During the early modern period in Europe and the colonial period in America it was believed that children did not acquire sexual traits before the age of six; hence, young boys and girls were dressed almost identically, and little attention was paid to differences between them. Girlhood–as a distinctive or privileged experience–was not as important as the larger notion of childhood that encompassed it. After the age of six, girls were trained in women's household occupations and their daily life began to revolve around their mothers and sisters (while boys spent more time with their fathers). In this manner the end of childhood and the beginning of womanhood happened early and fairly seam-lessly in colonial society. Filial obedience was perhaps the dominant ideal for both girls and boys in America during this period: moral and religious training, basic education, and social life were organized around the Judeo-Christian Fifth Commandment, "Obey thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land."
In the late colonial and antebellum agrarian South in the United States, expectations for girls differed based on race and class. Daughters of the plantation elite were schooled in the ornamental feminine arts–needlepoint, drawing, dancing, and French. Because girls were largely considered to be ladies-in-training, a certain delicacy of manner was encouraged. Enslaved girls, meanwhile, were not ascribed any of the attributes of their white mistresses. Expected to work in the fields alongside adult men and women, they were accorded no special privileges until they became pregnant, at which point their owners had a vested interest in protecting their health. In fact, when black girls claimed for themselves aspects of femininity that applied to white girls–particularly sexual innocence or ill health during their menstrual cycle– they were accused of "playing the lady." Similarly, in the industrializing Northeast as well as in urban centers in the South, native white and immigrant working-class girls toiled in factories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over 18 percent of all children between the ages of ten and fifteen were employed in factory work in 1890. Hence, many girls had to assume adult responsibilities and work alongside boys. Girls of the middle and upper classes, by contrast, led lives full of social experiences with other girls and older women–classmates, female teachers, their mothers, and other female relatives. Some went to all-female boarding schools, and they often formed extremely close bonds of friendship that lasted through adulthood.
It was among middle- and upper-class girls in cities along the Atlantic seaboard during the mid-nineteenth century that the idea and experience of girlhood emerged in its modern form. As small-scale manufacturing declined, and as Irish immigration in particular brought more women and girls to the United States looking for household positions, many middle-class girls no longer needed to work within their own households at all. Consequently, the notion that girlhood was a period of "domestic apprenticeship" all but disappeared. Girls continued to "help" their mothers, but increasingly they were paid an allowance for such work; otherwise, they went to school, socialized among their peers, and spent their leisure time any way they wished. Freedom was especially granted to girls younger than the age of twelve. "A wholesome delight in rushing about at full speed, playing at active games, climbing trees, rowing boats, making dirt-pies and the like" was recommended for young girls, and the celebrated figure of the "tomboy" emerged at this time. Because of high rates of literacy, older girls often spent their leisure time reading novels or serialized fiction–both adventure and romance–and many kept diaries as well. In their journals they recorded their attempts to achieve that most vaunted of Victorian goals for girls: to be "good." Being good meant controlling one's emotions, especially anger, following a disciplined routine, and remaining sexually chaste. Boys were not expected to be as "good" as girls– especially when it came to considering others' welfare before their own or maintaining a subdued countenance in public.
Due in large part to the efforts of Progressive reformers at the turn of the century, child labor among the working classes declined and school attendance more than doubled between 1870 and 1910. Settlement workers built playgrounds and founded child guidance clinics in cities across the United States, and educators advocated more opportunities for "personal growth" within the school curriculum. Largely because of rising rates of education, girls began spending more time with their peers. Among working-class girls, the growth of commercial amusements–dance halls, movie theaters and amusement parks–created new opportunities for girls to participate in a subculture that was independent of their parents. As a result, a heterosocial youth culture became a defining aspect of the Americanization process, and it contributed to an increasing generation gap between immigrant parents and their American daughters. The growth of this culture did the most to establish the prevailing sensibility about girlhood that exists to this day: that levity, playfulness, and consumerism are the stuff of girlhood through the teenage years. As "young ladies" evolved into "girls," the designation girl was extended to any female who was not married. Young women who worked in the new department stores were called "shop girls," those who were unmarried were often referred to as "bachelor girls," and young women who went on dates with men were known as "charity girls." Calling unattached young adult women in a range of situations "girls" reflected the growth and celebration of the notion of girlhood itself, a time when life was organized
around the search for individual style, dancing, and flirtation–in short, the pursuit of fun.
