Reviews 2011

Girlhood: A Global History

Girlhood: A Global History. Jennifer Helgren and Colleen A. Vasconcellos (eds.). London: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 422 pages. 60.99€ (hardback).

The second wave of feminism resulted in the development of women’s studies as an academic discipline in the 1970s. At that time, there was little systematic research on girlhood. Those studies that were available tended to focus on girls in order to make sense of womanhood rather than to understand female youths in their own right. Since the 1990s, girls’ studies has become an academic field in its own right, as is evidenced by an increase in scholarly publications on girls and girls’ culture. A milestone in these publications is the first academic journal on girlhood: Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, which was launched in 2008.

Reading through the many studies that have been published in this field since the end of the twentieth century, one is struck by the fact that they all take a national perspective and almost invariably deal with the marginalized position of girls in the past or the present. In this respect Girlhood: A Global History is a welcome exception and provides the field of girl-centered research with new insights, the most important being that the notion of girlhood is not uniform and fixed, but diverse and dynamic. By consciously taking an international or transnational perspective, this volume reveals how the concepts of girlhood change as societies change.

The book offers twenty sociological and anthropological essays on girlhood in different times and places. The first two chapters provide an introduction to the essays and map global discourses on girlhood. The essays are reports of studies on girls from America, The Netherlands, Argentina, the Soviet Union, Australia, Iraq and Malaysia, to name just a few. They are about girls living in different time periods from 1750 to the present. Moreover, the girls under study come from a variety of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds and the political and economical circumstances in which they live differ enormously. These differences are taken into account and many essays focus explicitly on how the different contexts influence the ways girls are looked upon as well as the ways these girls responded to the roles imposed on them. ‘Stolen girlhood’ is an interesting essay in this respect. On the basis of oral histories, Christien Cheater describes how, until the 1950s, Australian authorities robbed Aboriginal girls of their normal childhood by removing them from their families in an attempt to replace ‘Aboriginal culture with white Australian working-class culture by breaking the links between generations’ (264). The resistance these girls put up, despite the extreme situation they were in, is testament to the tenacity and agency of the girls. The active role they played in improving their situation should never be underestimated.

In the introduction, the editors, Jennifer Helgren and Colleen A. Vasconcellos, consider girls’ agency as one of the three unifying threads in this essay collection, the other two being: ‘cultures’ struggles to make meaning out of girls’ biology and development at different times and in different places’ and ‘the correlation of girls’ well-being with national and international choices regarding girls’ education, health and welfare’ (7). These aspects keep on recurring within the four thematic sections of the book, being ‘Girls’ Cultures and Identities’, ‘The Politics of Girlhood’, ‘The Education of Girls’ and ‘Girls to Women: Work, Marriage and Sexuality’.

In the first section, essays range from the ‘Americanness’ of Jewish girls at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century to girls’ identities in a very diverse neighborhood in Amsterdam. In the politics section, there is an interesting essay on how the US media from the 1960s to the 1990s exploited images of American and Eastern-bloc girl gymnasts to convey the message of US superiority in comparison to the Soviet Union and its ‘satellites’. The essay in section three on girls in interwar Iraq shed light on the limited possibilities of young girls in a masculine culture about which little in known outside the country. An intriguing essay in the last section is about the life histories of fifty Malay women. It is a good example of how dynamic the concept of girlhood can be, in that it shows that within one generation the image of girls can turn 180 degrees, from ‘virtuous sisters to modernity’ to ‘sinners in modernity’.

Although the book offers a number of interesting chapters, there are two points of serious criticism to be made. The first is that the book lacks coherence. Despite the outlines sketched in the first chapter and the introductions to the four thematic sections, the essay collection lacks a well-defined focus. ‘The objective of adopting a global perspective’ and ‘the examination of girlhood as a cultural and historical construct’ is not enough to take away the impression that this selection of essays is somewhat eclectic (2). A concluding chapter might have helped the reader to connect the sections and the individual essays with each other. As it stands, the reader is left with occasional references of one author to another, without there being any kind of real interconnectedness between the contributions. Another flaw is that the research method(s) employed and the number of respondents involved in the research projects are not systematically described in every chapter. In some chapters, the reader is only given a glimpse of the research design, which makes it difficult to assess the academic quality of these individual projects.

However, readers interested in girls’ identities and girls’ (dis)empowerment across time and place will probably not be bothered by these points of criticism as they will find numerous fascinating case studies of girls all over the world, living in the past or today. For researchers working in the field of children’s literature, the volume offers a valuable insight into the social and cultural circumstances under which texts for young readers in general and girl readers in particular have been published.

Helma Van Lierop
Tilburg University/Leiden University, The Netherlands