Dr. Jennifer Helgren. Courtesy University of the Pacific.

Jennifer Helgren is a Professor of History at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Currently, she is working on a new book about the U.S. Camp Fire Girls and race, nation, and citizenship.

How would you define ‘girlhood’? Do you have any anecdotes which you believe summarise girlhood?

I think it is important to separate girl and girlhood, child and childhood, boy and boyhood. Girl refers to actual girl children whereas girlhood refers to the constellation of ideas that describe the expectations, norms, and attributes associated with female children in a given society. We must recognize as a girl any child who identifies as a girl even when their family and community do not accord them this recognition.

My own research has focused heavily on girls’ organizations. I see these mainstream, popular, and, in many ways, prescriptive organizations as crucial to forming modern concepts of girlhood. Their leaders develop programs that speak to the culture’s beliefs about what girls are like. Girls responded with varying degrees of receptivity, which, in turn, shaped the trajectory of the organizations.

Why do you consider it important to study girlhood? 

Women and girls are nearly 50 percent of the world’s population. If we are going to understand our human condition, it is crucial to study girlhood. This is especially true because gender and age continue to be crucial ways that societies divide populations and distribute resources. Patriarchal structures have dictated that far fewer girls receive the resources necessary to thrive than do boys. In the United States, in the founding years of national youth organizations, girls received one-twentieth of the organizational attention that boys received. By the 1970s, they still received only 33 cents for every dollar given to boys’ organizations. Even in 2016, charity funding internationally that is dedicated to girls and women made up less than 2 percent of donations. (I do not have data specific to youth organizations, which are increasingly co-educational around the world.)

How, and when, did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies? 

I became interested in the study of girlhood as a scholarly focus in graduate school (Claremont Graduate University, 2005). My dissertation research focused on the emergence of twentieth-century girlhood within the Camp Fire Girls. I think the concept of girlhood was interesting to me far earlier. Even as a cis-gendered woman, I always had a sense that the expectations for my life never quite fit. So in graduate school I studied one of the formative organizations of my own youth. The Camp Fire Girls, an organization I participated in in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was first established in 1910 as a counterpart to the Boy Scouts of America. The founders had in mind an organization that would maintain girls’ and women’s primary identification with the home even as they sought to assure their competence and health to participate in the greater civic world. The twentieth-century American girl would cultivate her health by going for long walks and learn to cooperate in teamwork in order to participate in the reform activity of the modern age. At the same time, the founders hoped to recognize the status of motherhood by dignifying and glorifying it. They conceptualized a false universal in doing so, asserting that the Camp Fire Girls was for all girls when far over 90 percent of members throughout the century were white middle-class girls for whom the program was originally imagined. Studying girlhood enables us to disentangle the layers of belief wrapped up in constructions of girlhood in order to understand the socialization of girls better, and importantly, to examine how girls themselves define their identities.

How do you think globalization has affected how we define girlhood?

Globalization has brought increased attention and resources to girls’ education and to microeconomic projects for young women around the world. We see that, for example, in the Girl Effect—an independent nonprofit launched in September 2015 by Nike Foundation, in collaboration with the NoVo Foundation, United Nations Foundation, and others. Its goal is to end poverty globally by funding girls’ education, health, and other opportunities. It is based on a belief that girls’ successes lift their countries out of poverty. The unstated reverse, however, puts an incredible burden on girls–girls who have sex or marry early mires their countries in ongoing distress and hardship. So new attention is going to girlhood but some of our normative framings of girls as either ideal citizens and saviors or as delinquents who undermine through their sexual choices remain stuck in place.

Would you describe girlhood as a construct (social or other)? Please explain.

Girlhood is both a biological phenomenon and a social construct. As a historian, I see girlhood taking on different meanings at different periods. That is what a social construct does. Moreover, girlhood among different ethnic, racial, and class groups has had different associations and meanings. Therefore, girlhood is a social construct that intersects with various other identities. 

To what extent is the definition of girlhood constructed through inclusivity and plurality?

One of the expectations of mainstream educators in the twentieth-century United States was that the ideal girl citizen was tolerant and accepted inclusivity. The youth organizations that I study all offered up some version of this model, especially after World War II. Still, the clubs were set up through neighborhoods, schools, and churches, all of which were by custom or law segregated. Girls’ leaders sought to avoid controversy and played down their own political role by accepting local policies regarding segregation. This meant that they accepted the formation of groups, in most regions of the U.S., along segregated lines. At the same time, girls’ organizations regularly used a universalizing language to describe girlhood that obscured the realities of how white supremacy structured daily lives.

Girlhood studies is a fairly new field, how do you believe it has changed since it was first established? How do you believe it will continue to evolve over the next few decades? 

As a relatively new field, girlhood studies will continue to evolve. One challenge has been centering girls and not just talking about girlhood. This is something that the editors of Girlhood Studies (Berghahn Journals) have emphasized since the journal’s beginning in 2008, and scholars are making strides. As a historian, I can attest to the difficulty of finding primary sources with girls’ voices in the archives. It is especially difficult to find them from girls in marginalized communities. Even the youth organization sources that I have used, where there are institutions that preserve them, have few voices from actual youth and those that they do maintain are almost always white middle-class girls. Private individuals do save their letters and photobooks. It is painstaking to track these down but well worth the time. Sources will continue to challenge girls historians but I see lots of creative scholarship that includes oral history, memoir, and critical readings of girls’ writings. Girls wrote to political figures, celebrities, editors, penpals, and family members. They conducted shared writing; girls created stories, teen-zines, and political identity group pamphlets together. They were on yearbook and school newspaper staffs and penned articles for them, often in nontraditional schools like American Indian boarding schools. I am sure that historians will continue to innovate new ways of analyzing the sources that are available.

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