.
Across many variations, nineteenth-century girls shared certain commonalities. As females and as children they were at once marginal and central to American political and social life. Girls had little access to power, and even the most elite girls did not expect to attain the same citizenship rights at adulthood (such as voting rights) as did boys of their class. Yet during a century in which adult women carved out new roles for themselves as reformers, writers, spiritual advocates, and industrial workers, girls found inspiration in new models for female activism at home and in the public sphere. Girls were also the focus of significant public attention. Parents worked to socialize their daughters toward their future roles as good wives, mothers, and workers. Reformers, who represented girls as bellwethers of the health of the nation, vacillated between describing them as innocents in need of protection in an increasingly predatory world, and expressing anxiety about girls' independence and their sexual curiosity. And as Larcom suggests, over the course of the century increasing numbers of girls were also encouraged "to cultivate and make use of their individual powers," and—within limits—to follow their own interests. While middle-class girls benefited most from a new ideal of protected childhood, girls of all kinds worked to find their own voices in varied circumstances.
Girls were at once protected and exploited, restrained and adventurous, relatively unseen and highly exposed, complex realities that are illuminated in The Girls' History and Culture Reader. Bringing together influential scholarship that places girls at the center of historical analysis and that offers critical insights into the historical experiences of girls, the essays in the chapters that follow showcase the diverse ways in which age and gender intersected in the lives of nineteenth-century girls; explore thematic concerns that have shaped historical research on American girlhood; and illustrate a range of methodological approaches to girls' history. Collectively, these chapters trace a number of pivotal issues: girls' patterns of socialization and education; their historical experiences of work and play; their practices of consumption and production; the relation between girls' lived realities and various discursive representations of girlhood; girls' efforts to balance adults' expectations with their own quests for personal autonomy; girls' negotiation of their bodies and sexual identities (which were also the subject of particular adult anxiety and fascination); and their sense of themselves both as girls and as members of broader communities.
Girlhood is never merely a biological stage. Rather, as these essays collectively make clear, it is a period of life whose meaning and endpoint have been made in particular historical contexts. The term encompasses both cultural constructions of girlhood and girls' own lived experiences in particular historical circumstances. The parameters of girlhood have been defined as much by legal designations, social practices, girls' degree of biological maturation, and broader ideological and political forces as by actual age. As Jane Hunter has argued, the very term girl shifted significantly in meaning in the nineteenth century; in the early years of the century, a girl was a female inferior of age and status, but by the end of the century the term had acquired far more positive connotations, so much so that middle-class older adolescents and young women chose to see themselves as adventurous "girls" instead of virtuous "young ladies." While many long-standing adult ideas about girlhood persisted, these ideas were continually challenged and reinterpreted, both by adults and by girls themselves. The Reader aims to deepen our understanding of these varied processes in shaping girlhood, as well as the import of generation as a historical force in American culture.
Girls' History Scholarship
The field of girls' history is itself relatively young. It owes its most significant scholarly debt to women's history and gender history, connected fields that have since the 1960s made gender a central category of historical analysis, and that have made possible remarkable access to women's lives in varied historical contexts. However, gender historians have traditionally privileged the adult years of the life span without reflecting extensively on the significance of age. Girls sometimes appear in passing in book chapters on women's early education or socialization, but more often as preface to rather than as the focal point of scholarly work. While in monographs girls appear as the subjects of first book chapters meant to anchor the historical experiences of grown women, in women's history textbooks girls are usually only supporting characters: the objects of women's reform efforts, for instance, or older adolescents entering courtships.
The complexity of the relation between girlhood and womanhood calls for more concerted scholarly attention. What did girlhood mean, for instance, to the native-born "Lowell Mill girls" who were some of the first industrial workers of the 1820s and 1830s? "Mill girls" tended to be young, and some were as young as eleven-year-old Lucy Larcom, but most were older adolescents and unmarried young women workers, ages sixteen to twenty-five, who often called themselves girls or were known as girls. These "girl" identities denoted their inferior roles, represented their supposedly protected status in relation to ostensibly patriarchal employers, and protected their respectability as unmarried workers living away from home. Yet to speak of this cohort as "girls" may risk obscuring the histories of younger girls who also labored in the new industrial economy, but who have remained marginal figures in labor history and women's and gender history.
