Elevate Difference

The Girls’ History and Culture Reader: The Nineteenth Century

In 1982 Harvard professor Carol Gilligan published In a Different Voice, a revolutionary body of research articulating the unique psychological experience of being female in America. Responding to research that drew conclusions from studying boys, Gilligan’s exploration of the female experience was one of the first to focus on girlhood as an independent site for research rather than as a sub-category of Women’s Studies.

Since this formative publication, much headway has been made in researching girls’ lives both in and out of the academy. Following the format of a traditional academic collection, editors Miriam Forman-Brunell and Leslie Paris have succeeded in compiling a thoughtfully organized collection of girls’ historical research published in the past few decades. Though limited to American history and culture, the The Girls’ History and Culture Reader includes a diverse selection of essays that explore both the personal and political aspects of girls’ lives and lends itself to deeper reflection of girls’ participation in contemporary American Society.

A thoughtful introduction by the editors suggests, “In the nineteenth century, girlhood took many forms, reflecting the nation’s diversity, its divisions, and the particular circumstances of individual girls’ lives.” The The Girls’ History and Culture Reader explores the significance of age, education, race and class structure and the ever evolving and diverse experiences girls have with their bodies. Developing almost chronologically, each essay in one way or another leads up to the one that follows making for a coherent and well-executed read.

The collection begins with “The Life Cycle of the Female Slave” by Deborah Gray White, which documents adolescence on the plantation and the shift of younger girls’ socialization in sexually integrated atmosphere to a more strict separation when entering the workforce. This piece is followed by Anya Jabour’s “Grown Girls, Highly Cultivated,” a biographical telling of two sisters that offers an insightful look into female education in the Antebellum South. An insightful reflection on prostitution, Christine Stansell’s “Women on the Town” investigates the complex reasons for girls’ participation in this still stigmatized profession such as homelessness, companionship and autonomy. However, the essay I found to be most thought provoking and relatable was Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s exploration of “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” Smith-Rosenberg highlights the importance of female relationships and the safety of female intimacy. The text relies on diaries and correspondence between females whose affections, though not physical, would challenge contemporary sexual categories. This essay also pays particular attention to mother-daughter relations positing a mother’s stable domestic role created a “closed and intimate female world” for girls to grow toward womanhood.

Written by: Alicia Sowisdral, March 17th 2011