Mary Zaborskis. Courtesy of Penn State Harrisburg.

Dr. Mary Zaborskis is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Gender Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. She received her PhD in English with a certificate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the community at Penn State Harrisburg, she was a Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Mary works at the intersections of queer, critical race, and childhood studies in twentieth-century and contemporary American literature and culture.

Mary’s book project, “Queering Childhoods: Institutionalized Archives and Futures of Race, Indigeneity, and Disability,” explores how children’s genders and sexualities were managed in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century boarding schools for marginalized populations. Her work on Native American boarding schools, published in the special “Child Now” issue of GLQ, received the Crompton-Noll Prize for Best Article in LGBTQ Studies at the 2019 Modern Language Association convention. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Childhood and Youth Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association and is chair of the National Women’s Studies Association’s Feminist Pedagogy Interest Group.

Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?

It is critical to study girlhood in a world that devalues girls—the people they are and the people they will grow up to be—and demeans so much associated with girls—including but not limited to their activities, their interests, their bodily processes, and their modes of sociality. Furthermore, “girlhood” mandates critical inquiry because “girl”—as a term, category, identity, and/or time period—is not self-evident: “girl” is a historically and culturally contingent category. The boundaries of who constitutes a girl (whether through choice or coercion) and what constitutes girlhood shift depending on the context(s) in which that girl is situated. Finally, girls and youth more broadly are currently operating in a time period when restrictions are being placed by politicians, doctors, religious authorities, parents, and other adults on how girlhood can be experienced, explored, and enacted. It is critical to study the ways that girls are targeted and girlhoods are policed, as well as how girls flourish, create, and endure in these conditions.

How did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?

When I was an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College, I took a course entitled “American Girl” with the brilliant Bethany Schneider. This course was not about the dolls (though we did later read some great scholarship on 19th century dollhouses!), but about how the figure of the girl in American literature and culture has been central to nation-building and determining the bounds of citizenship and belonging in the US—which is paradoxical when we think about the ways girls have been treated across US history and into the present. They’re socialized to be small, take up minimal space, and constrain themselves physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Their habits and activities are dismissed as trivial. Their bodies are scrutinized and violated. And so many of these features of girlhood are exacerbated for girls who are poor, of color, disabled, queer, and/or trans. “American Girl” helped me understand that the figure of the girl—and those who have been interpellated or socialized as girls—and the times of girlhood are key to understanding everything from settler colonization to labor exploitation to pernicious cultural constructions that perpetuate harm and inequities. That course changed the trajectory of my studies—and is basically the reason my entire career exists!

What most excites you about your work, or what are you most proud of in your work on or with girls?

I love that I am able to integrate studies of childhood and girlhood into my undergraduate and graduate teaching. Childhood is a category conceptually accessible to my students, and it is really exciting to teach material that challenges students to untether childhood from preconceived ideas like innocence, simplicity, asexuality, and naivete—and then even more exciting to see how this opens up new ways of thinking about and approaching the world around them. I work to introduce material that disrupts any sense of “child,” “girl,” or “boy” as universal categories. When the child is discussed as if it is a universal category, it often leaves out vulnerable and marginalized children’s experiences and perspectives. Not every child is imagined or included under the banner of “child” when invoked, and I work to give students lenses for interrogating who speaks for, over, and on behalf of children, as well as which children, if any, are actually being taken seriously in these conversations. Once we work to disrupt stable notions of children and childhood, we get to start thinking about issues of gender, race, age, class, and disability; seeing students bring a critical lens to girlhoods, and often to their own experiences and observations, is incredibly rewarding.

Girlhood studies is a relatively new field, yet is rapidly changing. What are the biggest opportunities for those interested in studying girlhood?

Scholars studying girlhood have an excellent opportunity to show how any field is incomplete if not studying girls and girlhood—studying girls and girlhood isn’t an additive, but has the potential to shift, challenge, and disrupt paradigms through attending to constructions of girlhood, experiences of girls, and policies, issues, and events impacting girls. Robin Bernstein has a great essay, “Toys Are Good for Us: Why We Should Embrace the Historical Integration of Children’s Literature, Material Culture, and Play” (2013), in which she provocatively argues, “Every department in the humanities and social sciences needs to study children—not because children are interesting and important, but because they are people. Because children are people, every department that studies people needs a specialist in childhood. Notice that I am not intoning what departments ‘should’ do but am instead pointing out what they need to do in order to fulfill their own intellectual missions.” The tendency of many fields to leave out children, and then to leave out half the population of children, has created many opportunities for scholars in the rapidly growing field of girlhood studies to forge paths for scholarly inquiry.

 What is the biggest challenge facing girlhood studies? Do you have ideas on how we can address it?

In our current climate, there are increasing demands for essentialist notions of gender to be adhered to in medical, legal, political, and cultural domains. It is critical for “girl”—and any gendered term—to remain a capacious category that is inclusive of a whole range of ways to be a girl in the face of such demands. Girlhood studies is well-positioned to contribute crucial knowledge, theorizing, and perspectives to prevent girlhood from being weaponized in ways that harm a whole range of persons who have relationships to the categories of “girl” and “girlhood.” Girlhood studies scholars can continue to ask, “Which girls are talking about?” and “Which girls are we leaving out?” when girls are being invoked.

Finally, please feel free to plug any current projects or publications that you want to highlight. 

I am very excited to share that my manuscript, Queer Childhoods: Institutional Futures of Indigeneity, Race, and Disability, is forthcoming with New York University Press’ “Sexual Cultures” series! This monograph brings together archival, literary, and theoretical materials to consider how children’s sexualities were managed in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century Native American boarding schools, reform schools, schools for children with disabilities, and African American industrial schools. Two chapters in particular are focused on girlhood – one examines the criminalization of black girlhood in a 20th century reform school, and another looks at girls’ experiences of imposed asexuality at a school for the blind.

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