Welcome to Girl Museum’s 10th Anniversary year. We have many exciting projects for our community, including this new blog series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies. Each month we will feature an interview with a scholar in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and its experiences.
Our sixth interview is with Dr. Kristine Alexander, Professor of History, at University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
Let’s begin with defining our terms, especially since Girls’ Studies is a relatively new academic area. Can you tell our readers what your field of expertise is and how you see it within Girls’ Studies?
I am a historian by training, and I came to Girls’ Studies through an interest in understanding the lives of girls and young women in different early twentieth-century colonial contexts. In my book, Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism, I used the history of the global Girl Guide movement in England, Canada, and India to ask how girls and young women in these distant and different parts of the British empire understood and negotiated the movement’s simultaneous promotion of gender conservatism, empowered citizenship, global sisterhood and racial and class-based hierarchies. Doing this research took me to public and private archives in Britain, Canada, India, and the United States, where textual evidence of girls’ thoughts and actions – as opposed to evidence of what adults thought and did – was relatively thin on the ground. In large part, this is because archives are reflections of existing power relationships; as the late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, archives “select the stories that [are seen to] matter.” ( Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1995), 52.)
Girls’ histories are often not seen to matter, and this means that documents like girls’ diaries, scrapbooks, and material culture have often not been seen by individuals, families, and archives as important and worth preserving. My research responds to this uneven archival landscape in two main ways: by looking for and analyzing textual and visual sources produced by girls, young women, and adults; and by thinking critically and explicitly about the material conditions and power relationships that lead to the preservation and destruction of different types of evidence.
My approach to girls’ studies is a methodologically plural one, which combines the historian’s focus on archival research with the insights and interpretive methods of visual culture studies, child and youth studies, imperial and transnational history, women’s and gender studies, and postcolonial theory.
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
As Sherrie A. Inness notes in the introduction to her great 1998 edited collection Delinquents and Debutantes, “the belief that girls’ culture is no culture at all proves to be remarkably tenacious,” both within and beyond the academy. ( Sherrie A. Inness, “Introduction,” in Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth Century American Girls’ Cultures (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 1.) Two decades after Inness wrote those words, we continue to live in a world where girls’ voices are devalued, fewer girls than boys attend school, and where issues of gender violence and poverty continue to affect girls disproportionately. Until relatively recently, many scholars of childhood also assumed that boys’ lives and cultures were representative of all young people’s experiences – and women’s historians were also remarkably uninterested in girls’ voices and histories.
Girls’ Studies is important because it highlights these past and present problems, and because its practitioners keep demonstrating that ideas about girlhood and girls’ voices and experiences are actually central to understanding all aspects of the world we inhabit.
There are vast disparities globally in girls’ situations, with incremental improvements in some areas and serious steps backwards in others. From your work in Girls’ Studies, what are some positives you take away from the academic interest in girls and girlhood? What changes can it lead to?
A few years ago, I taught a course about the global history of girls and girlhood in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When asked to reflect on what they had learned throughout the course, a number of students responded that they were both surprised and upset by the many sobering continuities that our readings and discussions had uncovered. These continuities connect discourses and experiences of girlhood across time and space, and include violence, exploitation, and surveillance. I see increasing students’ awareness of these ongoing problems and of girls’ activism and agency as a crucial part of my work as a teacher and community member.
What are the biggest challenges now and going forward for Girls Studies in an academic world? Do you see Girls’ Studies programs being a reality?
I can think of two right away. The first one is more of an opportunity than a challenge, and it has to do with race and intersectionality. When I first became interested in the history of girls and young women some twenty years ago as an undergraduate, the books I was reading – studies like Carolyn Strange’s Toronto’s Girl Problem, Wini Breines’s Young, White, and Miserable, and Carol Dyhouse’s Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England – focused pretty exclusively on white and mostly middle-class perspectives. In the past two decades, the field has moved beyond this initial narrow focus to include more studies by and about BIPOC scholars from a range of disciplines. I’m thinking for example of recent work on black girls and girlhoods in the US by scholars like Ruth Nicole Brown, Marcia Chatelain, Saidya Hartman (I can’t wait to read her new book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments), LaKisha Simmons, and Nazera Sadiq Wright; research on African girls and girlhoods by Corrie Decker, Sarah Duff, and Abosede George; and work on South Asia like Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s book Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia. In Canada, the settler society where I live and work, the academy in general and the historical profession in particular continue to be dominated by white scholars, which means that the research about and with Indigenous girls, young women, and youth being done by Indigenous scholars like Crystal Fraser, Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Eve Tuck is really important.
The second challenge is precarity. As competition increases for what seems to be an ever-shrinking number of secure academic positions, I worry that hiring committees might (continue to?) privilege applicants whose research topics are perceived as somehow more ‘serious’ than girls’ studies scholarship.
And finally, I think Girls’ Studies programs are a great idea.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
I posed this question to the students in a class I’m currently teaching (a cross-listed History/Women and Gender Studies seminar about girls and girlhoods at the University of Lethbridge), and many of them they responded that they don’t think the internet is any more or less safe than the “real world.”
I would describe this question as characteristic of an approach that Canadian girlhood studies scholar Shauna Pomerantz calls ‘girl as object.’ This perspective, she writes, essentially treats girls “as naïve innocents who are not strong enough, savvy enough, or smart enough to withstand our ‘girl poisoning” culture.” ( Shauna Pomerantz, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Un/Defining the ‘Girl,’” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 1, 2 (2009): 150.) Instead of asking questions that position girls as objects of worry or concern, I’m more interested in learning about how girls are creating their own worlds and cultures, both on- and off-line!
For more information about Dr. Alexander:
University website: http://directory.uleth.ca/users/kristine.alexander
Dr. Kristine Alexander is Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies, Associate Professor of History, and Director of the Institute for Child and Youth Studies (I-CYS) at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Her book Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s (UBC Press, 2017) was recently awarded the Wilson Book Prize and the Canadian History of Education Association Founders’ Prize for Best English-Language Book.
Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Mary Celeste Kearney of the University of Notre Dame.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.