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Smithsonian Exhibit Reduces American Women’s History To Cheap, Ideological Falsehoods

Girlhood: It's Complicated, Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit
Image CreditGirlhood: It's Complicated, Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit

“Girlhood” reduces the history of American girlhood down to feminist activism, provoking contempt rather than pride in our nation’s legacy.

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With vibrant colors and provocative murals, “Girlhood: It’s Complicated” at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History immediately catches one’s eye. It may seem harmless at first glance, but a deeper look exposes the dangers lurking behind its bright wall displays.

The exhibit appears to be primarily targeted toward children and young adults. Its description, written on the wall next to the entrance, reads:

The history of girlhood is not what people think; it is complicated. Young women are often told that girls are ‘made of sugar and spice and everything nice.’ What we learn from the past is that girls are made of stronger stuff. They changed history. From Helen Keller to Naomi Wadler, girls have spoken up, challenged expectations, and been on the front lines of social change. Although definitions of girlhood have changed, what it means to grow up female in the United States has always been part of the American conversation.

The exhibit’s displays are then divided into six main categories: News and Politics, Education, Work, Wellness, Fashion, and “A Girl’s Life.” The latter presents a series of personal stories of girls who have overcome obstacles or made history.

Inconsistency in Depth

One of the striking aspects of the exhibit is its inconsistency in terms of historical depth. Some sections are well-developed, such as an entire wall display dedicated to the history of women’s secretarial jobs. It details how women entered the corporate workforce in larger numbers with the invention of the typewriter. It documents this process using photographs, statistics, and typewriter models from the early 20th century.

Other sections are threadbare, relying on cliché statements with scant historical context and, quite often, a lack of primary source material. The two descriptions below are examples of this.

We are presented with a narrative — that science was “for girls” in the 1800s and “for boys” in the 1900s — but with the exception of a few hand-drawn depictions of 19th-century upper-class girls being educated in the sciences (such as the one below: “Astronomy,”1815), there are no sources presented to back up these resentful claims.

Likewise, in the “Wellness” section of the exhibit, we are told that the reason Americans have talked so much about “girls’ bodies” (i.e. birth control) over the past century is because in America, “girls’ bodies are [viewed as] community property.” According to the exhibit, it is up to girls to “talk back” and “take control” of their bodies.

This statement is confusing. What does it mean to say that girls’ bodies are “community property”? Is that a veiled allusion to the abortion debate? Is it a way of saying femininity is a social construct and thus “girls’ bodies” belong to the community insofar as the community determines what a girl’s body is? “Girlhood” leaves these questions unanswered.

Cheap, Almost Nonexistent ‘Scholarship’

On the whole, the exhibit seems most concerned with reinforcing — over and over again — the opening statement that “Just being a girl makes a person political.” We are told that “challenging the status quo” is what girls do best, and they are important agents of social change. Thus, everything about the history of American girls — the things they have said, the clothes they have worn, the causes they have supported, and the education they have received — has always been political.

The issue with the exhibition’s “thesis statement” is that any one-sided view of history is often shallow and inaccurate. “Girlhood”reduces the entire history of American girlhood down to feminist activism. It is akin to a Marxist saying that everything in history can be boiled down to class struggle, or advocates of critical race theory insisting that everything in history is about racism. Certainly, those are lenses through which our past can be interpreted, but reducing all of a group’s history to a single social phenomenon is extremely problematic.

All People Are Political

Now, this is not to say that the entire exhibit is without merit. Paradoxically, I may even agree with the thesis statement — although not entirely in the way the creators of “Girlhood” intended it. Aristotle states in Book I of his “Politics” that “Man is by nature a political animal.” This simply means that human beings are community-builders, capable of interacting with other human beings in an ordered society, by virtue of their capacity for reason and their inherent sense of morality.

In Aristotle’s words, “It is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.” (Note here also the emphasis on family as the building block of the political state). Very well, then  — all people, according to Aristotle, are political “by nature.”

But what makes being a girl especially political? “Girlhood” offers an interesting explanation:

For most of the nation’s history, schools prepared girls for a common future–motherhood. Girls would raise the next generation of Americans. The future of the country rested in girls’ bodies and beliefs. Girls’ power over the future made many adults uncomfortable. Who would raise future citizens? Who would raise children denied this right? The battleground over national belonging was waged over a girl’s education. Girls could shape the future and create new versions of America.