The essays in the Reader, by speculating on what is particular to girls' experience of gender and age, demonstrate how dynamically these categories have operated to shape female experience. Issues that might seem of greater relevance to adult women than girls—such as sexuality, work, community relations, and politics—also resonated centrally in the lives of girls, but age significantly shaped girls' perspectives and their relative access to power and opportunity. For example, new ideas about girlhood and womanhood emerged during various waves of reform-minded social activism, but while girls identified with their mothers' quests for self-definition in certain respects, the two generations were sometimes at odds concerning their respective roles and aspirations. Standard periodizations of women's history (and American history more broadly) have tended to be less informative about these specific generational distinctions.
Nonetheless, the field of girls' history owes a significant debt to women's history scholarship, and to feminist scholarship more generally. Most historians of the "new" women's history initially focused on adults, but some pioneering historians examined the early years in women's lives. During the 1970s, for example, Ann D. Gordon and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg investigated the socialization and education of middle-class northeastern girls of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the same time, feminist scholars in other fields were pursuing similar research agendas and speaking across disciplines. For instance, the work of sociologist and psychoanalytic theorist Nancy Chodorow, which focused on the importance of the mother-daughter bond, provided an analytic frame for Nancy M. Theriot's historical exploration of nineteenth-century girls' socialization by (and in relation to) their mothers. While psychologist Carol Gilligan pursued questions about American girls' moral development in a study published in the 1980s, Joan Jacobs Brumberg historicized anorexia nervosa in her examination of girls' refusal to eat.
Anne Scott MacLeod's 1984 study of preadolescent girls' defiance of adults' gendered prescriptions presaged a number of other important studies of the early 1990s onward exploring the ways in which girlhood itself was socially and culturally constructed. Karen Calvert's material culture analysis of childhood from the colonial era through the nineteenth century contributed to this endeavor by making gender a central category of analysis. Miriam Forman-Brunell's history of dolls and their uses brought to light the struggles that ensued between girls and adults over the meanings of girlhood in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. Other scholars blurred the boundaries between history and literature in their research on girls' peer cultures, their play, and their participation in popular culture. Jane Hunter and Barbara Sicherman both explored middle-class Victorian girls' self-definition through reading and writing, and literary scholar Lynne Vallone described nineteenth-century "girls' culture" as a central space of female definition. Expanding on Vallone's theme, Sherrie Inness argued influentially that the new interdisciplinary field of "girls' culture" studies offered a means of understanding gender and society more broadly.
Similar concerns energized other feminist scholars who began to pursue specifically girl-focused research agendas. Much "girls' studies" research developed in fields that were more contemporary in their orientation, such as cultural studies, media studies, and sociology. Communications studies scholars in particular were influenced by cultural studies scholar Angela McRobbie, who had conducted ethnographic research on British girls' youth cultures of the 1970s, and by British cultural studies scholar Carolyn Steedman, whose 1987 memoir of her own working-class girlhood was simultaneously theoretical and autobiographical. Whether in history, literature, or media studies, scholars of girls explored themes (such as girls' friendship networks and popular culture) that more conventional scholars traditionally considered frivolous or unserious. Through their individual scholarship and in recent encyclopedic works such as Girlhood in America (2001) and Girl Culture (2007), these new scholars showed how such research offered a unique lens through which to assess girls' political identity and cultural agency.
Over the past two decades, historical work on girls has also been strengthened by the new children's history, which has focused extensively on age as a category of historical analysis and, to varying degrees, has considered children's gendered socialization. This literature initially focused primarily upon boys, but has expanded dramatically since the 1990s, allowing girls' history scholars to make use of many new synthetic histories of nineteenth-century childhood and youth. As this scholarship makes clear, childhood provides a unique vantage point from which to reflect upon broader nineteenth-century movements, including the growth of cities, the emergent industrial economy, immigrant experience, the rising importance of formal education, the economic insecurity that pervaded even middle-class life, and shifting racial and gender relations.
