Louise Jackson PhD is a Professor of Modern Social History at the University of Edinburgh. Jackson’s research is concentrated on the histories of women and gender in modern Britain, her work on the histories of youth and childhood is of particular interest to Girl Museum.
How would you define ‘girlhood’? Do you have any anecdotes which you believe summarise girlhood?
I define ‘girlhood’ as a shared identity, culture and sense of community that is created by girls themselves – although of course it has also been created for them by others (including by adults). As a historian (of gender, youth and childhood) I love reading The Girl’s Own Paper – published in the UK from 1880 right through to 1956 – and looking for girls’ own voices. Its readers were encouraged to send in essays, letters and other contributions on topics that mattered to them. In 1882 Bertha Mary Jenkinson, aged 14 year and 7 months, was so concerned about a previous article, which described higher education as wasted on girls, that she wrote a spirited letter to the editor. She argued: ‘a woman’s education must go on all her life exactly the same as a man’s .… Unless a woman is educated she certainly cannot be his equal or companion’. Equal access to education for girls remains crucial in the world today.
Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?
The views and experiences of children and young people have, all too frequently, been marginalised in both history and historical study – and the lives of girls in particular portrayed as trivial through an approach that has prioritised ‘great men’. It is important – culturally and politically – to reclaim the agency and viewpoints of girls and young women (as a significant portion of the population) and to learn to see ‘history’ through their eyes.
How, and when, did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?
I studied Women’s Studies at the University of Exeter because of my interest in women’s history in the early 1990s. As I began to develop my work as a historian, I realised that age and generational difference were also profoundly important as categories of analysis and for understanding the power dynamics that shape the social world. My work has focused on the history of young people’s experiences of justice and welfare – and I seek to uncover their voices whenever I can.
How do you think globalization has affected how we define girlhood?
It’s crucial to think in a global (as well as longitudinal) context and to recognise that what it means to be a girl is both geographically and historically specific. Access to rights has been structured through ideas about age as well as gender, and the age at which one is deemed to be a girl or woman depends on the contours of where and when. There is no universal experience of ‘girlhood’ given that race, ethnicity, and access to resources profoundly shape life-chances and the sharing of identity.
Would you describe girlhood as a construct (social or other)? Please explain.
Yes. ‘Girlhood’ – what it means to be a girl – is shaped through culture.
To what extent is the definition of girlhood constructed through inclusivity and plurality?
As a normative goal or intervention in the world today, then yes – but we have to work hard to ensure this is always the case.
If you’re referring to ‘girlhood’ as a term that has been used to describe groups in the past (and thus as a label placed on girls by others), then we need to be attentive to the power dynamics at play. For example, preconceived assumptions about class and sexual status in nineteenth-century Britain were used to deny some girls the protection accorded to others.
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?
I look forward to reading the work of the next exciting new generation of researchers. Watch this space!