In 2006, former American diplomat, political scientist, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stood before those gathered to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Women’s National Basketball Association and stated, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
I agree with Albright. Feminism is – ultimately and simply – about equality. In webpage after webpage and interpretation after interpretation, feminism is “ultimately” defined as or “truly means” that all genders have equal rights and opportunities and focuses on ending sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression, and achieving full gender equality in law and in practice. Despite a range of movements, time periods, and ideologies, feminism has come down to those basic tenets – and remains so today.
Yet the world of feminism is fractured. Over the past decade, I have born witness to that, even in the field of girlhood studies itself. Do history and art history belong in girl studies, a field traditionally housed within media studies? Can a girl studies organization formed by white scholars become truly inclusive and representative for scholars of color? How can a girl studies department or organization be appropriately supported, especially financially, during a time of drastic change in academia and society? How do girl studies scholars – who work at the intersections of academia, public policy, and real-world, sometimes life-or-death scenarios – balance our work, funding, impact, and wellbeing?
More importantly, in a time when certain ideologies are promoting misogyny, the deprivation of women’s rights, and even violence against women and girls, how can we remain safe while continuing our work?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have one: Sisterhood. For girl studies scholars, we seem to forget the one thing we study the most – sisterhood. We’re surrounded by it, we study it, we know it in our bones. And yet we cannot seem to practice it when we need it most. We want our version of girl studies more than we want to know about other versions of girl studies.
When planning A Girl Can Do: Recognizing and Representing Girlhood, I had a choice: create a volume that defined girls and their representation as I thought girls should be represented, or I could invite others to submit what they had done – with a rather loose definition – and see what happened. I chose the latter. Why? To be honest, I wanted to see what happened. No one had done this before – there was no comprehensive volume or journal or even bibliography on interpreting girlhood. So why not? Why not throw it out there and see what other people were doing? So that’s what I did.
The results were incredible. I learned so much from the chapters in that volume – both the published ones and the pitches that couldn’t be included (both because we didn’t have room, but also because it was peak COVID time, and many scholars didn’t have the ability to contribute once shutdowns began). I learned how Anishinaabeg girlhood is defined, and Dr. Mazinegiizhigoo-kwe Bédard opened my eyes to how Indigenous oral histories and mythologies can redefine how we talk about girls’ relationships within and to their communities. Eli McClain brought to light how a listening to the source itself can lead to defining girlhood, showcasing how his long period of studying Helen Miller Gould has helped him find Helen’s self-definitions of her girlhood. Dr. Ljungström and Haley Aaron brought personal dimensions to their work, showcasing new ways of how we can look at highly personal artifacts and interpret them in unexpected ways – that blend the historian’s toolkit with our human need for connection and meaning. Maria Smith introduced me to spatial analysis – a topic I’m still struggling to grasp, but one which now fascinates me and has introduced me to the ways that archaeologists could help us understand girlhood in societies for which we have no other way of knowing girls. And then the ways of making girlhood relevant to the public today – from the creative forces of Dr. Thomas-Parr, Serkin/Beiles/Delare, Dr. Frey/Gigliotti to the use of historic register nominations by Dr. Oram and analyzing past programs by Dr. Worley Medley – provided so much insight into not just the process of creating and doing history, but also how that process impacts young girls themselves, placing them into roles of authority and giving them places and spaces in which to encounter and exhibit their girlhoods.
The contributions all felt like pieces of a puzzle coming together, yet still the puzzle is not complete. So many chapters could not be included; a second volume would be warranted, should enough scholars be interested in contributing. But the bigger point is the diversity – while A Girl Can Do was not as diverse as I had hoped – sadly, COVID prevented any contributions from Asia or the Pacific, as those scholars all withdrew after lockdowns – it did showcase a variety of primary and secondary sources, of sites and museums, of interpretive methods and techniques, of levels of public and girl involvement, and of ways of knowing and doing girlhood for the public.
And that is what is important in our work as girl studies scholars. It doesn’t matter so much which academic field we are from, what our majors are or university background or work history or cultural affiliation. All those CV lines and special titles and publications are nice – don’t get me wrong. We’ve all worked hard to become part of this space, to be here and call ourselves part of the “girl studies community.” But no matter how we’ve gotten here, we are here because we believe in what girl studies is – the chance to take this academic discourse – these often closed-door, never-read publications and discussions – and use them as a force for good in the world that changes actual lives.
We are all here because we want that. Because our work will mean that. Because we are all fighting for equality; to end sexism and violence and oppression, and to give our daughters, our granddaughters, and all the women who come with and after them a world that we dared dream could exist. If we don’t help each other create that, if we continue to be exclusionary or gatekeep or perpetuate the structures that held us back, then what kind of world are we creating? Is it truly any better than the last?
We are sisters, first and foremost. We bleed the same red blood. We face different barriers, but we face them together, and we fight for one another. And we help one another. Because sisterhood might just save us.
-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Girl Museum Inc.