The Girls' History and Culture Reader aims to set the strengths of these various modes of inquiry into conversation with one another: demonstrating how age matters as a category of analysis for gender history, offering interdisciplinary approaches to girlhood, and providing material for more historically grounded girls' studies scholarship in associated fields. The essays that follow share an interest in questions of individual and collective agency and the structures within which girls are raised. They seek to broaden understandings of what constitutes the political, what is entailed by work and play, how sexualities are formed and experienced, the importance of peers, and how sites of socialization such as education and consumer culture function at once as tools of adult-led socialization and as vehicles for girls' own sense of power.
The scholars whose work appears in this volume provide a range of approaches to the particular methodological challenges confronting girl-centered historical research. Put simply, most historical archives do not specifically collect materials on girls. This is a reflection both of girls' marginalization as subjects of historical research and of the paucity of information on girls in traditional forms of historical documentation. Nineteenth-century girls generally had little access to public platforms such as newspapers or speeches, very few were polled, relatively few wrote about their experiences, and fewer still had those writings preserved. Those who did garner attention or leave a historical record tended to be from a small, well-educated elite, or, alternatively, were the working-class subjects of middle-class reformers' efforts at charity or reform. To uncover girls' worlds and the institutions through which they were socialized, the authors of the essays collected in the Reader have culled a wide range of sources. These include court records; the institutional records of organizations that oversaw girls; girls' personal diaries and women's oral history reflections on their youth; the cultural realm of novels, music, magazines, toys, and school publications. Girls' history scholars also interpret such behaviors as play and resistance to authority as primary sources that elucidate girls' unique historical position and practices.
It is our hope that the Reader will help to facilitate the movement of girls as historical subjects from the margins to the mainstream. At present, little of this scholarship has permeated standard historical frameworks. In history college texts that introduce fields and characterize canons, girls still remain largely outside the scope of defining historiographic essays and authoritative Americanist anthologies. When nineteenth-century girls appear in standard surveys of the United States, they generally do so only in passing. Yet girls are in some ways particularly representative of nineteenth-century Americans. In 1800, when the average age of the population was 16, the nation was demographically as well as imaginatively youthful. A century later, forty percent of the population was under the age of eighteen. A deeper consideration of childhood and adolescence, and a greater acknowledgment of generation as a historical force in American culture and society, can help to propel girls out of a room of their own and into standard historiographic essays, master narratives, and authoritative anthologies as a necessary element, not simply as an optional and charmingly girlish addition to the canon.
Excerpted from The Girls History and Culture Reader Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1 The Life Cycle of the Female Slave Deborah Gray White 15
2 "Grown Girls, Highly Cultivated": Female Education in an Antebellum Southern Family Anya Jabour 31
3 "Oh I Love Mother, I Love Her Power": Shaker Spirit Possession and the Performance of Desire" Susan McCully 69
4 Women on the Town: Sexual Exchange and Prostitution Christine Stansell 80
5 "If We Get the Girls, We Get the Race": Missionary Education of Native American Girls Carol Devens 104
6 "Rosebloom and Pure White," Or So It Seemed Mary Niall Mitchell 120
7 The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America Carroll Smith-Rosenberg 149
8 Psychosomatic Illness in History: The "Green Sickness" among Nineteenth-Century Adolescent Girls Nancy M. Theriot 179
9 The Caddie Woodlawn Syndrome: American Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century Anne Scott MacLeod 199
10 The Politics of Dollhood in Nineteenth-Century America Miriam Forman-Brunell 222
11 Inscribing the Self in the Heart of the Family: Diaries and Girlhood in Late-Victorian America Jane H. Hunter 242
12 Reading Little Women: The Many Lives of a Text Barbara Sicherman 270