Over the course of the 1920s, the flapper–a term that applied equally to fashionable college-aged and adolescent girls–emerged as a figure of cultural fascination in the United States. Flappers were girls who cultivated a worldly, tough, and somewhat androgynous exterior in an attempt to rebel against Victorian assumptions about feminine delicacy and "goodness." Older ideas about girlish innocence remained, however, in such characters as Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie. Both were poor but sweet little girls who charmed the rich through their street smarts, winning ways, and heart-melting vulnerability, moving their patrons to intercede on behalf of the lower social classes. Thus, when older girls began dismantling traditional ideas about girls' selflessness and purity, society began to look to young (or "little") girls to embody the traditional notions of female purity and virtue.
Girls have been called the first teenagers because, when the term was popularized in the mid-1940s, the kind of consumerism associated with the teen years–malted milkshakes, record collecting, and quirky fashions–were embraced by girls first. With the introduction of Seventeen magazine in 1944, a monthly devoted solely to girls' fads and fashions, the perception of girlhood as a time of self-centered fun was fully enshrined in American culture. As teenage girls began to have more money in the 1950s –mostly through baby-sitting and increased allowances– they became an important consumer market segment, catered to as never before by advertisers, film makers, and fashion designers. It has been argued that girls' new purchasing power enhanced their influence in the culture overall; that they became "consumer citizens" of a sort. Others have pointed out, however, that girls themselves were not in control of the images of them that proliferated, and that much of what was sold to teenage girls actually reinforced ideas about their dependence on their fathers for money and the frivolity of their desires.
After World War II, girls were increasingly allowed to date boys without the supervision of parents or chaperones. But girls did not necessarily become alienated from their parents as a result of their newfound sexual and consumer autonomy, as is commonly believed. Indeed, there is ample evidence that relationships between girls and their parents actually took on heightened social meaning and renewed cultural emphasis in the 1950s and 1960s. During the postwar period, psychologists and sociologists began to study how parents acted as "sex role models" for their daughters, and how adult femininity developed out of childhood Oedipal experiences. The discovery of the psychological depth and developmental importance of girls' relationships with their parents contributed to new forms of familial intimacy and parent-child bonding.
As the sexuality of teenage girls gained a certain amount of acceptance, social commentators and child experts began to worry more about younger girls. The age of the arrival of menarche (the first menstrual period) had been declining since the mid-nineteenth century, with the average age dropping from just over the age of fifteen in 1850 to the age of thirteen by the early twentieth century. The seeming precocity of girls, and thus the potential erotic appeal of young girls to adult men, became a cultural preoccupation in the 1950s with the publication of Russian-born American author Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel Lolita (1956) and American author Grace Metalious' blockbuster best-seller about the sexual escapades of youth, Peyton Place (1957).
The feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s shifted attention from the consumerism and sexuality of girls to their inner lives, personal struggles, and educational needs. When Congress passed Title IX of the Higher Education Act in 1972, girls could compete in a range of sports formerly reserved for boys. The Ms. Foundation's national "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," also established in 1972, focused public attention on girls' professional aspirations. Furthermore, the feminist scholar Carol Gilligan, in her groundbreaking book In a Different Voice (1982), provoked unprecedented debate about whether girls develop moral values and emotional strengths differently from boys.
Nonetheless, the problem of sexuality continues to dominate contemporary thinking about girls–of all races and classes–at the turn of the twenty-first century. Scholars, social commentators, and fiction writers have focused such topics as: sexual desire during adolescence; girls' sexual vulnerability; the threat of teen pregnancy; speculation about whether girls lie about sexual abuse; the ways in which girls are socially defined by their peers as "sluts" or "bad girls"; the suggestiveness of current teen and pre-teen fashions; and the extent to which girls are developing at earlier ages. The unrelenting cultural focus on girls' sexuality, though some of it may be well intended, has contributed to a perception that girls are defined above all by their sexual identities. Moreover, it is worth pondering whether the scale of fascination with girls in the recent past, particularly on the part of advertisers and the media, has been entirely to their benefit. It is indisputable, however, that over the course of the twentieth century, girlhood has become one of the most studied, privileged, and treasured–if not always genuinely protected– cultural experiences.
See also: Baby-Sitters; Bobby Soxers; Boyhood; Dating; Gendering; Victory Girls.
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