We’ve all heard that girls are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” But history shows us that girls are made of stronger stuff. Girlhood (It’s Complicated) opens this week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) and showcases how girls have been on the front lines of change and how they have made an impact on all aspects of American life.
Kathleen “Kathy” Franz is the project director and chief curator of Girlhood. Franz is a curator in the museum’s Division of Work and History, and she is also an associate professor and distinguished historian in residence in American University’s Department of History.
"I was so inspired and delighted to serve as the project director/lead curator for this exhibition,” says Franz. “It was a privilege to work with the large, creative team of curators, project managers, collections managers, and designers to create something unique, new, and powerful to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage and to focus on the political voices of girls over time."
Two Hundred Years, Two Hundred Objects
The exhibition spans more than 200 years of American girlhood and showcases approximately 200 objects. It examines all the ways that American girls, from Helen Keller to Minnijean Brown to Naomi Wadler, have spoken up, challenged expectations, and used their voices to effect change.
Among the highlights are an 1781 sampler stitched by 13-year-old Betsy Bucklin, a makeup table from 1820, an 1850s gym suit, Helen Keller’s touch watch, the 1959 graduation dress worn by Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, and Isabella Aiukli Cornell’s 2019 red prom dress symbolizing her activism related to Indigenous women.
“Girls’ lives are often imagined as idyllic, empowered and uncomplicated,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Smithsonian’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “Throughout American history, girls have resisted attempts to be defined and have used their voices to effect change. Yet, this is not an exhibition about ‘girl power’—if anything, this exhibition demonstrates that historically, girls have been denied power and agency. What it means to be a girl—and a woman—has continuously been debated and negotiated, but has always been part of the national conversation.”
An AU Alumnus Story
Among the exhibition objects, visitors will find a diary, an umpire mask, and other artifacts belonging to an AU alum, who received his BA, MA, and PhD in history at American University. For his PhD, the student combined his passion for sports and umpiring with a lifelong love of history. His topic: the fight over masculinity and manhood in America and how it manifests in the role of the umpire in Major League Baseball. The student was a gifted high-school athlete, who was asked one day to umpire a game at a local park. He never looked back. He attended two professional umpire schools and began to umpire high school, junior college, youth, and semi-pro ball.
“Ryan worked with the curatorial team to think about how intersex and transgender stories illuminate and complicate ideas about girlhood and what it means to grow up female in the United States” says Franz. “From his position as a person who transitioned from female to male, Ryan generously shared his story and, importantly, the diaries he kept as a young person.”
Franz notes that the diaries are so powerful because they document a child’s efforts to understand gender identity and to ask questions at an early age. “We all must face the question of whether we are going to be what society tells us we are, or if we’re going to find our authentic selves. By sharing his story, Ryan offers a hand to visitors to help them understand some of the experiences of people born intersex and who, as he says in the exhibition, don’t want to check the gender boxes handed to them but take risks to figure out who they really are.”
Zines, Historical Photos, and Social Media
The exhibit’s design was inspired by publications ranging from Teen Vogue to homemade “zines” that young women have turned to for advice and have created themselves. The 5,000-square-foot gallery features five sections: News and Politics (Girls On the Front Lines of Change), Education (Being Schooled), Work (Hey, Where’s My Girlhood?), Wellness (Body Talk), and Fashion (Girl’s Remix), plus five “A Girl’s Life” biographical interactives stories that will rotate over time. The opening “A Girl’s Life” cases feature Helen Keller (1890s), Girl Scout Louise Davis (1930s), Sarah Leavitt’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony (1980s), Olympic Gymnast Dominique Dawes (1990s), and Jazz Jennings (2010s).
The design features custom wall-sized murals and illustrations by artist Krystal Quiles, which she based on historic photos. Among the eight exhibition videos are an animated entrance experience, a make-up video, footage of historic student-led school walkouts, and a compilation of US government-produced sex education films from 1919 to 1957.
Visitors are invited to use social media to answer several questions posed at the exhibit’s exit using @amhistorymuseum and #GirlhoodHistory. The exhibition’s companion website features additional content, including detailed 3D scans of twenty rarely displayed fashion pieces featured in the exhibition, allowing the public to zoom in to see the smallest details.
“Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” will tour the country beginning in 2023, following its Washington, DC, run that ends on Jan. 2, 2023. It is part of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, #BecauseOfHerStory. The American Women’s History Initiative represents one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to collect, document, display and share the compelling story of women, deepening understanding of women’s contributions to the nation and the world. It amplifies women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future. More information about the initiative is available at womenshistory.si.edu.