Unfortunately, the exhibit does not offer any evidence or source material demonstrating the claim that American adults were “uncomfortable” with girls’ power over the future. It does, however, quote Presbyterian pastor Jonathan F. Stearns, who in 1837 told women, “On you, ladies, depends, [to] a most important degree, the destiny of our country.”

I concur. To some extent, girls are political because they have the potential to become mothers, responsible for raising the future generations of a society. A well-informed woman, who can think critically and exercise good judgment, will be better equipped to form the minds and characters of her children.

In a republic like the United States, well-educated, independent-minded women are indeed crucial to a free and ordered society. As “Girlhood” puts it:

Girls’ education became important after the American Revolution. The Republic wanted educated voters and counted on girls (as future mothers) to teach their children well. While the United States valued women as mothers, it denied them their personhood. Nationally, women had a voice but no vote until 1920.

How did the United States value its mothers? What were the tenets of an American girl’s education, and how did it differ from girls’ upbringing around the world? I found this section of the exhibit quite fascinating, and would have loved to see it expanded a bit more. The trend that “Girlhood” describes — that is, the early American Republic’s emphasis on well-educated women — defined at least the first century of our nation’s history, if not more.

Society Depends on Independent, Educated Women

To back up their claim, I wish “Girlhood” had quoted someone like Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book, “Democracy in America,” contains an entire chapter on the “Education of Young Women in the United States.” Tocqueville, while visiting America in the early 1830s, was amazed at the independence and self-reliance of the American girl, “full of confidence of her own strength.”

He explains that “[l]ong before an American girl arrives at the age of marriage, her emancipation from maternal control begins; she has scarcely ceased to be a child when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse.”

The freedom and resilience that American girls experienced — in contrast with their more sheltered European counterparts — was a critical part of their education because it prepared them for the challenges of life in a new nation, and especially frontier life. Diana Schaub points out that Tocqueville places an emphasis on the frontier as the special domain of the American woman:

It is from such isolated outposts that the continent was peopled and the vast forests vanquished. The contents of the cabin (a rifle, a map of the United States, a Bible, a few volumes of Milton and Shakespeare, and a teapot of English porcelain) reflect the virtues of its inhabitants. Tocqueville highlights the ‘religious resignation’ and ‘tranquil firmness’ with which this pioneer woman ‘confronts all the evils of life without fearing them or braving them.’ One is reminded of the frontier novels and female protagonists of Willa Cather (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia) or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series for younger readers.  She is resolute.

The Epitome of American Girlhood: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder is, in my own view, the epitome of American girlhood. In addition to navigating the uncertainties and perils of pioneer life, Laura earned a teaching license at the age of 15 — which was quite young, even by 1880s standards — so she could save money to send her older sister, Mary, to a college for the blind.

Laura’s resilience, incredible work ethic, and brilliant mind were the result of the education she received primarily from her mother, Caroline Ingalls, another model of American womanhood. Although Laura describes her mother in all her books as soft-spoken and gentle, Caroline Ingalls endured unimaginable hardships on the frontier, yet placed such a high premium on education that she maintained rigorous schooling for Laura and her sisters whenever their family was in a place without a schoolhouse (which was most of the time).

Consider the following reflection, which Laura had on Independence Day of 1881, at the age of 15 — just before she became a schoolteacher:

Then Pa began to sing. All at once everyone was singing:

‘My country, ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing. …

‘Long may our land be bright

With Freedom’s holy light,

Protect us by Thy might,

Great God, our King!’

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.

She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. ‘Our father’s God, to Thee, author of liberty…’ The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

This was the fruit of the American education that Laura received as a girl, and her story is just one of countless tales that define historical American girlhood. What a legacy! She is a model of American femininity, not American feminism. The depth of insight and keen intellect she demonstrated at age 15 puts the modern American education system to shame, and particularly its study of American history.

Although the “Girlhood” exhibit makes a few valuable points, by centering its attention around an ideological agenda — and relying on sweeping clichés to back it up, rather than detailed source material — it misses the mark. Like so much of the American history that today’s children are being taught in our schools and museums, it provokes contempt for America’s “history of injustice” rather than fostering a healthy pride in our nation’s legacy, flawed though it may be. I wish our National Museum of American History could do better.