(FJ) What you’ve talked about in terms of feminist and technological blind spots seem to also be part of a conversation about the legitimacy of the girl experience and the validation of that experience. It feels really important for a publication like Feminista Journal to critically examine feminism, and I want to pick up on the thread you raised earlier – that women and women-centred feminism might have in some ways delegitimised the girlhood experience. I wonder if you could speak to that.
I also want to ask in a broader sense, what is your take on the way in which girls have been delegitimised throughout history more broadly? What are your hypotheses on the delegitimisation or the devaluing of girls and the girlhood experience? Because that seems to me to be something that you and Girl Museum are very powerfully recovering. And I think that will have a very big impact on girls who are having this lived experience and can help them understand and value this experience they are having.
(A) Absolutely, our work as Girl Museum and my work personally, is all about the recovery of girls’ voices, and to elevate and celebrate them. And to that end, for example, my book, which is coming out next year, is exploring girlhood in America through 50 treasures https://www.girlmuseum.org/project/exploring-american-girlhood/. It is essential, and it is crazy, that this is really the first book ever to look at that. Yes, there are tons of books like ‘50 Great Girls’ but half of them won’t really even feature girls (they feature women). And they don’t necessarily ever do a very good job of talking about what is a girl. And that’s another huge thing – because girl biology is one thing, psychology is another thing, and arts another thing.
To use an art history example: How do you define a girl in the painting? Do you ask if she’s had a period? Well you can’t and you wouldn’t. But does it matter? Well, not to me, but it may have mattered then, because that may have been how a girl was defined in her time. And to complicate defining girls throughout history: Would it matter if she’s married, but she’s 14? Or if she’s working, but she’s 16?
I think that is one of the biggest issues with the girlhood, womanhood feminism aspect. Because you can’t put a fine point on it and say ‘No, this is what it is.’ It’s always going to be amorphous.
For Girl Museum, every exhibition or project we do, we define it right at the top to say: For this project, girls are 18 and under. For this project, girls are 21 and under. I think for the book we did, It was 24 and under, because of the variation and the different things I mentioned before: For example, if you had these things on paper, but you were unmarried, you were still treated as a girl.
And the legitimacy thing is wrapped up in this definition thing. If you can’t define it, you can’t legitimise it. And if you want to, if you need to legitimise womanhood – that’s going to come first, because women are adults, they have more power, just by virtue of having stayed alive. The state acknowledges their existence, and it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of girls – except in terms of rape laws.
Rape and consent laws are the only things that really addresses girls in any official way. And that’s another huge aspect of things. I’m following a lot of cases at the moment in France, because France does not have an age of consent. A man can say, ‘Oh no, this 10-year old consented.’ And if he can prove that, then it’s not rape. There are places right now, that we think are quite advanced, and they have crap laws to protect girls.
So, this is a huge thing everywhere. The historical devaluation of girls is the reverse of the devaluation of women. Why would we care about girls, if we don’t care about women? The only girls who have gotten any traction in history are examples like Mary, mother of Jesus and Joan of Arc and Anne Frank. These are possibly the only historical girls a random person on the street would know. And that’s probably giving them a lot of credit.
Yet, through a project we’re doing now called ‘Sites of Girlhood’, we’re establishing places where girls have done amazing things all over the world.
Girls have been incredibly active and doing things since the beginning, through to now and in every field you can imagine, but patriarchal structures of education and university have prevented their recognition. You can’t be a famous scientist if you didn’t go to university. Well, historically, most girls weren’t allowed to go to university. Can’t be a famous artist unless you went to art school. Well, girls were traditionally not allowed entry to art school.
So, it’s these sorts of consistencies of oppression that you find everywhere, that I think may make the legitimacy thing really hard. Because people say ‘Well, what have girls done?’ And unless you are someone like me, or someone like you, who is into it, you won’t know what to respond with, you won’t be able to say ‘No, they’ve done a lot.’
I have a colleague in Scandinavia, and we’ve had really fascinating conversations because Scandinavia often purports to be quite egalitarian. This woman runs a women’s museum and she was like: ‘This is a big lie. This is a big farce.’ She said, ‘It’s aspirational, for sure.’ She pointed to a survey that was done of Swedish high school kids. And even though they have women’s history in their secondary teaching, many of the boys didn’t think women did anything important. So, the survey findings clearly showed that even in places that are trying, it’s not going very well in terms of changing the culture. So, in answer to every question – it’s culture. There are just so many places and things and institutions that were made by men for men, about men. And to undermine those structures is going to take a long time.
