During Women’s History Month, the National Museum of American History’s “Girlhood: It’s Complicated” is highlighting women’s stories throughout American society. One of the first exhibits you see when entering the museum portrays how young women have shaped the world.
Exhibit curator Kathleen Stein says the point is to show that girlhood is not all “sugar and spice and everything nice” and that girls are made of much stronger things than that. It all began with the Women’s History initiative at the Smithsonian that looked at the anniversary of the right to vote.
“The Smithsonian wanted an exhibit for the anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020,” Stein told SFMN. “Then that came to the American History Museum because this museum has the majority of collections related to women’s history.”
Exhibit organizers expanded it to the overall experience of girlhood, not just voting.
“We’re thinking about gender and how historically, as a nation or community, we construct ideas about gender and how we try to challenge them and dismantle them,” Stein said.
The exhibit spans over 200 years and showcases 200 objects. To show how their contributions have changed the country, famous women’s struggles and accomplishments are showcased including those of Helen Keller and Minnijean Brown.
The exhibit includes sections on news and politics, education, work, wellness and fashion.
“What we try to show in each one is that girls and being identified as girls makes girls political,” said Stein. “It gives them a political consciousness because people are always defining what girlhood should be.”
Walking throughout the exhibit, you can spot something from nearly every decade since the early 20th century. In the fashion section, there are clothes from the 1910s to the 1990s showcasing how girls have changed their fashion to make political and social statements.
A noticeable item is a red prom dress with matching red heels. This dress was worn by Isabella Aiukli Cornell, a Native American woman of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma. Cornell wore this dress in 2018 to draw attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
“I think that dress embodies her activism,” said Stein. “I think people write prom off. They’re like ‘oh you just get dressed up and whatever,’ it seems frivolous, but that dress says that prom can also be political and that our politics are expressed in different ways.”
The news and politics section covers how girls have used their voices to speak up throughout the years. The work of Naomi Wadler, a young activist who gained national attention as an 11-year-old speaker at the march for our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 2018, is featured at the exhibit.
The education section focuses on how schooling for girls has changed over time. It shows how schools would control what girls wore and what they studied and how girls rebelled back. There were typewriters to show how girls were often schooled to be secretaries because those often were the only type of white-collar work available for women.
The wellness section focuses on how girls’ bodies are often criticized by society. The history of sexual education is highlighted, including how abstinence and early forms of birth control were promoted. There are also menstruation products displayed to show how conversations surrounding the menstrual cycle has evolved.
The work section highlights how not every girl had a typical childhood and often had to work. They worked on farms, factories, and as servants. Black girls often became life-long nursemaids or domestic servants, taking care of children while they were children themselves, and girls in factories worked in dangerous conditions with heavy machinery.
Organizers say the exhibit aims to show why it is important to preserve women’s history.
“I think it’s important to preserve it but also to take a second look at it and think about what we are preserving,” said Stein. “It’s really important because I would say half of the U.S., or a little more than half identifies as girls or somewhere on the spectrum of females. So it’s a big piece of the population. It’s been a very powerful concept to think about gender and women and what women have done in the past.”
The “Girlhood” exhibit will be traveling throughout the U.S. beginning in March 2023.