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 second interview is with Dr. Miriam Forman-Brunell, Professor of History, at University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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?
While my MA is in Women’s History (1982) and my PhD in US History (1990), my field of expertise is the history of American girls and girlhoods. Girlhood is popularly understood to be natural, universal, and unchanging, but examining the past from a girl-centered perspective reveals how historically specific girlhood really is. While there are important continuities across time and place, girls’ everyday lives and beliefs about them often change from one historical period to the other. Nor are girlhoods uniform among girls of the same generation. Very different experiences are the consequence of intersecting factors—from age, ethnicity, and class to race, region, and religion. These along with gender and sexualities inform girls’ identities, influence opportunities, and establish obstacles.
Over the course of my career as a Professor of History, I have published scholarly studies on the history of American girls, their play (with dolls) and work (babysitting) along with the field’s first reference work, American Girlhood: An Encyclopedia (2001). Seeking to further define the field of American girls’ history for historians as well as Girls’ Studies scholars more broadly, I co-edited the 2-volume, Girls’ History & Culture Readers, featuring canonical essays on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American girls’ history and culture.
The wide-ranging field of Girls’ Studies that coalesced in the 1990s, includes historians along with scholars who hail from many other fields of study, such as literature and communications. Placing girls at the center of inquiry often leads Girls’ Studies researchers, writers, curators, and others trained in one discipline to transcend its boundaries. Although I am a historian by training and profession, my body of work on the history of girls’ cultures not only draws upon a variety of historical subfields (e.g., women’s history; labor and business history) but is also vitally interdisciplinary. In order to interrogate girls in the past and understand those in the present, I draw upon other scholarly fields (their methods, theories, and sources).
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
While Girls’ Studies is a young field, girls were among our oldest ancestors. While girls crossed continents along with other migrating human species and helped ancient civilizations prosper, however, girls relegated to the margins by their sex (female) and age, have remained largely invisible for millennia. Misleading “truths” about girlhood (e.g., insignificance) hampered the development and circulation of knowledge about girls, their lived realities and notions that bound them—until very recently. Placing girls at the center of inquiry, as Girls’ Studies scholars do, brings into focus a vast portion of the human population who, as it turns out, has been anything but insignificant to cultures and societies, then and now. The knowledge and insight about girlhoods that Girls’ Studies scholars bring to light have important implications: fuller understandings of girls in the past and greater promises for girls in the future.
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?
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 would love to see the establishment of Girls’ Studies programs! Perhaps other colleges and universities will fare better than did mine, however, when the Dean of Arts & Sciences summarily dissolved the Girls’ Studies certification program, the nation’s first. Major changes in higher education in the US, such as the vanishing of the Liberal Arts, might make anxious administrators less likely to support a new program. On the other hand, multi-disciplinary programs are less inexpensive to run than departments and the majority of college students are now young females.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
This is not my area of expertise but I do believe that the internet has lots to offer—for better and for worse. There is no shortage of truly disturbing stuff out there and sometimes avoiding it is difficult. A search for anything “girl” will elicit something disconcerting. But in my online courses, I teach digital literacy skills along with historical literacy, both useful for navigating the web and interpreting the meanings of memes as well as artifacts and archives in invaluable library and museum collections online.
Dr. Miriam Forman-Brunell, Professor of History, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, earned a M.A. in Women’s History under Gerda Lerner from Sarah Lawrence College (1982) and a Ph.D. in US history under the direction of Jackson Lears from Rutgers University, 1990. Dr. Forman-Brunell is the author of Babysitter: An American History (New York University Press, 2009) and Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930 (Yale University Press 1993; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). She is the co-editor of Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Identities and Imaginations (Peter Lang, 2014); Dolls Studies: Essays on Girls’ Toys and Play (Peter Lang, 2014); The Girls’ History & Culture Reader: The Nineteenth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2010); and The Girls’ History & Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and editor of Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia, 2 vols. (2001) and The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography (University of Missouri Press, 1997). Dr. Forman-Brunell served as book series editor of Children & Youth: History and Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2003-2008); guest edited a special issue on dolls for Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal and is currently co-guest editing an issue of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth on the girling of work.
Dr. Forman-Brunell has served as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and has been awarded fellowships and research awards from: National Endowment for the Humanities; the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation; Schlesinger Library; Andrew Mellon Foundation; Smithsonian Institution, and others. She is Co-Director (with Kelly Schrum) of Children and Youth in History, an educational web resource that provides college teachers with materials and methods for integrating children and youth into history and humanities courses (http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh). The NEH-funded site is produced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is researching and writing, Girls in America: A History of Girlhoods, a historical synthesis.
Thank you to Dr. Forman-Brunell for participating in our conversation. Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.