(Q) As you say, for women to have a place in existence – the girl has to get there in the first place. She has to survive. She has to stay alive for long enough to make it. And this precariousness, of a girl’s life, I really appreciate you bringing to light.
This aspect of what you’re talking about suggests to me that there’s something very, very valuable to feminism at large – to women-centred feminism – about validating girls. Because when I look at women in mainstream feminism, and look at women CEOs and other successful women we are meant to look up to, there’s a sort of question of ‘To what extent are they embodying ‘female’ traits, to what extent can they embody ‘female’ traits, or do they have to model themselves after, say, a male CEO?’
And I wonder – and this goes back to your quote – ‘free to be you and me’ – whether maybe, there’s something special about girlhood as an experience, the freedom that comes from that, and the unconstrained qualities of that space for girls of any age, however defined.
I wonder if you could speak more about the girl experience and its liberating potential?
(A) Yes, that’s super important. I always tell the story that when my great Auntie was in her 90s, all she remembered was her girlhood. That’s all she talked about. So, it’s clearly important. It stays in our brains, and it has imprinted so that 80 years later, you’re still able to remember specific moments where you did a cool thing, and you felt good about yourself.
And girlhood is so predated upon at the moment because we don’t want girls to feel good. We don’t want them to feel empowered. Even though there is so much empowerment going on. A lot of it is lip service. And there are women who ascend just to uphold the patriarchy, uphold the status quo.
To me, it doesn’t make a difference who’s in charge. If you’re behaving like a man, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s a woman or not. You know, Margaret Thatcher, we’ve got so many examples of women who had opportunities to be good role models, and it sounds like I’m bagging on conservatives – but conservative, by definition is upholding the status quo.
I think that one aspect of it, and, specifically for your audience is that: Generally speaking, we encourage girls to grow up really fast, so that they can take responsibility for themselves, because we, as women, have too much to do. We have so much going on, that we’re like, ‘Okay, daughter, I need you to help.’ We do all sorts of things that encourage quick movement forward. But girls are no more mature just because we’ve made them do adult things.
What’s hard to point to in history is we just don’t have enough girls’ memoirs and diaries and first-hand accounts, primary sources, to legitimise and to corroborate that. But you can see it in literature, you can see it in behaviour – you can see it. It’s emotions and how we feel about things and how that’s seen as weak and feminine. History doesn’t record those things. Even for men, we don’t necessarily know how men felt about the things that they did. Because they don’t say, you assume they felt good, because they killed a bunch of people. I don’t know. I can’t imagine that would make me feel good. But we don’t know because there is a huge gap of knowledge.
We do know, in the late-19th century, that so many girls had this strange disease called ‘wasting’ – and it was anorexia. Women were encouraged to be so skinny. Then they were given all these heavy clothes to wear. They were exhausted and they also weren’t given food. So literally, they would waste away. I think that we still have that complex of not taking up space, not taking someone else’s – a man’s or boy’s food.
We’re so used to giving ourselves away, be it to our mothers, be it to our families, brothers, or our communities. There’s almost no energy emotionally, physically, or psychologically for yourself – after the ‘free to be you and me’ time – after you’re age six or seven. After that time, you start to be able to do the things that people can rely on you for, and you’re no longer free to run around and just be a kid. That’s a huge thing, and it’s very sad to me.
I am so proud and excited, I promote and advocate for girls that are starting businesses and are activists, and I think it’s amazing what they’re doing. But at the same time, it makes me sad that they live in a world where they need to be online all the time and be activists and that these things are happening to them such that they have to stand up for themselves and for others. It makes me sad and angry, but proud of them that they’re doing it.
And that is, I think, the benefit of the internet and social media. It does allow for that if you can keep a balance and keep your head on right, and if you have good supportive people around you that aren’t trying to exploit you – which is hard to know, when you’re a kid.
I think it can be managed and great outcomes can happen. But we don’t know. It’s like drug testing. We don’t know the effects of technology in 40 years’ time, how we’re going to be.